Deep Magic

I wrote in a blog post the other day, almost tossing it off, that what I wanted in fantasy literature was “deep magic from before the dawn of time.” And that I didn’t find it enough in contemporary fantasy.

I’ve been thinking about what I mean by that.

I grew up on C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and Ursula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea series, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (I didn’t really appreciate The Lord of the Rings until I was a teenager). On Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, and L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, and George MacDonald. Of those, only the Oz books are missing that sense of deep magic. I love the Oz books, but their magic is bright, modern, and very American. They have a witty magic. The other books do have it, so let me try and describe what it is.

I’m referring of course to the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the White Witch has asserted her right to kill Edmund Pevensie, because from the dawn of time, all traitors have belonged to her. Aslan gives up his life for Edmund, and then comes back to life himself, telling Lucy and Susan that there is a deeper magic from before the dawn of time, and by the laws of that magic, the willing sacrifice of an innocent will make time itself run backward. It will bring the victim back to life. Deep magic from before the dawn of time . . . It’s the fundamental magic at the heart of things, which people like the White Witch, who are interested in rules and regulations, who seek political power, who are greedy, don’t understand.

Reading books like those I have mentioned, I felt even as a child that I had somehow connected with the heart of things, with a system of values more important than the one I was learning in school, which was about doing my homework and obeying traffic signs. It was about the fundamental heart of things, about love and honor and meaning. About confronting your shadow. Confronting your own fear, your own mortality. But more than that, it was about connecting with something fundamental, something deeper than the human. It was about Narnia being alive, and the Ents, and Le Guin’s dragons. About the Princess Irene’s magical grandmother who sits spinning in the castle attic, and is more than she seems. About North Wind. About Merlin.

In fantasy, you could come into contact with the powers of the universe, whose motives you never quite understood. Perhaps that is why my other favorite type of book had a different but related sort of magic — I mean books about the natural world, like The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. The latter is a domesticated version, but even there you can see that the powers of nature are important, life-giving. The garden is infused with spirit. In The Wind in the Willows, you actually meet the God Pan.

I grew up in a practical, secular household. Fantasy gave me my first experience of the numinous and transcendent. It allowed me to hope that there was something more in this world than what I experienced every day, a deep magic at the heart of things. And that I could, somehow, touch it . . .

Honestly, I don’t read much modern fantasy for adults, because that sense of the numinous seems to be gone. It’s fashionable now to write fantasy, particularly secondary-world fantasy, as though the characters were living in our world, with its political turmoil, its moral ambiguity, its gritty, ordinary reality . . . except with dragons. But not very interesting dragons. Le Guin’s dragons spoke the underlying language of reality . . . They were existential dragons. Now there’s nothing wrong with political turmoil, moral ambiguity, or gritty ordinary reality in a text, but: I’ve lived in this world, our actual primary world, for a long time now, and I don’t think that’s all there is to our world either. The numinous and transcendent are here — if you haven’t seen them, you’ve never looked up at the moon, sailing among clouds.

The beauty and strangeness, the meaning, are here in our world — fantasy helps us to see that. Nature is alive — nymphs and dryads and hamadryads are merely metaphors for what is real. Love and honor and magic are all here, but we forget . . . It’s as though we go to sleep, and fantasy, at least some fantasy, wakes us back up to it.

But some fantasy doesn’t wake me up. It’s just a book to read, on an airplane perhaps, getting from one place to another. To find that sense of the meaningful I’m looking for, of magic, I go to nature writing instead . . .

Writing has many functions. It doesn’t always have to provide you with ultimate meaning! I love murder mysteries — although I would argue that they also offer a vision of meaning (the detective is the restorer of necessary social order). But that sense of deep magic is what I look for in fantasy, and when I don’t find it nowadays, I usually stop reading the book.

I thought I would end with a short list of books that have given me that sense of an underlying magic. Here they are:

Among children’s books,
The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (and then The Lord of the Rings)
The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, and At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (and then The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn, also The Goshawk)
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
The Wizard of Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin (also The Wind’s Twelve Quarters)

As an adult, I’ve found it in the poetry of W.B. Yeats, the prose of Jorge Luis Borges. Also the magical realism of Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And the fantastical history of Susanna Clarke in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, as well as her short stories.

I’m sure it exists in many other places. I just have to look for it — and maybe, if I can, write it myself . . .

North Wind by Jessie Wilcox Smith

The illustration is of North Wind and Diamond, by Jessie Wilcox Smith, from At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald.

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14 Responses to Deep Magic

  1. Artur Nowrot says:

    I’m going to share this post everywhere I can, because it perfectly captures what I look for in fantasy as well. I remember discussing the ending of Harry Potter with my friend (I read The Chronicles of Narnia before and loved it, but it’s Harry Potter that I grew up with and that might be the most important fantasy book for me) and she was disappointed that Harry won thanks to the power of love and sacrifice, she wanted something more… tangible, a spell or a weapon. I told her that I infinitely prefer the power of love and when she asked why, I said: “Because that’s the only magic that really exists”. And that’s why I’m increasingly drawn towards reading and re-reading children’s fantasy – the deep magic from beyond the dawn of time is much easier to find there.

