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Canon discussion / Essays

Ancient Magic: Magic from Before the Dawn of Time?


A comparison is inevitable between the Old Magic of the Harry Potter universe and the Magic From Before the Dawn of Time from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books. Clearly there are similarities between the two, although they are not identical.

Both the Harry Potter and the Narnia versions serve as a stronger, more intrinsic form of magic than the common everyday variety which is cast as spells from books or by wands. This ancient kind of magic is, in a sense, built into the very fabric of reality. It manifests itself from the true, heart-felt actions of people and cannot be manipulated to ends other than those to which it is intended. Lily sacrifices herself for her son and the result is a protection stronger than the curse of death itself. This is almost a Christ image, but almost certainly Rowling did not intend it specifically as such, since she is not writing an allegory.

Lewis is writing an allegory, however, which means that his brand of Old Magic certainly does stand for something else in his Christian world view. He tells of a reality where there is a clear Other Place and Time, representing the realm of God, and it is from this source that his most powerful magic comes. Aslan sacrifices himself as payment for Edmund’s treachery and as a result Aslan is reborn stronger than ever. This is clearly a Christ image and the magic which makes it possible just as certainly is God’s power. With Lewis, this connection is intentional.

In Rowling’s fictional reality, there is no Other Place and Time. Magic is not a mystical, channeled power from some occult or supernatural source. It’s completely, utterly mundane in the truest sense of that word. It is just as simple and common and even boring as the wheel and the inclined plane and electric circuits are to us. Even the Old Magic, while impressive and powerful, is no more than simply magical technology at its strongest and most advanced. And this difference between Narnia and the world of Harry Potter is critical to any comparison between the two series.

In each, magic is used by both good and evil characters. In each there are spells and potions and wands and spell books, all the trappings of classic fairy tale magic. Both series portray magic as inherently neutral and show that people make the choice of how magic will be used. It is in both books the responsibility of the person casting the spell to make sure that the motives are good. And magic in both series can be used for terrible, terrible evil. But in the Narnia books, magic is a manifestation of supernatural power. The ancient magic, then, is an allegory for the God revealing himself and his intentions through his creation, which is sometimes referred to as “general revelation.” Aslan can be resurrected because the plan of salvation is written into the very fabric of Creation.

In the Harry Potter universe, magic has no supernatural source. The old magic, then, is not some kind of connection to or image of an inherent personality in that universe, it is just an integral, unavoidable part of the fabric of reality. But it does reflect the inherent morality of that world, an inherent assumption of what’s right and what’s wrong. There is power, in the Harry Potter universe, in doing the right thing. There is power in self-sacrifice. There is power in the ties of family. There is even power in death–no magic spell can raise the dead, after all–and it is against all of these powerful things which Voldemort battles. The Dark Lord’s concept of ultimate power is to break the rules of the universe. He seeks immortality itself. What he fails to realize is that ultimate power only comes from allowing the built-in power of the universe to flow unimpeded. In every way, Harrydoes this, from his family ties to his self-sacrificial actions. Harry even cheated death, but not through grotesque manipulations or twisted Dark Magic, but by means of the very powers Voldemort fights against. Harry was saved by love.

Ancient magic in the Harry Potter universe is not Magic from Before the Dawn of Time. But both reflect the basic goodness and morality of the worlds in which they appear.


Tags: C.S. Lewis literary criticism love magical theory morality