How to Make a Magical Story Not A Materialist One


Magic. A word associated with a sense of wonder, mystery, the impossible, strangeness, and power.

Materialism. A worldview that sees reality as only being about the stuff that we can see, touch, and measure; where everything can be reduced to physical processes.

It would seem that never should the twain meet – but they do, and often in fantasy literature (even more so in comic books, but that’s another discussion).

This tension between magical and materialist impulses has led to some fascinating and varied developments in the realm of imaginative literature – and they aren’t always in opposition. So we’ll be taking a wide-ranging, but not exhaustive, survey approach to draw out our discussion of the topic.

But where to begin this conversation? I propose Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Or its reversal: “Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!” (Yes, the link goes to that comic page from Studio Foglio, yes, I did it.)

Now for an interpretive application to get us going.

Of the Desert and the Stars

Let us take for our examples Dune and Babylon 5 – both stories that I love. Each contains the tokens of mystical realities and each explains those realities to the audience with an implicit appeal to Clarke’s Third Law.

Dune by Frank Herbert
The spice must flow…

Visions? The ability to see all possible futures? A voice that can bend the wills of others? All part of the evolutionary process, arrived at through selective breeding and the cultivation of the psychic gift (just add spice!).

The stories and expectations of a Fremen Messiah? Seeded by missionaries to be taken advantage of at the opportune time. Yes, in the end, the Mahdi is the final fruit of a generational stratagem, a well-organized conspiracy that got out of hand at the last. Let’s be non-canonical to really get at Paul’s pathos:

“‘I’m something unexpected. I am the fulcrum, the giver and the taker. I am the one who can be many places at once. I am the master of FATE!”

Paul Atreides from the 2000 Sci-Fi Series (seriously, I love this cinematic interpretation)

How does one become the Master of FATE? We’re told that’s it all eugenics and better living through chemistry.

Or consider Babylon 5: Soul Hunters? A Minbari soul reborn in a human body? Demons who are Lords of Chaos? Angels who are Lords of Order? Beings that appear in the religious texts and traditions of the galaxy? A life suspended between “tick and tock,” and then not quite resurrected from the dead? And “Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?”

The answer: Aliens.

Very advanced, very evolved, very powerful aliens. Yes, this character is that Messianic figure from the past – because it’s time travel. Yes, we might use language like Falling Toward Apotheosis, but that’s because only mythic language can do justice to the sheer power of what we are witnessing.

Babylon 5
The station at the center of everything.

But when we’ve drunk our fill of enchantment, the wizard is behind the curtain to let us in on the real story. It’s all materialism shrouded in mystical deception.

Or – here’s the pivot – is it actually the other way around? Did Herbert with Dune and Straczynski with Babylon 5 actually set out to tell magical, even mythical stories, but disguised them with materialist explanations?

Who can say for sure? But those two worlds don’t really sound like scientifically probable futures to me…

Reductionism Through Brute Demythologization

And neither does our next subject, found in a Galaxy far, far away. Yet before we speak of Star Wars, we will first establish the concept of demythologization.

Demythologization is the process of stripping away mythical elements or associations to get at the perceived “real” kernel of a narrative. This method treats the mythical elements as the “smoke” shrouding the “fire” of what is “real.” Often applied from a materialist position because, well, who actually expects anyone to believe in supernatural stuff? (Full disclosure: I do.)

And there may be no clearer act of such brute materialist reductionism assaulting a mythic framework in fantasy than the introduction of Midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace. It is the moment that Lucas most blatantly engages in the demythologization of his own work.

Star Wars Prequel Trilogy movie posters
The Phantom Menace, The Attack of the Clones, and The Revenge of the Sith.

The Force, which had been shrouded in the language of magic and religion in the Original Trilogy, is revealed to be something that we can quantifiably measure with the right gadget. That’s right: Is that baby behaving in odd ways? Bring in a Jedi! Thanks to his gadget, we’ll know just how much Force Sensitivity the little tyke is packing.

