The Personalist Project

There's a passage in the Lord of the Rings where Galadriel, "the greatest of elven women," addresses the question of magic.

'And you?'," she said, turning to Sam. 'For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?'

In The Chronicles of Prydain, which I'm reading to my kids these days, the same idea comes up. The Princess Eilonwy has a "bauble," a golden sphere which lights up "magically"--but only when used by certain people, under certain conditions.

Eilonwy gains its "cooperation" so easily that the reader might  imagine that the magic resides in the object itself, regardless of what kind of person is using it, or for what kind of purpose. But Taran finds it only lights up for him when he is thinking of her, and the hapless but goodhearted Prince Rhun finds it only works when he stops thinking of himself and uses it to rescue his friends from a pit. 

                                         *     *     *     *     *

When Harry Potter first came out, it was the target of much criticism--some reasonable, some just plain silly. I'm not opining here on the merits of the books, which I've only read fragments of. But the various arguments against them are illuminating. Here they are, from weaker to stronger:

  • The weakest argument, I thought, was the objection against ever depicting magic in literature. This would rule out both Narnia and Middle Earth, an idea most of us would find hard to take seriously. These are people who reject fantasy, altogether, putting it in the category of falsehood. I don't think these fundamentalists are the ones who want to transform children's literature curricula to include fewer stories and more dishwasher assembly manuals, but they have more in common than either party might guess.  (If anyone feels I've misrepresented this objection, we can talk.)
  • Then there was the idea that magic in a storyline, though not in itself a bad thing, can awaken an unhealthy interest in the occult. The objectors pointed out that kids whose interest in reading has been awakened by Harry Potter (and only Harry Potter) would often go online to search for similar things and end up at sites promoting the occult. There's certainly something to this, though it doesn't touch the question of the merits of magic in literature at all. Vigilance of children online is a good thing. You'll get no argument from me. And taking the occult seriously--even going to apparently excessive lengths to make sure you're not unwittingly opening yourself up to it--I'm all for that, too. But again, we're talking about a possible side effect, not the thing itself.
  • A stronger objection was, I believe, put forth by Michael O'Brien, author of Father Elijah and other books in the series Children of the Last Days. Magic in Harry Potter, the argument goes, is presented as a property of things--a neutral, generic, impersonal property of certain material objects, that can be called up, or, as it were, "turned on," by saying certain words or performing certain actions. It's not a force to be cautious about, except maybe as a technical matter. It doesn't interact with the soul of the one who practices it. It doesn't have a "mind of its own," the way Tolkein's Ring does. If it's dangerous, it's the kind of danger an amateur runs into when tinkering with something he haven't yet mastered. This can lead not to corrupton of the soul, but at worst to unexpected or inconvenient consequences, as when the peasant wife wastes her three wishes on possessing a sausage, wishing it stuck to her husband's nose, and then wishing it unstuck. (Though maybe that's a bad example: you sense there's something more at play than bad luck and lack of forethought!)*

People today, I think, tend to look at magic either as a forbidden means of getting dark forces on your side, or else as a neutral problem-solving tool--not something that could alter or corrupt the soul of the practitioner.  What they miss is the personalist angle: the way such powers interact with the one who wields them.

I'm not saying personalist magic is more realistic, exactly--but it certainly makes for better literature.

What do you think?

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*I'm not saying this is indeed the way magic is portrayed in Harry Potter--just that if the shoe fits, it's a more respectable objection.

Image credits:

Galadriel: Flickr

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Comments (8)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Feb 20, 2018 12:36am

Potter actually falls in line with fairy-tale depictions of magic--there's white magic and dark magic, with the latter being understood to be dangerous to the person who even takes too much interest in them, and the most beneficial forms of white magic requiring a purity of intention and will to use.  And then there's the patronus spell, an animal-shaped guardian spell which reflects the caster's joys and hopes to the extent that one wizard's patronus actually changed form after she fell in love to match her beloved's.
O'Brien, ironically enough with all his interest in typology, completely missed how very traditional the symbolism surrounding the villain of the books is--he first manifests as a giant serpent, for goodness' sake--and how his pursuit of immortality and power through magic actually led to him effectively losing his humanity as it corrupted him--much as Gollum lost his through his long possession of the Ring. And Harry himself carries protection from dark magic conferred by the love of his parents, who sacrificed themselves to protect him--(spoiler warning)--later he imitates this selfless act to protect his friends.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Feb 20, 2018 12:36am

