Stephen Lawhead Interview About Magic In Fiction

I found a recent interview with Stephen Lawhead where he discusses his view about magic in fiction.

This is very interesting to me because just the other day I posted about how my King Arthur books will be different from his. One of those points related to the use of magic.

Now, based on what I read in his article, I’m not sure if I was completely fair in my broad brush strokes. Here are a few clarifications:

1. He says that his books “[are not] full of magic”. This is true. You can go many pages without something magical or strange happening. His books have more of a historical feel and magic or miraculous happening are not his focus. In fact, in many of his more recent books these kinds of events are almost non-existent.

2. He states that in fiction “no one is trying to teach magic.” This is also true in the sense that no one in their right mind would try to use a fiction book as a “how to guide”. However, that is not to say that people are not impressionable and that they might not become interested in magic and seek out a how-to guide. So yes, he is right, but that does not mean that how we present or deal with these subjects has no effect on our readers.

3. He states that in fiction “magic is an analog[/metaphor] for power”. In this he is right in the sense that the reason people seek to use magic is because it gives them power.

However, he also states “Therefore any debate about reading Harry Potter because there’s magic in it I think is really misplaced”. Because of the concerns I stated in my point (2) regarding impressionable people (i.e. children) I don’t quite agree. For instance, children have to be able to stand on their own, but this does not mean that parental discernment goes out the window. Each child has their own strengths and weaknesses, and a book like Harry Potter may be fine for some, but not for others. As such, ANY content of a book, including magic, is fair game for debate as to its appropriateness.

Personally I am more concerned about the world-view and morality of the author than about specific contents in a book. See my post here for my thoughts on this. As an example, my wife and I HAVE let our children read many of Lawhead’s books (even ones with magic) once they were old enough, but I will not let them read Harry Potter.

4. He says “A few characters in my books do things that are not quite explainable by the natural physical laws, but I don’t classify that as magic per se.” He argues that early Christian and Celtic literature had things that were considered either unexplainable or miracles, but not magic. There is some truth to this, but I am not sure if I dismiss these things quite as easily. His books contain many pagan practices and beliefs that may have come into Celtic Christianity, but are still pagan in origin.

He justifies his inclusion of these things by saying “They did believe in the very very close presence of the spirit world and people’s ability to access that … they did believe supernatural events could take place and people could influence them in certain ways, and so in my books, as to make them authentic to the history, I show them acting on those beliefs.”

To me, however, there is a difference between showing and affirming. If a character in a book does something, it is either affirmed by the author (no consequences) or shown as wrong (consequences). Through our choices as authors as to what happens to our characters we show whether certain behaviors are good or bad. I know that Stephen Lawhead is trying to be authentic, and I cut him some slack for that, but I also know that he affirms these practices by putting them in a positive, neutral or normal light.

As such, I think the job of a Christian author is not just to show things “as they were”, but to also show what God thinks of such things. This is a fine and difficult line to draw, and Stephen and I differ on where to put it.

But you know what? Stephen IS speaking truth in many, many other ways in his works. For instance, one of the “magic” scenes I remember was when Merlin (chapter 4 of that book) stands before the assembly of Druids and these amazing things happen. He jumps on the seat of the high druid and it rises in the air. At Merlin’s command all of the stones in the stone circle rise in the air and fly around the group. This to me appears to be “magic”. But why did he include this? Why is this happening? It is a sign to the pagan druids that they need to follow Christ.

In conclusion: I draw the line more carefully, more conservatively, because I am trying to reach out to a broader Christian audience. My goal is to make a book series that is both a great read as well as acceptable for my targeted audience (although I would hope non-Christians would like it as well).

Stephen Lawhead draws the line further out than I like because I think he is trying to reach a different audience. I guarantee he has “caught” some secular kids and adults and made them think about Christ in ways they never would have. In that sense I am VERY glad for what he is doing and my hat is—and always will be—off to him, but I also understand the concerns that Christians might have.

Anyway, read the interview for yourself and let me know what you think!