Oh my, is the reading off the charts? So high that we can only be dealing with The Chosen One? Well, I’m sure glad that we didn’t have to find a more subtle, magical or religious narrative solution to determine the identity of our soon to be Dark Lord of the Sith.

This all sounds like a far cry from such language as Yoda’s:

“Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

Now, to be honest, I’m not a Star Wars Prequel hater, my criticism arises from a deep affection. But Midi-chlorians are the equivalent of an avoidable blunder in chess

Reductionism Through Lack of Faith

My affection for the Sequel Trilogy is of a lesser quality.

Star Wars Sequel Trilogy movie posters
The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker.

Here the progress of reductionism results in flattening and reconfiguring Star Wars into something different – and less distinctively itself.

Yes, there’s plenty of magic in The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker. And in that abundance we find a scattering of bright and compelling moments: Rey’s awakening, Kylo’s spiritual conviction that he has to kill his father to enter his full power, Luke’s sense of the immensity of the darkness in both Kylo and Rey, Luke’s sacrificial act as twin suns set over a world of water, and Han’s redeeming manifestation to Ben being the most poignant.

But any potential harmonization of these bright moments with the mythic framework of Star Wars is undermined by muddled storytelling and lack of precision in execution. If there’s an underlying mythic song to the sequels, it lacks unity and full expression. Yes, there is resonance with the Original Trilogy, but that’s because the Sequels are actively trying to recapitulate and echo the core myth. The question is: Do they understand the deep magic they are trying to echo?

It doesn’t seem so.

There is no attainment to the spiritual depth of the Original Trilogy (indeed not even to that of the Prequels). And much of what is done doesn’t hang upon the mythic framework that Lucas established.

Nowhere can this reconfiguration more clearly be seen than in the Power vs. Power moment between Rey and Palpatine at the end of Rise – as much a materialist conflict as the starships fighting above them.

Here we find Rey and Palpatine both with power meters filled to the brim thanks to the mustered spirits of their respective camps (“I am all the Sith” and “I am all the Jedi”). How shall this epic conflict be resolved? Surely, in a moment so pregnant with mythical significance, the art will rise to a grand vista!

Well, he unleashes his signature lightning technique, she counters with a classic Jedi block maneuver. Power struggles against power, the unstoppable force beating upon the immovable object – until the mortal vessels fail.

That might work for Dragon Ball Z or a Star Wars video game, but it isn’t the mythic heritage of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, or The Return of the Jedi. There is nothing distinctly Star Wars about this conflict other than the aesthetic.

Yes, you can argue that the Prequels are full of Power vs. Power – but that is Lucas’ genius. The Jedi embrace the Clone War and are ruined by it. Pragmatism and a sense of having no other options – not faith in the Jedi Way – drives their decision to become embroiled in a galaxy spanning conflict. (See especially the Rebels episode Shroud of Darkness, season 2 episode 18, when Yoda speaks with Ezra Bridger for canonical support of this argument.)

By the time we reach those last lightsaber duels in Revenge of the Sith, the Dark Side has already prevailed in the spiritual plane. It triumphed the moment that Mace Windu abandoned the tenants of his faith for the pragmatic solution of attempting to execute Palpatine on the spot.

The Sequel Trilogy has no such apparent reasoning behind its artistic choices.

More Myth Than Matter

But to demythologize there must first be a myth to work upon. Let us pivot into a mode of recovery with an examination of the mythic heritage of the Original Star Wars Trilogy.

Star Wars Original Trilogy movie posters
A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi

Here the trappings of spaceships, blasters, droids, planet killing super weapons – even the lightsaber duels and telekinetic shenanigans – are but mere attendants to the real story as summed up so poignantly by Lord Vader in A New Hope:

“The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

This point is driven home emphatically when a young Luke lets go of his targeting computer and relies on the Force to destroy the first Death Star. All done by fledgling faith in the governing spiritual reality of his world. This is magic. Real magic.

This is also the governing metaphysic that presides over the whole of Episode 4-6. We could draw out the threads that run through each movie, which would be an extensive task, but let us content ourselves for now with a close(ish) reading of a pivotal scene in Episode 5.

