Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Incantational and Invocational.. The magic of problematic distinctions: A side note in the Harry Potter Book Club

There are many points of view toward the problem of Christians embracing the magical world of Harry Potter. In her introductory post, Jenna mentions the debate and cites an argument in the books’ defense: John Granger’s distinction between incantational and invocational magic. It’s a popular argument for Christian fans of the seriesl; in it, he defines invocational magic as sorcery, the “calling in [of] demonic principalities and powers for personal power”; and incantational magic as essentially the chanting of spells. Again and again in his Looking for God in Harry Potter, Granger emphasizes that invocational magic is forbidden by Scripture, but just as often, directly implies that incantational magic is not. I’m disturbed by the distinction. I think we’ll be having a few conversations throughout the reading on various interesting elements of J.K. Rowling’s concept of magic - and I don’t want in any way to close off the continuation of this discussion at later points, but I’d like to bring it up for first thoughts here, just over the threshold of Hogwarts, as Harry beings his education in incantational magic.

It’s true that Rowling’s magic calls down no demons, implores no gods, and request no aid from “principalities and powers”- good or evil. In that sense her wizards are entirely what C.S. Lewis calls ‘materialist magicians’ - concentrating powers entirely apart from a spiritual relationship. But magic doesn’t require an invocation to be forbidden - the majority of divination is devoid of invocations, as are some of the more frightening spells, and even well-meaning forms of magic are forbidden to us - and not only because of the spiritual dangers inherent to invocational magic. Magic is dangerous to the soul of man because it sets him up as a god, it teaches him to take control, to put his trust in his own power and not in Christ, and magic - whether it calls down ‘demonic principalities and powers’ or relies totally on the will of the practitioner - as Rowling’s magic does - gives the magician an inappropriate and dangerous level of influence over his fellow men and his world. John Granger’s distinction, though, implies that a teenager picking up a book of spells at The Gnu’s Room (I’m sure they have a magic section, everyone does!) is well within the dictates of her Catholic faith in choosing ‘to sing along with’ these spells, because, like the majority of spell-books on the market, they don’t ‘invoke’ anything so much as they attempt to channel power -just as Harry and his friends do.
Granger then goes on to liken Rowling’s magic to that of Lewis and Tolkien. There are similarities, for certain, but he chooses a strange example in Caspian’s invocation of aid (it’s a musical invocation, which is Granger’s link to his approved incantational magic - but it’s hard to avoid the obvious call to help from beyond), he does not mention King Tirian’s more straightforward invocation of the children in The Last Battle, nor the abundance of invocations of Elbereth in Tolkien’s books. Magic is not something easily divided - incantations often invoke, invocations often implore, and God-magic can include both - as the Liturgy does, as Tirian’s call or Frodo’s “A Elbereth Gilthoniel” do; as forbidden magic does (and all magic apart from God is forbidden, be it chanting spells or calling up ghosts).

The impression I get is that Granger is searching for a loophole because he likes the books, and because they raise him up as they do Jenna - toward God-magic and mystery - so he uses these distinctions to clear his mind of uncertainty and defend the books against those who are uncomfortable with the magic used. But that’s not how magic works. It doesn’t fall neatly into categories: forbidden invocations and approved incantations. There is only the holy magic of the Church and magic proper - which is forbidden in all forms, at all times, and in all aspects.

Does that mean the Harry Potter books are completely off-limits to Christians? I’m reading them now, so obviously I don’t think so, and this post is less about the aspects of Rowling’s magic that should disturb her readers (we’re avoiding spoilers!) than it is about distinctions within the discussion of magic itself. What do you think of the distinction between invocational and Incantational magic in the defense of the series?


  1. Masha's point in this post is so well made, that it is making me realize just what's at stake in this discussion--the nature of Faerie itself--which is why I'm chiming in in agreement, and also to explain what I mean.

    FWIW, I have been a fan of John Granger's early HP work for years. I haven't had the time to delve into his post-DH stuff on the series, so Looking for God in Harry Potter is the main work I am familiar with. And it was very influential for me when I read it years ago, especially since his Orthodox faith is unassumedly woven into his critical take on the story, which, as an Orthodox Christian myself, meant a lot to me.

    That being said, I think Masha makes an incredibly astute point: "There is only the holy magic of the Church and magic proper - which is forbidden in all forms, at all times, and in all aspects."

    I am a believer in magic, though it doesn't go by that word in the communities I am a part of: instead we understand it simply as God's power. I also know to be true and real demonic powers--they scare the heck out of me to be honest, and I cling very strongly and deeply to my faith in Christ in order to steer clear of them and their influence.

