Magic & Paganism in science fiction & fantasy

By Andy Stout

Earthsea book jacket, circa 1970s

The long, complex and often blurred relationship that science-fiction and fantasy has with Magic and Paganism. 

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C Clarke

Magic has been a part of human story-telling since the very beginning, and in terms of creation myths and godlike powers is present in our earliest recorded literature, but science fiction and fantasy  has been a comparatively late entrant to the field. Disparate elements exist all the way back to Babylonian times, but it is generally considered to be the mid-nineteenth century when everything coalesced and became part of what we call science fiction today.

There are too many titles and too much of a blurry boundary between proto-sf and the more fully realised material to truly ascribe a first, but Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ was undoubtedly one of the most important of the new novels, essentially taking a magical event, a resurrection, and explaining it in scientific principles. The world was never going to be quite the same again. Certainly the portrayal of magic wasn’t.

The relentlessly-scholarly Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy alludes to Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ and points out that magic in genre fiction tends to be portrayed as more of a science than a religion; it assumes basically that a particular universe works according to given immutable laws, and that these can be codified and manipulated. Thus you have Randall Garret’s ‘Lord Darcy’ series and any number of other works where a magic-based technology has developed in place of the science of more mundane histories.

Confusing the two is a bit of a science fiction staple and stories where advanced tech is thought of as magic are commonplace. Usually this happens when Advanced Civilisation A meets Less Advanced Civilisation B – typically through the mechanism of space or time travel – and has to pull the wool over their eyes for Unspecified Reason C. Essentially this is the true tale of Christopher Columbus predicting the lunar eclipse to suitably awed Jamaican natives in the 16th Century rewritten for the science fiction market, and is, for example, largely how The Foundation regains its powers after civilisation collapses to the Galactic core in Asimov’s famous and eponymous series.

Other popular treatments see it variously treated as an expression of psi powers, a finite resource whose central ‘well’ is running dry, and a systematic means of power and subjugation (the bureaucratic shamans ruling the USA in tarot-author Rachel Pollack’s award-winning ‘Unquenchable Fire’).

Magical systems

Oddly enough, it’s arguable that there is more detailed magic in science fiction than there is in fantasy literature. Wizards, witches, magical beasts and other assorted spellcasters might be a staple of the fantasy genre, and indeed with most of them the existence of magic is an assumption, but few writers have actually  explained how a coherent magical system would evolve and develop in their individual universes. Magic thus becomes a simplistic narrative tool rather than an underlying component of the warp and weft of the universe the stories are set in. Wizard gestures: castle explodes – that sort of thing.

Some authors have tried. In Robert Jordan’s Brobdingnagian 14-volume ‘Wheel of Time’ series, he postulates both male and female sources of magical power and weaves crafts from different elements. It’s a nice system, and a shame he didn’t find space in its nigh-on-12,000 page length to delve into it a little more. In ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’, Susanna Clarke assembles a rich stew of detailed English magical history for her protagonists, with close to 200 footnotes. And in his ‘Rivers of London’ series, Ben Aaranovitch has created a nicely-nuanced, Newtonian basis for magic and the way it interfaces with a modern police force which involves different skill levels, river spirits, and the slightly disquieting notion that actually practising it can damage the brain.

Arguably, it is Ursula le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’ books (the original trilogy has been joined by two less successful later books) that transcend both the fantasy and their original ‘Young Adult’ genres to provide one of the most completely-realised magical systems put to paper, based on the manipulation and divination of the true names of things. Certainly, in their moral arguments for the constraint of power, respect for the individual, and the dangers of organised religion founded on the concept of sacrifice, they introduced some extremely powerful notions to an impressionable audience in the early 1970s.

Whether such detailed subtext could be glimpsed within the Harry Potter universe three decades later is a moot point, but even in this avowedly populist series there are magical realisms. JK Rowling deliberately chose the wood of various wands to highlight narrative tensions: holly (repels evil) for Harry, yew (death and resurrection) for Voldemort.

Indeed, while the actual details of how magic works in a Muggle world remain obscure, Rowling has stated that she spent years working out what magic can, and cannot, do in the books. This is a crucial process for anyone working in genre fiction as one of the key attributes of sci-fi and fantasy is that when you can almost by default do anything in a universe, the author needs to establish the parameters for the readership and stick within them. One can only hope that this is the reason for the reams of exposition regarding ‘voyants’ and the complex workings of the spirit world in the first part of genre publishing’ latest sensation, ‘The Bone Season’.

Bad science fiction and fantasy is sadly full of examples where the author or director has painted themselves into a corner with the plot and needs to invent something to get out of it. Call it the “Sonic Screwdriver Effect” if you will. “Look,” it goes, “if I press this button here we psychically reverse the polarity of all the herons in the alien fleet, leading to a wormhole destabilisation that will save the planet. Hurrah!”

