‘Magic’ in Young People’s Literature

There are many kinds of ‘magic’ presented in young people’s literature, both old and new. In our household we have reached the conclusion that not all of it is appropriate, even if it all seems to be firmly rooted in the realms of the fantastic or surreal and may not appear to pose any threat to someone’s understanding of or behavior in the Real World.

The idea of using magic to accomplish something ‘impossible’ is one that many authors can’t seem to resist. They clearly think that there are times when there is no way out other than by relying on the supernatural – and I choose my words carefully: they do not believe in miracles that are a gift, but in otherworldly forces that must be commanded.

The types of characters currently preferred by publishers are those who solve problems for themselves (as though this were apparently more commendable than learning to ask for and receive help!), which inevitably leads to the person’s encountering a challenge that seems impossible to overcome. Enter the ‘magic wand’, in whatever form it takes in that particular story – a spell, a supernatural force, a larger-than-life ability. The character’s fear drives them to do something desperate, feeling that nothing else works (such as faith or love).

One can argue that scenari involving magic encourage the reader to think ‘out of the box’, to acknowledge that there might be more to the world than they perceive, and that incredible things are possible. At first glance, this might be true – but the way in which the ‘magic’ of a story is presented is crucial to the effect it will have on the mind. The incredible force that saves the day must be understood to be good (think of Aslan). Not arbitrary (think of a magic spell). Informed readers must acknowledge that whether they think magical things are real or not, there are people who do believe in ‘that stuff’ and who mess around with it. It never turns out the way they think. It is important not to send young people down the wrong path, inadvertently, by forgetting to inform them of the Right Way to do things. Yes, incredible things are possible, within a certain framework of proper behavior.

In some books, the type of magic experienced by the good characters reflects an author’s masterful understanding of sacred laws. In others, it reflects a lack of understanding of the fact that one always does more harm than good by turning away from sacred laws.

Here are two books we feel offer good information about ‘magical’ things:

The House of Arden by E. Nesbit

The Mouldiwarp (a little talking white mole) helps the children when they write him a friendly poem and refrain from arguing for three days – no weird incantations or spells involved. The Mouldiwarp also expressly states that he hates it when the witch summons him whenever she feels like it using her spells, reinforcing that mucking around with magic is offensive to helping ‘energies’ because you impose your will, rather than ask, in order to receive. In addition, the Mouldiwarp cannot change the laws of ‘how things work’. This is a good sign! Any character who indicates that they can change what they want in order to control things is on the wrong track, but one who acknowledges the laws of nature and the Right Way of Things will remind young people of the (completely livable and occasionally miraculous) limitations of living a healthy and respectful existence.

The Magician’s Nephew, by C. S. Lewis

Of course many readers are familiar with the witch in this tale. She and Uncle Andrew are characters that do things the Wrong Way and as such, while they do manage to come up with some remarkable tricks, miss out on the really interesting ‘magic’ – that of Aslan’s love. This entire series is crystal clear in its exploration of what really is ‘magical’ (the creation of the universe, the miracles that result from  selfless humility and genuine love) and what amounts to silly tricks and ‘mucking about’ with no respect for Life that will only get you into trouble. A masterpiece!

And here are two books we feel offer bad information about ‘magical’ things:

Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling

Yes, sadly, this series didn’t pass the ‘test’, for a simple but somewhat subtle reason: the good characters are brave and selfless and noble, but they act out these admirable qualities using magic, the wrong thing. The message is that love and solidarity and other noble qualities are not enough – they have to use magic. Rowling takes the rules of good behavior that apply to the material realm, and uses her imagination to make those rules apply in the realm of energy manipulation. In other words, things work out for the characters who are using the Wrong Way to do the Right Things because Rowling wants them to. In real life, anyone who manipulates events by using magic (remember, the people in the book are doing this, not a magical animal or ‘guide’) will pay a hefty price. But in Rowling’s books, this never happens: only the ‘bad’ characters meet a sorry end, despite the fact that everyone in the books is, energetically-speaking, doing the wrong thing. For this reason, the Harry Potter series poses a more serious threat to young people’s minds than many less interesting books that include the same mistake. In addition, the magical elements of the story infiltrate into daily life, which is an insidious way of encouraging young people to experiment with magic. It can be very hard to pass up on reading these books because they are very compelling and wildly popular, but we, for one, have taken them off of our bookshelf.

The ‘Magic Tree House’ Series, by Mary Pope Osborne

These books are really entertaining, and the magical elements are so far-fetched and so intricately linked with childhood games and ‘imagination’ that they do not pose that much of a threat to young readers who already have a weaker grasp of what is realistically possible and what is not (due to their age). That said, beware the fact that the real, historical, magical characters of Merlin and Morgan are included – and Morgan, according to other literature, is by no means someone you would want your children befriending! Merlin was a pretty Intense Character also, who perhaps should not be taken as lightly as he is in these stories. On this topic, we feel strongly that any books that include questionable real-life characters (even things such as ghosts), and make them out to be ‘good’ when your instincts tell you otherwise, should be avoided, or at least thoroughly explained. When the character in the story befriends the vampire, it is not the same as when they befriend the ugly creature. Why? Because a vampire is never well-intended – he or she will always cause harm – but an ugly creature may simply feel hurt and left out due to social pressures – it is not necessarily ill-intended. It is important that young people understand the difference between ‘nice’ and ‘good’, and authors who relish creating moral grey areas and leaving their readers to decide what is ‘right’ based on a collection of fictional ‘facts’ are simply sharing their own confusion and struggle.

Young readers reach one of two possible conclusions after encountering ‘supernatural’ elements in a book when they return to daily life: either that the ‘supernatural’ doesn’t exist, or that it does exist. If they observe their surroundings and conclude that it does not exist, they face disappointment and feel that wonderful and incredible things are not ‘real’, and that they cannot enjoy the type of help available to a character in a book. If on the other hand they encounter people who show them that supernatural things do exist (remember that there are exorcists working for the Catholic church, and other people in many cultures who take ‘spirits’ very seriously) and mistakenly are led to believe that such things can be controlled with just a good intent or a simple set of words, they will face disappointment of a much more harsh nature. Someone must point out that there are some forces in Nature that humans cannot control, like the wind and rivers and volcanoes, and likewise, there are mysterious forces of ‘energy’, which also cannot be controlled and which also demand proper respect.

How many people suffer from depression and anxiety in our society? According to 2011 statistics, 30% of the North American (Canada and the U.S.A.) population suffers from depression and takes antidepressants – and that statistic does not include those who have alcohol, nicotine, or drug dependencies, or those who are institutionalised under psychiatric care. Surely we need fewer stories that reinforce feelings of helplessness and ineptitude, leading to a reliance on the imaginary or ‘magical’ help, and more that reinforce our innate abilities, our real talents, our incredible potential to overcome challenges and enjoy life with real or ‘miraculous’ help!

The love of the Maker of All is available to anyone who asks, but is not to be ordered about. Any literature that reinforces to its readers that love is available (and incredible, and sometimes unbelievable!) and that the sacred laws of How Things Work actually do work (!) is preferable to books that continually present young people with ‘Unsolvable Problems’ that they have to confront alone or with the help of questionable beings and elements of the supernatural.

 

Learn what Shakespeare had to say about about witches and witchcraft! Methinks I’ll Read Macbeth

Read ‘The House of Arden’ for free here!

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