    All of this being said, I *also* know that the magic of the land of Faerie, which includes the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (not the amusement park ;) but the setting of our tale), is true in the ways that Lewis describes way better than I ever could. (No time to grab quotes and citations--my apologies, but hopefully most reading this know which Lewis ideas I refer to here.)

    For me, these two "kinds" of magic--the real kind, that originates from God or is wielded by demonic powers, and the magic of Faerie--can and do happily co-exist. Because of this, the invocational/incantational distinction is not where the stakes lie here, but instead in the simple question: does the magic of Faerie undo or threaten the very *real* magic we have access to in this life, in this world, through God and his Church? My very confident and sure answer to this is: No, absolutely not. And in fact, the former can offer glimpses to the latter, for those who have yet to "see" and understand God's magic for what it is--another theme Lewis has developed in his essays and then modeled in his stories.

    If the answer to that question were "Yes", it would mean God's power is not as strong as we know it to be, as Christian believers. Which is a terribly scary prospect indeed.

    What this all means is, I can enter into the story of HP, whose plot relies on the magic of Faerie, without any worry of the magic holding power over me and mine, because as Masha said so well, the magic of God and his Church are where I know true power in this world of ours to lie.

    1. Hey! Don't steal my follow up posts!!! :p

      I LOVE your response here!! My primary focus in this post is obviously to clarify that John Granger's distinction between 'acceptable' Incantational magic and 'forbidden' Invocational magic is flawed and dangerous in it's attitude and potential consequences..The magic of Otherworlds and if/how/why Harry Potter might belong to those worlds was just simmering around in my background thoughts for later..but you make them move so delightfully forward in my thoughts!

      "For me, these two "kinds" of magic--the real kind, that originates from God or is wielded by demonic powers, and the magic of Faerie--can and do happily co-exist." (!!!!)

      Exactly! Yes. They do, and they must really, because - well, because I want them too..and because why wouldn't they..Is Harry Potter a part of that?? I'm still hovering on the fence with that..I think this book club will push me over into one camp or the other. And I'm hoping in these sort of 'side' conversations on magic and it's meaning within the series to explore what makes us see Harry's world as Faerie and what holds me back from seeing it as fully so. Does that make sense..but before I do, I had to get past the incantation vs invocation troubles..because this:

      "I am a believer in magic, though it doesn't go by that word in the communities I am a part of: instead we understand it simply as God's power. I also know to be true and real demonic powers--they scare the heck out of me to be honest, and I cling very strongly and deeply to my faith in Christ in order to steer clear of them and their influence."

      is me as well, and because I worry about the little girl I was wandering through bookstores comforted by thoughts that she CAN be both a Christian and a witch, pulling books down and thinking.."Oh, it's just a little spell, not invoking anyone, just chanting a bit"..and being lost to it. The influence of magic (of God's and of the other) is never far from my mind or my haunts me. But you'r right the magic of Faery doesn't threaten or undo God's magic, and it does give glimpses of redemption - and once we're past the distinctions that distract me, I hope to read more and more of your thoughts on Harry Potter's world as Faerie, because I LOVE the way you see it!

    2. Donna, you ROCK!!

      Masha, this is a great post. I loved it, and I loved Donna's response. I want to reply more, and reply to your House entry, but I have NO BRAINS tonight. I will be back.

  2. I think you both have very good points, but I didn't quite take Granger's statements the same way (granted it has been a while since I read it) - to me it was more:

    hey look, Voldemort is like evil incarnate and even he doesn't invoke evil spirits and that incantational magic on the other hand (which I would argue only exists in fantasy - I mean we all know this doesn't work in the real world - if there is "magic" that is not from God in the real world (and God's "magic" doesn't happen on the basis of anything we do! I hate using the word magic for God's supernatural power though!), then it is demons and such doing it if it actually works, right?) so incantational magic is ok in fiction (where we wouldn't want invocational magic even in fiction!) because incantational magic symbolizes God speaking the world into existence (and by the way, you people who think Harry Potter is wrong often don't see Tolkien and Lewis the same way, and it's also incantational magic).