Harry Potter aside, there is something seductive about the idea of magic that is itself interesting for the personalist to ponder. We like the wish-fulfillment of the fantasy of a magic that can make things easier--a magic very much like technology (and perhaps both have their hidden costs). But in our human storytelling, the characteristic trait of dark or black magic is that it violates the boundaries between people and between people and the divine. In Harry Potter, dark magic includes spells used to harm, kill, or control others against their will, and it requires the caster's will to be aligned with the goal in order to be effective. In another fantasy series I enjoy, the Dresden books, any use of magic to control another's will is considered to potentially taint the user for the rest of their lives, and a council of magic-users stands in judgment over dark magic users. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Feb 20, 2018 12:36am

As you say--it just makes for better stories. But the stories carry this very personalistic truth in them: what we will and who we are matters, but what we do changes us. A life spent seeking power over others makes us less than we can be; when we seek to violate the subjectivity and freedom of other persons, when we treat persons as objects of use, we injure our own persons. It doesn't matter whether the ends are good if the means are evil; we cannot escape the consequences of our choices.  

Rhett Segall

#4, Feb 21, 2018 7:18pm

John H Newman is sympathetic towards  superstitious people far more than towards the secularist. The superstitious recognizes there are forces at work in  life in most mysterious ways making life, well, magical.

The fairy tale speaks of these things in archetypical ways. Every girl believes she has a hidden beauty and the fairy godmother knows this and will help Cinderella activate this beauty; but not without difficulties.  

The magical fairy tales nurture the young person's imagination and keeps it alive to the enchantment of life. The Christian guidance of that imagination will lead it,at the proper time and proper pace, to the enchanting world of angels and paradise; but also alert the child's imagination, again at the proper time and pace, to the dark spirits to be conquered by our noble savior. 

Emily Noel

#5, Sep 27, 2018 3:49pm

Part 1 of Comment

Sorry to be so late on this but, unfortunately Harry Potter is bad news for the human person. Rowling uses actual magic in her book, putting her works in a completely different category than authors using it in analogies i.e. Tolkien and MacDonald. If you just google excorsists on Harry Potter you can read for yourself. I gave a teaching in the last few years on spiritual warfare, which by the way, I am interested in tying to personalism, and, in addition to pulling from the Vatican documents on the new age/occult, various excorsists, and some deliverance ministry notes, have inserted a basic outline from the teaching.

Emily Noel

#6, Sep 27, 2018 3:50pm

Part 2:

I am not very good at articulating so please forgive any mishaps. I hope also this comes across as loving, as I am concerned for the soul of everyone. The background is the question is why is it important to discern/filter everything we are taking in and why we should change our spiritual direction if we find ourselves involved with things that could enslave our whole persons:


- the devil can’t create; only ATTACH: to people, places and things
- we = ‘HOSTS’ or targets
- fallen angels are highly intelligent, they study our behaviors/actions
-Can put thoughts into our minds based on what we tell them with our actions
*Everything we say, do and involve ourselves in, has an impact on our souls.
From the ICCRS Doctrinal Commission:
“An evil spirit needs a foothold in us to become attached to us.”

Emily Noel

#7, Sep 27, 2018 3:55pm

Part 3:

Because Rowling uses actual spells in the book, no practicing Christian is safe reading them. Even ignorantly, because the mind records things much like a movie reel, those imprints stay with us indefinitely. There is much as to why, but unfortunately not enough can be written in a comment. To grossly summarize, one's soul is blinded sometimes unknowingly. 

Emily Noel

#8, Sep 27, 2018 3:58pm

I forgot to add, spells are most certainly footholds for the enemy. 

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