Magical Mondays: Subtle vs. Unsubtle Magic

Yesterday, I was sitting with about twenty middle schoolers watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a special almost-Easter movie, and it got me thinking about how differently J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis approached magic in their fictional worlds. Lewis liked to go with more showy magic, while Tolkien preferred more subtle magic. And though the kids may like Lewis better, I thought their differing approaches made both worlds more interesting.

While I was attending college, I took a Tolkien class taught by a wonderful old Benedictine monk who talked to us about Tolkien’s and Lewis’s relationship. The two were best friends and had a deep respect for each other, but they also constantly bickered and neither particularly cared for the other’s writings. Lewis didn’t enjoy the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tolkien hated The Chronicles of Narnia. This was partially because of how differently the two treated magic in their respective stories.

Treebeard

Tolkien didn’t like how showy and, well, magical the magic was in Lewis’s Narnia. Rather, he believed that magic should be portrayed more as a force of nature. Tolkien saw magic as woven into the natural world and didn’t want any hint of magic to be too extravagant, because he wanted it to be viewed by the reader as just another natural element, the same way we would see wind or fire. And just like how people eventually figured out how to use the elements to help humanity, Tolkien did the same with magic. He described and created certain characters who had learned how to harness magic and use it to their own ends. We see this throughout his trilogy. Let’s be honest, mithril is just magic armor, but because Tolkien portrays it very subtly, it comes across as just super tough armor which is not necessarily magical. We see the connection between nature and magic when Treebeard sees that Saruman has destroyed much of the forest and proclaims that “a wizard should know better”. He is basically saying that a magic user should be more in tune with the natural forces of the world and should know not to destroy so many of the trees.

The White Witch

To Lewis, magic should be able to do anything that a person is able to imagine. His magic was anything but subtle, from the normal looking wardrobe that had a whole other universe inside it, to the Witch being able to turn people to stone, to Aslan being able to undo the Witch’s curse just by breathing on the stone figures. Lewis did not go for subtlety and he did not attempt to weave the magic into his world and make it into something natural in Narnia. In Narnia, where talking animals exist alongside fauns and centaurs, the people there are still shocked by and in awe of both the abilities of Aslan and the Witch. This isn’t anything natural. In fact, Lewis goes out of his way to show how supernatural both Aslan and the Witch are. The Witch’s abilities to turn people to stone and even to cause an endless winter are obviously magical and no one is able to harness the same power to try and stop her. Only Aslan seems to have the capabilities to stop the Witch (though Lucy, Susan, Edmund, and Peter certainly help).

Ultimately I don’t see anything wrong with either portrayal of magic and I find it odd that Tolkien and Lewis had such a disagreement over it. Whose side would you take? Do you prefer Tolkien’s more subtle magic or Lewis’s showy magic? Let me know in the comments.


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2 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: Subtle vs. Unsubtle Magic

  1. Nice post! I never thought of magic in those books being subtle or not before, quite an interesting observation (that Tolkien class looks like fun). I wouldn’t take sides here, both are interesting ways to portray magic.

  2. Depends on the type of story or narrative you’re trying to write – I think both work, and I don’t take a side, both concepts are interesting. Imagine if Narnia had subtle magic though? I don’t think it would have been even half as interesting as it was with LOTR style magic, and vice versa. So it really depends on what purpose you want magic to serve in the narrative, but yeah I like both approaches equally.

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