In Empire the climatic moment that exalts myth over matter enters with Vader’s words: “If you only knew the power of the Dark Side” (hint: he’s not referring to lightning bolts or force choking – it’s what he says next).

“Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”

So much happens here: Vader attacks both Luke’s trust in his first mentor (and thus his first connection with the Force) and his identity as the son of a hero supposedly killed by the very man now tempting him. He also offers Luke deliverance out of this present hopeless predicament with a solution that spares him suffering and leads to a prophesied conquest of the galaxy at his father’s side (echoes of the Temptation of Christ, eh?).

But all of this is actually an attack on Luke’s underdeveloped faith. This is the Power of the Dark Side. This is the Power that could forever dominate a young man’s destiny. This is real magic. Dark sorcery.

And when Luke denies that Vader is his father? Vader presses his attack, “Search your feelings, you know it to be true.” He uses Luke’s understanding of a Jedi spiritual paradigm, turning it against him to drive the temptation home – a spiritual appeal to his most inner self.

But after Luke’s cry of grief, as Vader drones on about the conquest that could be theirs (Vader’s dream, not Luke’s), Luke’s facial expression changes. What is he thinking? What changes? We don’t know, though perhaps we should recall Yoda’s words as Luke left Dagobah:

“Strong is Vader. Mind what you have learned. Save you it can.”

And what is Luke’s leap into the abyss but an act of faith in what he has learned?

These are magical stories – indeed, they are mythic, the most elevated kind of magic. And here we find a model for telling such wondrous stories ourselves: A robust mythical framework with its own distinct economy of belief and action that refuses to be reduced to mere Power vs. Power transactions.

The next entry is likewise an example of how to make a truly distinct magical world.

The Perilous Realm and Its Heirs

Susana Clarke, in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, thoroughly (thankfully!) avoids the tendency toward materialism in her work. Instead, she is able to create and sustain a sense of wonder and magical wildness that recalls such fairy tales as George MacDonald’s Phantastes or Lilith, yet also attains to the epic register of Tolkien.

She is a true heir to the Perilous Realm.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Two English Magicians.

Here magic is not reduced to super science or explained away through eugenics, it remains otherly, perilous, strange. Thus, as Tolkien put it, she is able to sustain an “arresting strangeness” (fitting, if you think about it…). Like in the Harry Potter series, there seems to be a spell for just about everything, but there is a greater sense of weirdness, a more thorough taste of the bizarre.

Yes, in JS & MN we have spells that work, and spells that don’t, and spells that come to life again – all copiously commented upon in the scholarly footnotes.

(A short excursus here on the footnotes: I mentioned earlier how Herbert and Straczynski disguise their mythopoeia with the trappings of materialism. Clarke successfully does something very similar here with her materialistically flavored textual apparatus. But back to the magic.)

Here is enchantment and curse, prophecy and augury, illusion and weather control, the moving of roads and the burying of enemies with rocks, travel by mirrors and spell labyrinths in a house, pacts, invocations, and willful madness to learn what can’t be learned in sanity’s safety.

This is the art of perilous faerie (yes, I am deliberately using different spellings of “fairy” as I go). This is the sort of magic you will find in such works as Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, where a young girl and her parents are ensnared when they stumble beyond these, the fields we know.

But why is it so perilous? Is it just power? No. Human ignorance. That is the real peril.

You see, humanity’s unawareness of the rules of the Perilous Realm is what usually leads to the most suffering. By analogy: Gravity doesn’t care if you don’t know what it is, nor is it concerned with your belief in it: It will lay hold of you when the opportune moment arises.

And Faery is much more fearsome than Gravity.

(I have only hinted at the plot of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell because I really don’t want to spoil the story for you if you haven’t read it. Still I will share a little later on.)

But what of the atmosphere? The tone? There is a prevailing lack of fairness, indeed there is plenty of ruthless cruelty and injustice – much of it unnoticed by those who might be able to help. Humans find themselves victims without apparent recourse at the hands of powers beyond their understanding.

A theme that finds darker resonance with Lovecraftian horror.

