Magic in Fairy Tales
Updated: Mar 24
If fairy tales are Christian stories, and Christian stories are always about salvation, how do we explain the magic in fairy tales?
The Bible says, “Thou shall not suffer a witch (or magician, or sorcerer) to live.” Why then do we have Christian authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who write stories that have magic in them, where the magic is a good thing?
They have both good and bad magic in their stories, but how do we explain that authors who are Christians use magic in a good way in their stories?
I’ve talked about magic in the Harry Potter series, and that the author, J.K. Rowling, is a Christian.
I also mentioned that the magic in Harry Potter is fairy tale magic, just as it is in Middle Earth and Narnia.
Now I’m going to talk a bit more about what fairy tale magic is, and how it’s different from “magic tricks” like card games, and how it’s very different from the magic associated with demons.
Fairy Tale Magic
Fairy tales and fairy (or faerie) stories take place in a world that is distinct from our world: the world of Faerie.
In Tolkien’s talk, “On Faerie Stories,” he says that “Faerie is most nearly translated by magic,” because the governing principle of the world of faerie is magic.
It’s not a magic that comes from demons, the way that it can be in our world. Even Rumpelstiltskin, who magically changes straw into gold, denounces demons when he denies that he is a demon.
In the world of faerie, magic is part of the nature of the world itself. Everything that exists in that world is touched by magic in some way. It's partly from this idea that some people who practice magic will claim that this is the way that magic works in our world as well. But that's not true.
In the world of Faerie, there can be trees, rocks, animals, and people that all express their magical abilities in different ways:
A rock can be an entrance between Faerie and our world
A tree can move on its own or even walk
Animals can talk, and “people” aren’t just human beings
It wasn't just at Platform 9 3/4 that people walked through a wall into a magical world, Sir Orfeo (more on him below) did the same thing in the story about him by Geoffrey Chaucer (verses 340-350):
Thro' a cleft in the rock lies the Fairy way
And the king he follows as best he may;
Thro' the heart of the rock he needs must go,
Three miles and more, I would have ye know,
Till a country fair before him lay,
Bright with the sun of a summer's day;
The “fae” or “fairy folk” don’t have the same nature as human beings, but they can look, act, and talk like humans. It just depends on what the author wants to do in the story. There are many magical beings in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth:
The elves are certainly not human, but they are definitely magical beings
Gandalf isn't human either--he's a wizard
The Hobbits have "a magic all their own"
There can also be animals that talk, like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, but there can also be creatures that are human in some ways, and animals in some ways.
All of them are part of the world of Fairy
C.S. Lewis uses this idea in his world of Narnia. When the Pevensie children enter the World of Narnia, it's a shock to the people they meet there because those Narnians have now encountered human beings for the first time--sons of Adam and daughters of Eve!
Those human beings are from our world, and were brought into the world of Narnia, and they use magic while they're there...
Sometimes stories clearly take place in our world, not the world of Faerie. It might still be a fairy story, but it's also called magic realism. It's the idea that something magical happens in our world, whether it's an object, person, or situation. One way to think of this is that the world of Faerie has entered our world.
In other stories, the setting is clearly our world but there are a lot more magical elements in the story, like in the Arthurian stories.
Merlin is definitely a wizard, but he interacts with Arthur, who is a human being.
In one of the earliest versions of the story of Merlin that we know of, Merlin’s father was a demon and his mother was a human. His mother had him baptized as soon as he was born, so he wasn’t part-demon anymore, but he kept the powers he would have had as a demon. That’s where his magic came from in that version of the story (Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain).
That can’t happen in real life, because demons are fallen angels, and angels can’t reproduce. It’s an example of how a fictional story can have elements of fairy stories even when they take place in the real world.
The same is true of the Arthurian literature in general. The human beings aren’t magical, but sometimes they have magical objects, and sometimes people appear to be human but aren’t: they’re magical beings from the “perilous realm” who have entered our world.
In these stories, Faerie breaks through in some way into our world.
There may be an entrance that we can’t perceive, or can only perceive at certain times, or that we need a magical object to get through the entrance.
Sir Orfeo (Chaucer's story based on the mythological story of Orpheus) is an example of this. He walks through a rock into the world of Faerie so that he can retrieve his wife, who was stolen by the Fairy King.
The rock itself is magical in some way; it’s not a rock as they exist in our world, but one that allows him to walk through it and enter Faerie.
In all of these examples, magic is used in the stories, but not in a way that human beings in real life practice magic. Magic as it exists in the world of faerie isn’t real, and human beings can’t have those types of magical powers.
If a human being appears to have magical powers in real life, there are only a few possibilities:
It’s a trick, or a game
At least one of the people involved isn’t able to perceive reality as it is (This is the case with some forms of mental illness, or head injuries)
What appear to be “magic powers” are really caused by the actions of a demon
This third possibility is the reason that the Bible condemns practitioners of magic: they’re consorting with demons.
These are different reasons for the magic in fairy stories or fairy tales. There can be demons in faerie stories, but not usually since it's a different world. The magic in those stories isn’t usually associated with a demon; it’s part of the nature of that being who is from Faerie.
In the next three posts in this series, we'll look at the magic in Narnia and Middle Earth to see how the Christian authors, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, used magic in their stories.
List of Posts in the Series, "Magic in Christian Fiction"
Magic in Fairy Tales (this post)