    I guess I saw it as more of a defense and not trying to be quite as specific as you're saying - I certainly don't think Granger is intending that it would be safe for anyone to get involved with magic in real life as long as it was "incantational" and not invocational (but again, I don't think there is necessarily such a thing as incantational magic in reality - only in fantasy fiction)

    1. That middle part is my very casual paraphrase - the "yous" are obviously no one here (and my iPad is acting up thus the anonymous comments and having to add on here because suddenly I couldn't change the other post before posting) - Ally

    2. Thanks Ally! I think your right that there does tend to be a bit of a double standard regarding the magic in Harry Potter and the magic in Tolkien and Lewis..I think there are some defensible reasons for this, but it's not entirely defensible (especially because I don't think a lot of the people who make the distinction base it on much more than "..but I really LOVE Narnia" ;) I would say again, though, that both Tolkien and Lewis contain what would be called "invocational" magic in abundance.

      I think your completely right that Granger would probably be horrified if an eleven-year-old me (because an eleven-year-old me was always looking for excuses like this) took his words and ran with them, straight into practicing magic. But I think that the discussion needs to be had so that he and others like him - who perhaps get too careless with their words in the frustration of trying to explain Why exactly the books aren't evil - can see how someone attracted by the occult can take those words. And, just to clarify:

      ".. that incantational magic on the other hand (which I would argue only exists in fantasy - I mean we all know this doesn't work in the real world."

      Is not right. Most practical magic is technically 'incantation', it can work very well - if you're careful and focused..and even if it fails miserably for you, the attempt is still deeply wrong. That's not saying that Rowling's brand of spells is in anyway 'a step into witchcraft' or that the series is 'a guidebook for real-world witches' the effects of real, incantational magic are different, but very real.

  3. OK, slightly more awake this morning... Ally's got a point in that Granger probably didn't mean things as hardlined as they sound. But that's actually my big difficulty with his work overall; he makes great cases, but then he sometimes over-states them and defends them beyond reason. Not to slam the guy too much... I think of him as one of my literary professors, learned huge amounts about understanding fiction from him, and would still recommend Unlocking Harry Potter without hesitation to just about anyone.

    Looking for God in Harry Potter was thoroughly helpful--perhaps even necessary--to me in beginning to understand and defend my readership of the Potter books, but even when I read it, the incantational vs. invocational distinction seemed a touch facetious. I hadn't thought about Caspian's invocation, or the invocations of Elbereth; in Caspian's case, his invocation of good powers is sharply contrasted with Nikabrik's invocation of evil powers. But that doesn't negate the point. It's trying to gain undue power over nature, the future, and other humans that's wrong, trying to control our lives and others' rather than submit them to God. Not merely the direct summoning of enemy spirits.

    But I think Rowling went out of her way to make the superficial use of magic in her books obviously Faerie and obviously not demonism. I just think it has more to do with the spirit of the thing, pun not intended... magic is scientifically hereditary, it's an often comic take on fairy tale witches and wizards, it's set amid very clear distinctions between good and evil--distinctions that are drawn more or less along Christian lines.

    But Donna already said most of that for me, and much more fluently. :D

    This is really a great post, Masha. I'm not sure I'd have had the courage or knowledge to develop the idea (I've had enough fights over whether it's OK to read HP...) but I do think it needed to be said.

    1. Jenna ~

      I can totally see how Granger's book would be helpful in your situation..I'm trying think of a time when I've ever had to 'defend' my readership of anything, and I can't really..I think, at least from Looking for God in Harry Potter, that he's not defending the books so much as 'preaching to the choir' in that I don't see his arguments holding much weight outside of a audience that *wants* them to hold weight..(That's not meant to be harsh at all, but it sounds harsh..I'd edit, but I don't really know another way of saying it) I his defense, I think that uber-common in a lot of books 'defending' maligned authors - we get caught up in the things we love and see clear conclusions that aren't really clear or conclusive. I would like to read something less enthusiastic and more thoughtful by him - maybe Unlocking Harry Potter. (I hope this doesn't sound dismissive, it's not. I know I have the same trouble with my beloved writers..)

      I do think you're right that Rowling goes out of her way to cut her magic off from any link to demonism. There really is nothing like the classic Faust or even the magic of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I would call way more problematic from an 'attraction of the occult' perspective, much as I LOVE that book.

      Again, I think that coming at it from the perspective of HAVING to defend reading the books puts you, John Granger, and anyone else in that position at the unfortunate disadvantage of not being able to say in most discussions that "such and such is problematic" but "this and that are good" and overall I am affected for the better..Can I just say that's one of the reasons I really resent the over-censorship of books. LOTS of books have problematic elements: I love Lolita, but I can't pretend there aren't aspects of the books that might be harmful to some people. That doesn't make it Bad, and I shouldn't have to justify every aspect of it to make my love of the book acceptable! And you shouldn't have to spend half your life explaining why ready Harry Potter doesn't make you a bad Christian...The point being, I think these conversations would be more easier without censorship in the Christian community..[Rant over] Let me know if this whole comment came across in a good way..I have a tendency to sound mean and judgmental sometimes, you know ;)

    2. I find this comment helpful in understanding what you were trying to get at in your main post, Masha. Especially your third paragraph. And I tend to agree with you in a lot of it.