  2. I call that kind of un-magical secondary-world fantasy, ‘Castle opera,’ and I’m about as moved by it as you are. I realised what I was missing when I read Ursula K LeGuin’s brilliant essay, ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,’ and that sense of the numinous is always what I look for in fantasy stories. I’d say that it’s the equivalent of ‘sense of wonder’ in SF, that feeling that you are looking at something bigger, and brighter and darker and wider and deeper, than the mundane world.

    It’s also why I shy away from authors talking about their ‘magic systems’. How they work is how they work and fair enough, but books more likely to move me are ones in which the magic is based on beauty or moral truth or myth or wonder, rather than an arbitrary set of power dynamics that might have come out of a war game.

    Adult books:
    – Everything by Lord Dunsany – I found The Gods of Pegana when I was fifteen and never looked back
    – Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman, and The Sandman series
    – Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
    – Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm
    – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
    – Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce.
    – later Terry Pratchett books – I love all Sir Pterry’s books, but in stories like Hogfather, in which he has Death saying, “HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE,” that’s the place where I want to be when I read fantasy.

  3. Phyllis Holliday says:

    One more to add to the list; I found James Stephen’s “The Crock of Gold,” when I was thirteen and
    hoping there was some way not to lose the magic of fairy tales. It is an adult book, and was an invitation to higher places. I consider deep magic as the great mystery. And that is why I hang around Terri Windling’s “Myth and Moor” blog and this blog. Who and why are we here? Why do certain places seem to be holy? That is in forests and on the high deserts . And sudden wishes to write about something gnawing at the edge of surprise and other epiphanies. To go somewhere unknown.

  4. Evelyn says:

    Thank you for writing this. As a kid I loved books like Bridge to Terabithia, Bruce Coville’s Magic Shop books, the Dark is Rising sequence, anything with dragons in it. Some, like Terabithia, aren’t even technically fantasy, but I think they still give the same sense of wonder and meaning lurking beneath the surface. Mysteriously I still turned out to be one of those writers who loves coming up with technical magic systems that use physics and even programming metaphors liberally…perhaps it’s because for me, science comes the closest out of anything I’ve encountered (admittedly, I haven’t experienced much of life yet) to showing that the universe makes sense and has an underlying order in which we humans can choose, or not, to find beauty and meaning. Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series does a superb job of presenting a kind of magic that is technical (comprehensible and logical under human rules) while never losing sight of that deeper sublimity.

    • Evelyn, I agree! I find a great deal of magic in science, and I think studying the natural world closely can give us a sense of the numinous that is as strong as anything in fantasy, or literature generally . . .

  5. Fantastic post! I grew up on Lewis, Tolkien and – later – discovered Le Guin’s Earthsea books. And – like you – to me they had a sense of magic about them that modern fantasy doesn’t seem to quite capture. So does ‘The Wind In The Willows’. To that, for me at least, I’d add A A Milne’s Pooh books, which were such a wonderful blend of fantasy, whimsy, quintessential Englishness – and layers of meaning for adults. All of these things gave my childhood a sense of magic. One that – looking back- has lasted a lifetime for me. I still explore it.

  6. helen says:

    This is great! I too have loved many of those books, in childhood in particular I wasn’t interested in reading anything terribly realistic. As an adult I came rather to look down on fantasy outside children’s literature, and it’s only in the last few years I’ve seen the error of my ways and started appreciating the fantastic. But like Elaine above, I am not interested in ‘castle opera’ and often have trouble finding fantasy I like. So it’s good to read your list and the suggestions in the comments.

    Magical children’s books: I recommend John Masefield, Elizabeth Goudge, Nicholas Stuart Gray, Diana Wynne Jones, perhaps Joan Aiken (her short stories are often magical and she’s a terrific writer), Lucy M. Boston, Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. For adults, perhaps the strange more than the numinous, but still: John Crowley’s Little Big, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin, Alice Thomas Ellis’s Fairy Tale, Lucy Wood’s short stories, Barbara Comyns perhaps, some Antal Szerb. Mervyn Peake? And Theodora Goss!

    I realise that I’m a total stranger, but I assure you that I have exquisite taste in literature, these books are all excellent, trust me. 🙂

  7. Margaret (Peggy) Squires says:

    Thank you for posting this and putting something vital into words. The post and the comments ae rich. Like dark loam…I wonder if there might be a seed or two in the lining of my pocket..?

  8. Diane L Urbanec says:

    Have you read Charles de Lint? If not, you need to brew a pot of coffee, grab some dark chocolate and read the Newford stories starting from the beginning and going to the last written. They are Urban Fantasy done right by the master himself. Magic with a moral to the story. The Onion Girl cured me of a decades old major depression. You don’t get more magic than that.

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