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Do You Believe in Magic?

It’s hard to compete with an airplane. From the observation deck, we had a view of each taxi, take-off, and landing; there was a great deal more activity than one might expect from such a small airport. With every movement of an aircraft, the airport staff would pause the tour. The oldest in our co-op group that day was twelve, and the group was disproportionately male. After a small, private plane took off, one of the airport staff asked a question that captured everyone’s attention: “What is the one thing that makes an airplane fly?”

There were many intelligent guesses – wings, forward motion, an engine. With each guess, he would reply, “Well, yes, but that is not the one thing.” When every idea was exhausted, he asked another question: “What about magic?” The group, of course, laughed. “Think about it,” he said, pointing to a jet. “Can you really explain how that metal tube just flew through the air from Atlanta? Do you have any other explanation than magic?”

There was a time when I would have said magic is dangerous. Teach the kids about magic, and the next thing you know, they will read Harry Potter and there will be pentagrams about the house and secret conversions to Wicca. But the truth is that we are in danger of too little magic, not too much. Allow me to explain. The magic we lack is what C.S. Lewis calls deeper magic from before the dawn of time. This magic is good – it is the unseen order of reality. This is the magic that allowed Aslan to sing Narnia into being, for example. This magic summoned the Pevensies from England and put healing cordial in a bottle. It creates. It calls. It heals. It might be more digestible to think of it as enchantment or mystery.

“We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery,” writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. We live in an age where there are no mysteries, only problems to be solved. Every mystery that I pose as a problem erodes the shoreline of wonder. Yes, flight was made possible through “just basic physics,” as one mother said. But it is also a mystery. Must they be at odds? Do I want my children to believe in only equations and bits of metal? Or do I want them to glimpse the unseen reality which allows for the possibility of flight?

Faith is the evidence of things unseen. If I solve all mystery-problems, what then? How can I expect my children to believe that mankind was saved in a giant floating zoo? That there was a special box with the Holy Spirit inside that would kill at a touch? Or that angels appeared to a young virgin who gave birth to the savior of the world? Subverting the unseen order of magic and mystery hinders the pilgrim’s journey: to climb so that we may be no longer blind.

I have noticed a strange fragmentation in the way that children look at enchantment. On the one hand, they are capable of extensive imaginative play. They think and speak and move with profound creativity, accessing worlds unseen. On the other hand, they are apt to ask my least favorite question of all: Is this real? Is this story real? Are dragons real? Is Robin Hood real? Is magic real? I never know how to answer these questions because I am not altogether sure what they are asking. A child of an age to ask, “Is this Real?” is a child who is not of an age to define real. (Believe me, I have tried.) I assume that they have, even from a young age, absorbed the quintessential question of modernity: What is real?

The modern erosion of mystery (and subsequently wonder) has led to the demand that what is real must be proven. It must be solved. It must be investigated and experimented upon until it can be seen. It was not always so. The Medieval man knew reality; he did not need a nudge to look for mystery. He was operating under what Thomas Howard calls the myth “everything means everything.” Space was neither silent nor empty; the medieval knew the music of the spheres. He knew that reality did not need to be seen to be known.

The knower’s submission is central in seeing reality. The magic that we think of as bad attempts to conquer reality and subdue it to the wishes of men. In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory tells his Uncle Andrew that he was rotten for not keeping a promise. Uncle Andrew, a would-be magician, responds:

“Oh, I see. You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper, I’m sure, and I’m very glad you have been taught to do it. But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys – and servants – and women – and even people in general, can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasure. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”

The magician thinks he is above order. He is more likely to be found in a lab coat than in a pointy hat. Bad magic subverts, true magic heals. Bad magic is the shadow, true magic is the reality. Uncle Andrew attempts to seize the power he ought not to have. His magic is deceitful, self-aggrandizing, and small souled. When he arrives in Narnia his foolishness and limitations are clear; he plots to pervert creation as a magician conjuring “commercial possibilities.” As Aslan sings reality into sight, Andrew’s amateur magic seems like parlor tricks in comparison.

In this, as in other fairy tales, there is little doubt about what is and isn’t real. These stories sharpen reality – to recognize what isn’t we must first behold what is. The mother who reads Grimm’s Fairy Tales is perhaps in the least danger of raising magicians. They are less likely to fall prey to the new myth, “nothing means anything.” Maybe, if she is lucky, they will even believe in magic.




1 thought on “Do You Believe in Magic?”

  1. Ross Arlen Tieken

    Wonderful article, and thank you for mentioning Chance or Dance (which I have now ordered), and The Magician’s Nephew, which has been historically underappreciated, in my opinion.
    Can we not go even further than your very gentle conclusion here? Might we even say that the purpose of education is, to some extent, the inculcation of enchantment?
    Thank you so much for this wonderful reflection.

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