      This tendency towards censorship & questioning of reading choices doesn't confine itself to the Christian community, but it certainly has a big presence there. And it goes way beyond a healthy & helpful observance about someone's reading choices to a judgmental, inflexible assertion that if you read so & so, then you are NOT a Christian.

      Because, to be sure, there are some things Christians should not be reading. But there are many others that fall into the realm of Christian liberty. Everything after all has to be read with discernment. But a lot of people prefer to simply decree certain things off limits & not just to themselves but to others.

      And of course our Christian liberty isn't to be a license for sin nor is it to be exercised to the detriment of our Christian brother's conscience.

      To make a long comment a little bit longer, it's not simply a matter of hard & fast rules on what to read & not to read. Situations do differ & good Christian judgment, discernment, & concern must be exercised.

      But that's too hard & too scary for some people. We can perhaps call this the Vernon Dursley effect.

    3. I don't think your comment was mean, Masha! :) I think it's great; I just didn't discover it till today... here I thought I was caught up on the discussion...

      I resent the way censorship is handled in the Christian community, too. I resent the fixation on perceived evil results from someone's reading a book, and the complete disregard of all good testimony about it. George is right about the decreeing of various things as off limits, and while I admit to not knowing what I've been spared by coming from an evangelical community full of decrees, I tend to think those hard walls around art cripple readers, that that thought pattern still hinders me. I don't know what Christians should not be reading. I avoid certain things on principle--mostly erotica and anything that sounds overtly blasphemous, but I'm iffy on big graphic violence, too--but I wish I was less hesitant about merely reading honest work by authors whose perspective I strongly disagree with. Maybe it's a good thing I am! I'm terribly persuadable. But it's not one of my favorite instincts.

      Unlocking Harry Potter is my favorite Granger book, and I think it's the one with the most consistently good thought in it. (Going off memory from several years back, here.) All his stuff is a bit enthusiastic, and he has no fear of making a stretch for an opinion and then defending it till the cows come home and then some... comes from some of the lively debate experience in his past, I think. :) But there's some solid work in there, and I believe his explanation of alchemy might be clearer than that in Looking for God in Harry Potter. :)

    4. Exactly.. I think, with some exceptions, the decision about what books Christians should be reading should be an individual one. I know some Christians for whom Harry Potter might be problematic ( in VARIOUS ways..for example, it doesn't nurture my too obvious tendency toward the occult, but sometimes it does feed the snob within ;p ) and that could go for pretty much any book - I had to give up Tolkien for a while because I felt I was becoming too absorbed and too far outside of reality; and poor St. Jerome had to give up Cicero (CICERO! the patron saint of dullness!) after a dream Christ condemned him of judging biblical language against Cicero and preferring the latter..We're individuals, and so are our temptations, they can't be too generalized.

      And, while I'm ranting, if we're going to critique a book, we need to read it. I remember this trend about Harry Potter and other problematic books. There's a tendency to make broad assumptions but never actually read! And I can understand in the case of someone who gets no further than the back-flap or first chapter and realizes.."Oh, I thought Fifty Shades of Grey was a paint book, and now I know better" but in books where themes rather than the whole raison d'etre is problematic, I do think that proper criticism can only come from reading..

      Anyway, George, I LOVED your comment and the reminder that Christian liberty is something to take seriously, not to hide from or hide in. And Jenna, I think I've been spared a lot too - though more from snobbery than from solid Christan principals. I'm realizing more and more that unless there is an appropriate tone and deeper theme, I can't do violence eihter - Hunger Games repelled me completely - but EXACTLY! in the whole concept of knowing you're weaknesses and strengths - I think you're a better candidate for reading books like Harry than I am (though I've definitely benefited from your perspective) because I think you have a tendency to see thing in the light of Christ - transfigured - whereas I tend to see things in comparison with Christ - flawed..

      I'm totally hunting down Unlocking Harry Potter! and btw..HOW do you insert italics and bold into comments??? :)

    5. Regarding italics & bold in comments, it's perhaps easier not to do it in an actual comment. I don't know who controls the Facebook profile, you or your husband, but I'll send you a message there which will hopefully show how it's done.

