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