Art of Darkness

It seems like, whenever a pop culture phenomenon involves magic, there are fundamentalists complaining that it’s evil. Strange, because I’ve never seen any evidence of people actually working the spells in Harry Potter or Dungeons & Dragons, whether for good or bad. But then, if you’re going to take Bible stories like Exodus at face value, you pretty much have to believe magic works, or at least did at some point in history. When Moses turns his rod into a snake, the Pharaoh’s magicians are able to do the same thing. Moses’ snake eats the others, proving that his magic is better, but that doesn’t mean the presumably pagan magicians’ was ineffective.

The prophets are constantly working magic, but it’s with God’s consent, and often at his orders. I’ve seen it proposed that the reason the Jews condemned witchcraft was that it was more or less trying to boss God around.

I’m not sure when the idea developed that people can learn magic through bargains with the Devil, but it seems to have become the default belief for the anti-fantasy fundamentalists. And deals with Satan never end up working out all that well for mortals.

Harry Potter actually contains a lot of Christian themes, but the magic doesn’t appear to be inherently for or against God. Even Voldemort just splits his soul into pieces rather than selling it to a demon. And Harry uses an Unforgivable Curse at one point, which I found…well, unforgivable. There’s no indication that it affected him in the long run, though. One reason I bring this up is that a central theme of The Lord of the Rings is that the Ring itself is a distinctly evil talisman, directly linked with a devilish being. It’s introduced in The Hobbit as simply a typical magical item, bestowing invisibility when worn. In the sequel, however, it turns out that extended use or even possession of it will have a corrupting influence, and that Sauron is able to manipulate its bearers to his ends.

Of course, not all magic in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books is like this, but there does seem to be a general warning here of magic use having a dire cost.

Many fantasy universes, and even some people who believe they can use magic in real life, differentiate between black and white magic, and sometimes certain kinds of magic bear curses.

I’m sure I’ve noted before that, in the Oz series, magic tends to be morally neutral. It’s the magic-workers who utilize it for good or evil ends. That’s not to say that Ozian magic never takes its toll on its users. It’s hinted that the reason the Wicked Witches of the East and West are so withered and dried up is that they used magic to expand their lifespans.

The Witch of the East dries up into dust in the sun after Dorothy’s house lands on her, and the Witch of the West is dissolved by water. It’s also mentioned that the latter no longer has any blood, as it had all dried up long ago. In addition, she and Blinkie each have one missing eye.

Even Queen Zixi of Ix sees herself as an old hag in a mirror despite remaining young in outward appearance, although it doesn’t appear to affect her physical abilities. Are these indications that they messed around with dark forces beyond their control, however, or simply side effects? It’s interesting that L. Frank Baum seemed to regard radium as a miraculous substance, when it was discovered after his lifetime that it could cause cancer. I don’t know that even the magic-hating fundamentalists think radium is possessed by Satan, however.

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6 Responses to Art of Darkness

  1. caelesti says:

    I personally think the reason they got so upset about it was simply that it was so popular- rather like how the Chinese government freaked out about Falun Gong. Some form of magic is in so many kids books that it’s pretty arbitrary which ones they object to. One parent I heard about (my mom used to be a teacher) forbade Mary Poppins but not Superman- cuz women with magical powers are scarier I guess. Have you seen/heard about this? Wacko Christian mom who wouldn’t let her kids read the books, so she started re-writing them. Some people are not sure if it’s really her or satire.

    • Nathan says:

      There’s definitely a scale of offense there, with some people hating all fantasy and others making exceptions for what they consider Christian fantasy. Tolkien often seems to get a pass because of his Christian beliefs, even though I get the impression that most of the would-be banners are Protestants, and Tolkien was a Catholic. But I think a lot of it is just an issue of normalization, as a lot of these people grew up with Tolkien, while Rowling was new and scary to them.

      I’d heard about the lady rewriting the Potter books, which is obviously ridiculous. She really doesn’t have anything better to do, like maybe helping the poor like Jesus was always going on about? I really can’t feel much sympathy for the people who consider all secular media to be evil. It’s like, I have nothing against you loving Jesus, but even he probably wants you to have other hobbies.

      One parent I heard about (my mom used to be a teacher) forbade Mary Poppins but not Superman- cuz women with magical powers are scarier I guess.

      I wonder what they thought of Wonder Woman.

  2. rri0189 says:

    Baum wasn’t at all unique in his beliefs about radium. Waterjugs carved from pitchblende were sold for the “health-giving” radiation they would impart to your drinking water.

    The Lord Darcy stories are probably the closest in magical conception to Harry Potter, and in that world, black magic is defined as the use of any magic that directly kills or injures a human being, and the punishment is to have one’s Talent stripped away (which is not possible in Rowling’s world). But it is permissible to use magic, even deadly magic, in self-defense, provided that you use a sort of magical jiujitsu to power your spell with your attacker’s evil intentions, rather than your own.

  3. Joe says:

    I can’t (and won’t) speak for the fundamentalists, who I find tragically ignorant and indoctrinated, but from my understanding of the Bible, magic is forbidden because its power derives from dark forces. Thus, its end result will, ultimately, prove harmful (regardless of whether its “white” or “black” magic).

    Power itself is something the New Testament warns against, and most of the condemnation found in both Old and New Testaments is against the powerful and prestigious in society who frequently misuse their power to oppress the people and pervert justice. So, the Bible’s basic idea is that humans have a difficult enough time balancing the power they commonly wield without adding the supernatural into the mix. The prophets who utilized supernatural powers are an exception to the rule because they do so through God’s will (almost as a conduit for God) and by his permission. But even King Saul was found to be in grievous error when he sought out the advice of a witch (which proved his undoing).

    This strikes me as rather similar to Ozma’s ban on magic, and although in Oz the concern over magic use is noted as it being dangerous and capable of causing harm, rather than its source being dark, this basic root cause for the prohibition is the same, leading to the allowance of only those permitted and trustworthy to wield such power. Tolkien–also developing a treatise on the corrupting nature of power–follows the same line of thinking, with Gandalf and the Wizards being permitted to use magic because they’re angelic incarnate beings, and even they are susceptible to temptation and corruption (for which reason they’re not given unlimited magic power); C.S. Lewis also presents magic as dangerous and inappropriate for humans (Lucy is sorely tempted by it in Coriakin’s house).

    Finally, as to Harry Potter, I’ve only seen the first two or three films and found its use of magic rather unappealing and childish. It comes cheap to the protagonists, looks cheap on the screen, and gets the reactive Harry out of every and all kind of problems that come his way. That’s just not compelling storytelling for me. For all that people overlook the Oz books for being children’s fantasy, I found Harry Potter far more infantile and simplistic, but perhaps the books are different.

    • Nathan says:

      Well, the idea that magic is dangerous and that it comes from dark forces are pretty different. Things can certainly be dangerous without involving any supernatural evil. I can understand why you wouldn’t want humans shooting lightning from their fingertips, but healing magic doesn’t strike me as something that would have any particular drawbacks. The argument about humans meddling with things beyond their control doesn’t really sit that well with me, considering how many times it’s been used to oppose developments that ended up being beneficial, or at least not harmful. On the other side of that coin, though, there are nuclear weapons.

      It seems to be a pretty common criticism that magic is way too easy in the Potter books, at least for people who were born with the ability. Maybe not when it comes to, say, potions; but so many spells just consist of waving a wand and yelling a word. Why would anyone need classes and homework to learn that? I still liked the series, although the books were better than the movies. I kind of felt that the films were made with people who had already read the books in mind; they leave out too much to just go into them cold.

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