  4. Lots of thoughts. Thank you for the info, Masha! I see the blurring of lines between invocational and incantational magic. We use invocational magic all the time, don't we: "Saints preserve us!" "Lord, have mercy!" "Santa Philomena, ora pro nobis!" "Mother in heaven, help me!" And often it's incantational as well.

    I sort of understood the world of Harry Potter to be an alternate world in which magic is part of the natural order. And that makes sense with Rowling's explanation of it being a genetic trait.

    I don't know if I can get behind it being the magic of Faerie. These are only my half-formed ideas, but I _think_ I believe in the magic of Faerie, and that it's not necessarily separate from God-magic. In tLotR, there is a part where Galadriel explains to Sam that what he sees as elf-magic is not magic to them. What I understand that to mean is that the abilities to influence the natural order is still present in the elves, much as it would have been present in humanity before the fall. Before we broke ourselves from God's grace and thus perfect harmony with the universe, we had perfect mastery over the animals. I don't see why that wouldn't affect the elements as well. And so the saints defy the laws of nature because they don't experience this separation from grace.

    I think I need to think more on this and possibly post a follow-up on Everything to Someone.

    1. Exactly on the blurring lines!

      And I'm with you in the uncertainty about part because the magic is so materialist..But I don't feel certain either way, Jenna and Donna make some good points, and I suppose the fact that Harry Potter's world is sort of spiritually empty is a potential argument in favor of faerie magic, because faerie isn't exactly *connected* in a sense - to heaven or hell, angels or demons, it's faerie, and it's magic is it's own, much as Harry's world is it's own Otherworld, like ours, but only partially..Do you know what I'm going for?

      BTW: Has anyone here read "Kith of the Elf-folk" by Lord Dunsany (?)..It seems relevant to the whole discussion of magic and faerie. I don't know if it actually is.

      I totally want to read your follow up!!! I could talk about this forever!

    2. Thank you Christie, your response has been food for thought for me these past few days. Your idea about magic pre-Fall has led me to a very compelling thought: that what humanity has imagined up as the world of Faerie (magic included)--and I do view this world as one that has been born from our collective imagination, but to paraphrase Dumbledore in Book 7 (don't worry, not a spoiler just a flash of his characteristic brilliance), just because it originates from our imagination does not mean it is not real... Where was I? Oh yes, that what humanity has imagined up as the world of Faerie is in fact a distant, deeply imprinted memory of Eden, and that Faerie magic hearkens to what we were originally created to be--"magical" beings (where "magic" refers to what you so rightly described: "Before we broke ourselves from God's grace and thus perfect harmony with the universe, we had perfect mastery over the animals. I don't see why that wouldn't affect the elements as well.")

      And thus it follows somewhat ironically and utterly amazingly...I'll parse this out in reference to the little girl who simultaneously wishes to be a good Christian but also feels drawn by the magic of Faerie...I *was* this girl...memories of believing deeply I was part leprechaun come back to me here... To that little girl:

      To receive a taste of the magic of Faerie, and perhaps participate in it like your favorite magical creatures of imagination do...draw closer to God. He's the ultimate source of that magic.

      The "real world" correlation of this advice? Become a saint, or try to--live your life as the saints do. This is the only "bridge" between our fallen world, and manifesting the world of Faerie here in it.

      I think I'm spinning a theology of Faerie here, Lord help me... :) These are half-formed thoughts, and while I have a fair amount of "expertise" in theology (in terms of immersing myself in it both academically and personally), I only have a childlike love for Faerie, which means I have a less critical (nuanced) understanding of the latter as I do of the former. Which is to say--to my friends here who know a lot more of Faerie than I do, be kind as you consider my comment here, containing half-formed thoughts at best.

      Regardless, I LOVE this stuff :) Thank you for the opportunity to discuss it (and geek out about it) with kindred spirits :)

    3. I would agree mostly that the magic of Harry Potter is more materialist, in the sense there's not really a supernatural aspect to it. It's more innate & technological in a way.

      However, and how can I say this without spoilers? Well, I'm not sure I can. I'll just wait till Christie finishes Philosopher's Stone.

  5. Wow, Donna. That was Amazing..I like the theology of faerie!!! I think you're dead on in so many ways in your impressions and direction..I want to just sit with your thoughts for a while and let them guide me, because I'm always half desiring the not-so-saintly road to mystery, and I need reminders that our True connection to magic is in Christ and through Christ..and I feel so completely absorbed in your advice to "become a saint..This is the only 'bridge' between our fallen world, and manifesting the world of Faerie here in it"..It's such a beautiful image!