Why Old Magic was Innocent, According to C.S. Lewis

As I’ve mentioned, That Hideous Strength dealt with a number of things, and there is one of them I’d like to explore more in depth, as it is a topic that interests me a lot and is relevant to the general enjoyment of literature and other of my favorite works such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Arthurian tales such as The Once and Future King by T.H. White and the more recent Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which I hope to begin soon.

Through the character of Arthur Dimble, a professor of ancient languages and mythology, C.S. Lewis speculates on the role and place of magic in ancient times as contrasted with its place today. Here is an abbreviated version of the discussion on the subject between Dimble and his wife:

“Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time….[For a man like Merlin] there were still possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions. And there were–well, Neutrals [spirits] knocking about…A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him. But there might be things neutral in relation us [humans]….There used to be things on this Earth pursuing their own business, so to speak.”

“I think there was room for them then, but the universe has come more to a point.”

“In Merlin’s time…though you could still use that sort of life in the universe innocently, you couldn’t do it safely. The things weren’t bad in themselves, but they were already bad for us….Like polygamy. It wasn’t wrong for Abraham, but one can’t help feeling that even he lost something by it.”

“Merlin…is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead–a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases.”

(from That Hideous Strength, p. 284-285)

Lewis, who like Dimble, was an expert in languages and in English literature especially would have encountered this issue theologically and in explaining the value of the myths from various cultures that engrossed him so much.

His answer regarding the status of pre-Christian or early post-Christian magic is that the world was a bit different back then, when distinctions about power and agency were perhaps less clear. It was a time, he says, when angels or other spirits may not have had a position towards humans and when the spiritual, even animal, realities of nature could be tapped into innocently, though he adds not safely.

The earth as previously more spiritual and animalian in pre-modern times reminds me of defenses of magic in Lord of the Rings and similar stories, which is that it is a different world where magic is inherent to it, just as technology is inherent to ours. In these cases, using magic is just as natural and permissible as using a computer or a toaster. Of course, technology like other-worldly magic would have limits. You can use a toaster to toast bread, but not to burn someone. Writing emails to friends is a permissible use of a computer, but hacking bank accounts or watching pornography is not.

That’s not to say that consulting with spirits is always so innocuous; it really isn’t. There is one source of goodness and good spirits, and we know where to head to find it. But in other worlds, or even as Lewis suggests an earlier version of this one, the supernatural and spiritual were much more infused with the physical could be tapped into.

What do you think of Lewis’s explanation of old magic? Do you think I have his position right? Do you think this idea applies to stories like Harry Potter–why or why not?




2 thoughts on “Why Old Magic was Innocent, According to C.S. Lewis

  1. Stephanie, your explanation of the role of magic in old civilizations reminds me of how the Connecticut Yankee who found himself in King Arthur’s court used magic. Once he recognizes the power that Merlin exerts through magic, “Sir Boss” uses his 19th century know-how as superior magic to survive and then thrive. He puts his “magic” to use in the service of others unlike Merlin who performs his magic to gain favor with King Arthur.
    Thanks for your enlightening discussion of C.S.
    Lewis and old magic!

    • Hi David! Thanks for commenting! Is that the Mark Twain book? That does sound like a parallel line of thought. Maybe I should.give that a look. I do really like Arthur stories

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