Recently, I have been reflecting on the concept of magic – on the face of it, a profoundly un-Christian and un-philosophical subject, but one which I have found to be very instructive.

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

My thoughts were prompted by a couple excerpts I re-discovered from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

“Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the ‘Laws of Nature.’ When we are asked why eggs turn into birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned into horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a ‘law,’ for we do not understand its general formula.”

That made me think: What, ultimately, is the difference between a magical world and a lawful (or nomological) one? What, that is, is the ultimate difference between our world and Narnia or Middle-Earth? I realized that I did not have clear answers to these questions – and, more importantly, that there were no answers for me to find. The wizard’s craft was just as orderly and determinate as the scientist’s – and perhaps more so.

In The Lord of the Rings, Lady Galadriel tells Sam that she does not know what the hobbits mean by “magic” – for those features of her world which we would deem magical are, for her, merely ordinary. After all, a magic mirror in her land behaves just as regularly and predictably as the (supposedly non-magical) weather in ours. One man’s magic is another man’s law: “[T]he cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract, the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in his country.”

The inevitable conclusion is that our world is just one magical world among many:

“A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched. I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical. We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic.”

Why is this all important? This is Chesterton’s opinion:

“All the terms used in the science books, ‘law,’ ‘necessity,’ ‘order,’ ‘tendency,’ and so on, are really unintellectual…. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, ‘charm,’ ‘spell,’ ‘enchantment.’ They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.”

Our world is governed, not by irrevocable laws (such as those that govern thought), but by one brand of magic among many; it is governed arbitrarily, or (in the parlance of contemporary philosophy) contingently. In our world, the word “Mellon” has no special power; but it could just as well open the door of the mines of Moria. In our world, we have gravity; but we could just as well have anti-gravity.

None of these considerations should be taken as endorsements of what is typically meant by “magic”: trust in astrologers, mediums, and demons rather than in God. Such dark arts are repeatedly condemned in the Bible: Our trust is not in the dread spirits of the night, but in the living God of Light. Instead, my intention is mainly to show how we moderns have (yet again) turned reality on its head. We have placed our hope in understanding Nature to Her very roots, all the while despairing at ever knowing Her Maker. But our hopes are entirely misplaced. The magic that we call “Nature” is incomprehensible; it is only the Magician Who has been revealed to us.

We do well to study the Book of Nature; in such a world as ours, we might as well get a handle of some magic tricks. But we must not forget that we are studying the Book of Nature and not another grimoire only because God chose to cast one spell and not another – only because God said Fiat lux and not Abra Kadabra.