Just as there are many forms and uses of magic, there are many reasons why magic is so appealing to readers of Fantasy Fiction. I believe the main reason that magic is so appealing is because it’s so entertaining, so unlike anything we know as readers. But on a deeper and arguably more important level, magic is so appealing because it is such an exciting and extraordinary allegorical means of tackling real world issues. After a while issues like morality, politics, power, love, art, and other important issues can become dry. By dry I mean that these issues seem to be the same over and over again, and there seems to be only one way to perceive these matters. But through magic readers are able to reconsider and reevaluate these issues through a completely new perspective. And readers can become so caught up in the exciting and extraordinary nature of magic that they might not even realize they’re looking at real world issues. Magic is not just a distraction; it isn’t just a fun element of fiction. Magic helps us as humans reconsider and reevaluate the people we are, the issues we care about, and the world we live in.
An excellent example of magic’s appeal can be found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. My examples will include one of the best works included in this Fantasy Fiction course—The Hobbit—and will extend the appeal of Tolkien’s magic to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The most important example of magic in Middle-Earth is the Ring, the Ring that Bilbo Baggins acquires in The Hobbit, the same Ring which the Fellowship sets out to destroy in The Lord of the Rings. Initially the Ring seems to be solely a helpful magical artifact. It helps Bilbo escape Gollum, helps him save the dwarves from the spiders in Mirkwood, free the dwarves from the elves, burgle his way into the Lonely Mountain, give the Arkenstone to Bard and the elves in order to minimize the inevitable fighting, survive the Battle of the Five Armies, etc. There seems to be nothing malevolent about the Ring in The Hobbit. In this work, readers definitely perceive the Ring as good magic, its ability to turn the wearer invisible an exciting and extraordinary prospect. There are no hints of the Ring’s malevolence in The Hobbit, except perhaps for Gollum’s twisted nature. However, in The Lord of the Rings, the Ring proves to be an evil object that creates violence, betrayal, and corruption.
So what does this shift in the Ring’s magic say about larger real world issues? In The Hobbit, the Ring can be an allegory for furthering self-confidence through appropriate use of power. Before acquiring the Ring, Bilbo is really struggling in his journey with Thorin’s company. Thorin and the dwarves make him feel bad about how he’s doing in the journey, and Bilbo also feels bad about himself. He’s certainly lacking in self-confidence, and feeling very out of place in the dangerous journey in the big world so far from the comfort of his home in the Shire. But the Ring, this source of magic, proves to be a turning point for Bilbo. Through the magic of the Ring, Bilbo is able to become a skilled burglar, and a heroic and valuable member of Thorin’s company. He comes to respect himself more, and so do the dwarves. The appeal of magic helps us as readers ponder this shift. Does this shift in Bilbo’s character occur simply because he acquires magic, or is it something more? I believe it’s not just the magic he acquires, but how he uses the magic. Bilbo uses the Ring’s magic appropriately. He only uses it to do what is best, to save himself and the dwarves and help in their quest, or to try and achieve peace. Bilbo’s use of the Ring can therefore be seen through the allegorical lens of furthering self-confidence through appropriate use of power. Magic is almost always power in Fantasy Fiction, and the Ring’s magic is certainly powerful. Bilbo thus acquires power and through appropriate use the power is used for good, for helping himself and helping others. This furthers his self- confidence because he becomes a more valuable and skilled and benevolent individual. And we as readers can learn a lesson about power, that one gains more self-confidence and helps good things happen not by just acquiring power, but by using power wisely once acquired. With the same object of magic we see how unwise and inappropriate use of power can kill, injure, betray, and corrupt, all of which the Ring causes in The Lord of the Rings. Thus, magic entertains and helps us as readers reconsider important issues, particularly the issue of power.
Another excellent example of how magic’s appeal helps readers reconsider and reevaluate the real world is magic in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. In this classic work the extraordinary nature of magic leads readers to examine the issue of faith and law. When Aslan survives despite being killed upon the Stone Table by the White Witch and her minions, he returns and tells Susan and Lucy the secret of his survival:
Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward. (Lewis 178-179)
Magic that defies death is certainly intriguing. Aslan’s reasons for why this magic defies death are even more intriguing. In short, the magic that saves Aslan is about the power of sacrifice and faith, and adhering to such laws. The magic Lewis presents makes readers consider the power of faith, the good that can come out of a victim willingly sacrificing his or her self for a greater cause. Furthermore, such faith during sacrifice can allow evil to be triumphed. Through these exciting possibilities depicted in the magic of Narnia, readers can look at faith and sacrifice through a new lens. Readers who scoff at their religious faith may reconsider their feelings toward their faith. I’m not saying reading this will make an atheist or agnostic suddenly believe in God and start attending church or synagogue or any other place of religious worship, but it does make readers reexamine the issue of faith. And it’s not necessarily religious faith; it can help readers reevaluate the value of having faith in anything, even faith in one’s self or other people or certain causes and so forth.
Not only does the magic of Aslan’s resurrection speak to the issue of faith, but it also speaks to laws. Aslan triumphs because he knows the ancient laws of magic and adheres to them. He lives because he knows and manipulates the system. The White Witch thinks she triumphs because she thinks she can cheat the system but it turns out she doesn’t know the system as well as she thinks. Magic can thus be used an allegory for law. To thrive and survive one needs to know the law, adhere to the law, and use the law wisely. If you’re going to manipulate the law, you better know it in and out, and know how to use and manipulate the law effectively.
Issues like power, self-confidence, faith, sacrifice, and law can seem dry and simple. But the highly entertaining and astonishing nature of magic helps us as readers willingly think of these issues, and think of them in new ways. Power and self-confidence are more intrinsically fascinating and appealing to analyze through the Ring. In the same way faith, sacrifice, and law are more intrinsically fascinating and appealing to analyze through the magic behind Aslan’s resurrection. These are just a few of countless examples in which magic helps us better understand and assess the real world. And by offering new perspectives and by triggering critical thinking about such important issues, magic does not draw readers further from the real world as many argue magic and Fantasy Fiction do. Magic helps readers live in and better understand the real world.
Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: Harper Collins, 1950.