Paganism & Television

Which brings us to paganism. ‘Doctor Who’, of which the Sonic Screwdriver is of course a key component, both universal swiss army knife and convenient plot device, has certainly featured its share of pagan elements over the years, though this has often unfortunately been conflated with the occult and elements of horror. In fact, 1970s children’s TV in Britain featured a particularly fecund seam of such material, from Jon Pertwee’s Doctor battling The Master’s attempted resurrection of the demon Azal in ‘The Dæmons’, to the neo-Luddite revolution of ‘The Changes’, and on to the seriously scary ‘Children of the Stones. This was filmed on location at Avebury and saw history doomed to repeat itself across millennia as a modern population unwittingly reenacted the enslaving of a village population by a Druid priest.

Not exactly what you would call an interfaith programme…

American TV shows, from the original Star Trek to the muscular recent reboot of Battlestar Galactica have, meanwhile, tended towards safety when it comes to sketching out their fictional religions, mainly plundering the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons for their stables of gods and goddesses. Partly this is due to not wanting to antagonise the powerful religious right, partly due to the fact that science fiction and fantasy as a whole has been less colonised by alternative religious viewpoints than you may initially suppose.

This has its roots in the editorial censure that helped shape science fiction in its so-called ‘Golden Era’ (1930s to 1950s USA ), where powerful magazine editors held immeasurable sway and a few individuals determined that religion and spirituality equated with a lack of progress and the death of civilisation. Religion thus becomes an evolutionary stage that must be weathered before humanity can embark on its eventual path of enlightened scientific rationalism. Reason as one true faith.

A hangover of this attitude persisted long after the counter-culture had altered the socio-political landscape of the US and had its subsequent effect on the memes of the genre. Indeed, Farah Mendlesohn noted in her essay ‘Religion and science fiction’ that it wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that paganism began to properly surface in the genre, being particularly tied to the ecological and feminist movements of its time as a result. Anyone wanting to chase that work down is directed either towards the faintly-sentimental, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ‘The Ruins of Isis’, or the rather more muscular ‘Waking the Moon’ by Elizabeth Hand where “the mother goddess is a demanding and cruel deity.”

Modern sci-fi is allowed to be a lot more nuanced. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is perhaps the towering achievement of hard science fiction of the latter part of the twentieth century. It’s an incredibly complex, detailed, and (mostly) scientifically-sound history of the colonisation of Mars, also throwing a huge amount of pretty radical social and political theory into the mix. It is also, however, at pains to detail its own creation myth of ‘Big Man’ battling Paul Bunyan (himself a North American legend), and tales of the minute native Martians, the ‘Ka’, who can only be seen if they want to be seen. In other words, amidst all the rigorous scientific world-building, KSR acknowledges that the new breed of human-Martians still feel the the need to create myths and legends, establishing their own indigenous beliefs.

The broad-brush treatment

Arguably, much depiction of what we might recognise as Paganism in fantasy suffers from the same broad-brush treatment as magic: a God here, a spirit there, and a priest in every temple. Perhaps there is still something threatening about it to the mainstream. Take the two biggest film franchises of modern times: ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’. In ‘Star Wars’, George Lucas makes the sketchbook mummery of ‘The Force’ central to many of the developments and struggles, releasing it into the wider world to become something of a cultural phenomenon. Meanwhile, the bigscreen ‘Lord of the Rings’ saw an entire section featuring Tom Bombadil and Goldberry excised from the film, director Peter Jackson’s justification being that it did little to advance the plot.

Both humanity and the internet being what they are, conspiracy theories about this omission abound, as do endless debates over exactly who Tom Bombadil is and what he represents (debates that Tolkien himself tended to eschew). But whatever the truth, Jackson missed a chance to add something special to his films. Tolkien himself said that the Green Man-like Bombadil represented the spirit of the Oxford and Berkshire countryside, and later wrote that: “Even in a mythical age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”

And this is perhaps why magic in particular remains such a central component of so much genre fiction: on the one hand, its enigmatic nature is a challenge laid down to a cadre of authors who want to apply scientific rationalism to it in the sandpits of their own imaginations. On the other, it blurs the boundaries between the known and unknown – indeed, such popular pseudoscientific tropes as time travel are essentially nothing else but magic in a different guise. And on the third hand (we are talking science fiction and fantasy here after all) you cannot deny that it’s simply a great way of blowing up castles.

Footnote: Kate Large on The Three Witches

Sir Terry Pratchett’s three witches: Magrat Garlick, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, are not only some of his most popular characters, but have witchy credentials in spades. Reflecting (or parodying?) the Pagan concept of the triple Goddess, his witches stand as the antithesis to the high, ceremonial and above all, male magic of wizards in his Discworld series of books. Pathologically allergic to fuss and ceremony, Pratchett’s witches practice ‘headology’: the fine psychological art of getting people to make the right decisions by themselves, for themselves, with minimum effort and, in Nanny Ogg’s case, the maximum possibility of being rewarded with a free drink.

They are hedgewitches par excellence: able to bring life into the world and escort it out again,  acting as therapists, arbitrators, herbalists, seers and repositories of local history. Their traditions are handed down from elders and witches are powerfully connected to their local geography, be it a context of granite or chalk. Budding witches could do worse than pick up Pratchett’s ‘Wyrd Sisters’, ‘Witches Abroad’, or his recent Wee Free Men series featuring the young witch, Tiffany Aching.