Of Cosmic Horrors

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

The Call of Cthulhu

The genre of cosmic horror is a fascinating intersection of ancient alien mythological aesthetic, modern setting (early 20th century seems ideal to me though such stories can be told anywhere), and a sense of doom. Let’s take this opening paragraph of Lovecraft’s classic short story and pull some threads out:

We are, most mercifully, on an isle of ignorance, surrounded by black seas of infinity. But if we seek long enough and hard enough for understanding, we might be driven to madness or to burn all of our knowledge and the civilization that contains it.

All to escape what we’ve learned.

The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Leslie S. Klinger
“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

This movement of searching too far isn’t so different in contours from Tolkien’s Dwarves delving too deeply in Moria and awakening the Balrog. But that is where the similarities end. In a truly Lovecraftian tale, there is no hope of slaying the horror that you discover after piercing the veil. It is likely that no one will believe you when you try to explain what you’ve discovered – if your words are even intelligible. Indeed, you are likely to be locked up in an asylum if you survive.

And there is no going back.

Unlike the nervous breakdown of Jonathan Harker in Dracula or, even more interestingly, the enchantment of Lady Pole in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. (Oh let’s talk a little about that: During what the other characters perceive as Pole’s nervous breakdown, she can only speak in gibberish concerning her condition – though there might be hope, if only the truth can be discovered…)

In the Lovecraftian story, no one is coming to save you.

A Mythos Reimagined

Yet, you’ll find the aesthetic and forms of the Cthulu Mythos in other configurations. (The Mythos is not a term created by Lovecraft. Perhaps the “Arkham Cycle” would be the terminology closest to his intent.)

For instance, the comic book world of Hellboy, some of Robert E. Howard’s fantasy adventure stories (though see his “The Black Stone for some strong writing in the mode of the mythos), and even the MMORPG World of Warcraft all repurpose the imagery of the mythos for their own storytelling approaches.

Out of the three examples given, Howard’s fantasy adventures come closest to the spirit of Lovecraft, especially in such works as “The Queen of the Black Coast” where the cosmic doom can only be overcome at great cost (one of the greatest costs that Conan will ever suffer). Or his fabulous Bran Mak Morn story “Worms of the Earth.” Still, these are instances where the monsters go bump in the night and the heroes bump back.

Not quite pure cosmic horror.

So perhaps we could even call such efforts materialist reductions, as they hollow out the spiritual and mythic core of the cosmos they draw inspiration from. Though in Howard’s case I think we instead see the insertion of his heroic vision rather than a materialist reduction.

Still, to retain the purist magic of cosmic horror, you need not only the aesthetic but also the tone and outcome – despair that ends in doom. And why shouldn’t it? Lovecraft’s world is meaningless, the universe uncaring, and if there are cosmic powers out there, then you and I are but insects to them. Best not to draw attention to ourselves.

Summing Up the Threads of Matter and Magic

Well, Dear Reader, thus far the three main categories we’ve looked at include:

  • Magic behind a materialist mask
  • Magic with deep roots of myth being subjected to materialist reduction
  • Magic free of materialist influence (either through an abundance of faerie or cosmic horror).

As I intimated at the beginning of the essay, there’s more to talk about, but let’s pause our survey for now.

Turning our analysis briefly to creative approaches, we discover that our readings have actually produced a number of viable models for creating truly magical stories, while also teaching us how we might navigate the temptations of pernicious materialist impulses:

We can use materialist explanations to disguise our impossible magic and mythic structures as in Dune or Babylon 5. We can weave a mythic framework with its own spiritual economy (trust in the Force vs. fall to the Dark Side), which can yield us deeper magic than merely flashy combat techniques. We can acknowledge the existence of the Perilous Realm of Faerie – and all the strange denizens therein. And we can create a world where inhuman powers go bump in the night – whether anyone can bump back is up to you.

For the storyteller looking to write truly magical works, these are some of the well-worn paths that one can walk. Some have been long neglected through ignorance or lack of faith, yet they have lost none of their potency.

The deep magic yet abides.

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By Bryan E Rye

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