This is kind of a countercultural thing to say, because we live in a world that seems intent on inexorably edging away from absolute truths (i.e. things we all collectively agree are true) and sliding into a murky sea of relative truths (“that may be truth for you, but it isn’t for me”). And frankly, folks, that’s dangerous. Now, let me be clear: I’m not advocating some kind of blind, monolithic sheep-like herd mentality here. No Big Brother. No Huxley-an ‘a gram is better than a damn.’ We’ve got enough examples in history to show us such philosophies are also incredibly dangerous.
I ended my last post by saying that as far as magic is concerned, source matters. Now, this may not seem very important to some writers, and I’m not trying to foist my beliefs on anyone. But I think it’s a topic to think about.
I defined magic as actions that violate the laws of science --- physics, chemistry and biology --- as we have come to understand them. (Isn’t that the same as a miracle? a friend asked… I replied, you say po tay to, I say po tah to.) If we accept that definition, humans cannot, on their own, do the sorts of things magic entails. Therefore, characters employing magic must receive that ability from somewhere --- which, ironically, I think leads us into a universe where higher powers have to be at work to have that ability for themselves or enable it in others. Not a secular, atheistic universe, because, in a truly atheistic universe, cause and effect, action and consequence automatically follow each other… meaning humans could not perform magic. (Doing so would violate those laws of science, remember?)
Therefore, such stories take place in worlds where good and evil tend to be very real, tangible, personal forces, and magical abilities must come from one of those two sources: forces of good or forces of evil. And in such a scenario… source matters very much.
Consequently, the question is, where do magical abilities spring from? Because this determines how they can be used, and to what purpose. Since magic frequently involves doing things “the easy way,” it often becomes an instrument of temptation… and we all know where that would come from.
This is not to say magic cannot, or should not, be used in tales. Tolkien used magic to great effect in The Lord of the Rings; so did C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia. But both were writing in the context of their deep religious faith (Lewis rather more obviously than Tolkien), and both made it very clear their practitioners of magic were recipients of either divine or demonic gifts (Gandalf vs. Sauron; Aslan vs. Jadis).
One of the chief criticisms many people have about the Harry Potter series is it clearly takes place in a very secular world, and it isn’t made clear where wizard abilities emanate. Part of the problem is that both Harry and Voldemort’s abilities seem to spring from the same force. At least, it’s reasonable to assume so, because Rowling never really delves into the issue. In any event, she writes from a determinedly secular viewpoint quite unlike Tolkien or Lewis, so although many compare Rowling to them, it’s rather hard to understand why. In 2007, on the eve of the publication of Deathly Hallows, writer Lev Grossman wrote a marvelous article originally titled “The Doubting Harry” (found here) where he noted “Rowling has more in common with celebrity atheists like Christopher Hitchens than she has with Tolkien and Lewis.” (By the way, this is not particularly meant to be an anti-Potter diatribe. Nor is it meant to be some sort of subversive plug for organized religion… although I’ll lay my cards on the table and say I’m speaking from the perspective of Christian faith. No, I’m just indulging in my favourite Kingsley Amis aphorism. You know the one… yes, that one… the one that says, “If you can’t annoy someone, there’s no point in writing.”)
Now, all this may not matter very much to you, and if not, well, good on ya. Just roll your eyes and proceed on your merry little secular way. But it matters to me. I want my worldview definitions of good and evil very sharply delineated for myself, my readers, and my characters (not necessarily in that order). That doesn’t mean that good people don’t do bad things at times; of course we/they do. We’re human. And that means we’re deeply flawed, every single one of us.
But if it comes down to the Gandalfs or the Saurons… I know I want my characters to be very aware of which side they’re on… and want to be on… and why.