This is a two part article. Next week, I'll be writing about ways in which magic can be made less cliché in literature. This week, I want to talk about why magic isn't a cause for alarm in fantasy literature.
Sometimes people read fantasy literature and become seriously alarmed. They think that magic is encouraging the occult. They think that it is a dangerous concept to include in literature, particularly YA or children's books. Today, I just want to list a few ways in which magic differs from what people engage in, in the occult. A small disclaimer: I (thank God) have no personal experience in the occult. I am simply looking at generalities.
1. Invocation (or the lack of it).
In much fantasy fiction literature, magic is not invoked. It is an element that is latent in particular characters. They were born with it. It is a particular gifting, just like some people are gifted with strength, speed, agility, or flexibility. In this way, magic is symbolic of particular resources or natural gifts that people might possess. It is hardly likened to the occult, in which people invoke spirits.
In the odd fantasy, characters invoke benevolent deities or forces in order to perform magic. But I haven't seen many of these, as it greatly diminishes the excitement of a character who has "special abilities". Especially if this invocation involves one particular god, the fantasy draws uncomfortably close to the unfashionable concept of a sovereign deity. Both of these reasons explain the lack of fantasies like this. I see no sin in the invocation of a benevolent deity.
Demons are, unfortunately, tremendously fashionable today. There are even some books which show the protagonist engaging in such practises - thereby muddling the ethics of the story and making the occult appear attractive. I firmly believe such books are extremely damaging. If the villain indulges in shady practises, and his activity isn't presented attractively, it is a different matter. But dealing with such a topic in the opposite manner is just plain wrong.
However, if you're disturbed by books in which any character invokes demons, just don't read them. Simple as that. You can boycott the author. You can even speak against them. But condemning all fantasy books in general is simply not the answer. When you do that, you switch off your audience anyway. Many people won't be willing to listen to all you have to say.
The way in which magic manifests itself in literature, I'm quite certain, is seldom similar to practises of the occult. Flying broomsticks, potatoes that peel themselves, charms to cure boils, and love potions are not the work of more sinister forces. But even on the darker side of things, when magic is used in combat in fantastical literature, it often functions more as a kind of mind power or extension of physical power than a dread manifestation of the occult.
But a more relevant point is this: magic, in our world, is dark, harmful, and wrong. In fantastical literature, magic is almost always neutral. This is one of the things that makes fantasy so innocent. I once met a Christian woman who said we should always write about magic as if it is an evil thing, even when we write fantasy. But in fantasy, the name "magic" is a complete misnomer. It frequently refers to a special, innate ability or to a unique resource. So writing fantasy books in which magic is always evil would actually draw the story far closer to reality - perhaps more uncomfortably so than if magic was treated as a neutral force, with obvious differences to the witchcraft practised in our own world. I for one would prefer saving myself the bother of doing research and pouring out effort on "accurately" portraying magic; instead, I believe everything is much safer and much easier controlled if it is placed within the fantasy environment. That is, after all, the whole point of fantasy. That it's ... er, not real.
So there is nothing evil in the force of literary magic itself. But characters manifest their virtues or vices depending on how they use it. In a sense, magic is the ultimate mirror. What would you do if you had a kind of divine power lavished on you? What would it tell others about you? Magic, very often, makes things clearer in fantasy literature. It casts characters in a sharp light. In a similar way, when we watch how people use money or power in our world, we see their characters displayed. Magic is a symbol of similar phenomena.
In summary, there are some major distinctions between magic in our world and "magic" in a fantasy world. This is why I believe that sometimes we need to redefine magic in literature. We need to look at it in a different light - give people a new perspective. For this reason, along with others, I renamed the use of the supernatural in my fantasy series (the first four books of which release this year from August onward). I simply felt it was better to avoid confusion. There is simply no comparison between witchcraft and literary magic. They are two distinct things.