The Battle of Science and Magic – Part One: Particles and Pixie Dust
For a long time we have separated magic and science, drawing a line between fantasy and science fiction, associating magic with the past – usually a pre-industrial society – and seeing certain man-made inventions as the bane of magic, portraying science as the destroyer of dreams.
This position is understandable. If magic represents the unknown, the spiritual and the numinous, then science represents the destruction of the unknown by explaining it in rational terms. Science destroys myth and magic because it turns them into science. Because of this, magic and science have often been seen as incompatible.
This is a common trope in fantasy, manifesting in a number of different ways. The idea itself, as well as reactions against it, has informed a lot of the familiar elements and sometimes whole sub-genres that we see on our fantasy shelves.
I Don’t Believe in Fairies
The most obvious way in which science seems to be incompatible with magic is that the former often disproves (or seeks to disprove) the latter. Science leads to disbelief and it is disbelief that destroys magic. This is summed up in the often repeated idea that every time a child states they don’t believe in fairies, a fairy dies (from Peter Pan).
Disbelief as the nemesis of magic pops up a lot in fantasy, particularly fairytale inspired fantasy stories or those including fairies and folktale elements. It is less common in secondary world fantasy, where there is no ‘real world’ to be opposed to the ‘magical world’. Perhaps the best example comes from The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, in which an all-consuming force called The Nothing is destroying the magical realm Fantastica. Fantastica is the world of human dreams and fantasy, and The Nothing is the apathy and disbelief of children who are no longer interested in stories of magic and monsters.
Disbelief destroying magic is an idea that was particularly popular in Victorian literature. It was symbolic of the death of childhood innocence on approaching puberty and adulthood. Magic and fantasy, being irrational and unconnected to the real world, began to be seen as exclusively the interest of children, something that had not been the case with fairytales in the past. Magic might also be seen as something almost ‘pure’, representing faith and belief, whereas science is a symbol of knowledge and understanding. Taken to extremes, science represents human hubris, connected to ideas of the Tree of Knowledge and the fall from Eden. Although it’s not Victorian, a very clear example of this can be found in the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis, in which childhood and magic are idealised, and an interest in growing up is punished.
A reaction against this can be seen in the His Dark Materials series of Philip Pullman, in which the idea that science is opposed to faith and magic is explored, and in particular its connections to childhood innocence and the changes of puberty. Pullman’s books can be seen as a kind of anti-Narnia. In the series, magic and ‘Dust’ are strongly connected to knowledge and science, rather than being destroyed by it.
Although secondary world fantasy tends to be less concerned with the opposition of magical world with real world, the legacy of the Victorian belief that fantasy is a child’s domain is still apparent. Many secondary world fantasy authors deliberately create a setting based on the real past of our own world, and insist on a feeling of realism wherever possible. This can be seen in Tolkien as much as in the ‘gritty’ fantasy of today. Connecting fantasy to the real world is perhaps a way to prove its relevance and believability; this is not a fairytale for children, but as close to reality as we can reach when writing fantasy.
Iron and Steel and Modern Invention
Connected to the idea that science and disbelief will destroy magic, is the idea that inventions of mankind – the products of science – are harmful or even deadly to magical beings. This concept is rooted in the folktales of fairies and other supernatural beings. According to folklore, cold iron will hurt a fairy and stave off certain monsters, and silver will kill a werewolf. Even as far back as Roman times, iron and steel could ward off ghosts.
This seems to be a combination of the mystical properties of such metals that harm magical creatures, as well as their importance to humans as materials to mould into modern tools and especially into weapons. Carving wood and shaping clay is relatively easy, but to craft objects with iron requires a lot more knowledge and a lengthy process, a forge and the ability to create extreme temperatures. Whereas the former represents humans shaping the world around them, the latter seems to represent the human ability to pound the world into submission.
Fantasy (usually urban fantasy) involving fairies has had a real surge in popularity recently, and this idea naturally goes hand in hand with it. Fairies are harmed by iron in almost every instance, but in many stories the magical world is also incompatible with any modern invention. In the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, Dresden’s magical side means that certain technology does not work well around him. In the Borderlands series created by Terri Windling, in B-Town – the town between the real world and the fairy world – neither modern technology nor magic works reliably. In the Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa, the fey aversion to iron is combined with the idea of disbelief destroying magic. In an interesting twist, a new kind of fairy has emerged – the iron fey – who reflect human innovation and technology and are not harmed by iron or gadgets. Unfortunately, however, human progress also means the death of the ‘Nevernever’:
“As cities grow and technology takes over the world, belief and imagination fade away, and so do we.”
This theme makes a lot of sense when applied to stories about fairies and folklore, as it’s based on the real mythology of these creatures. Combining it with the idea that disbelief is destroying fairyland is a way of connecting to the Victorian fairy stories that have come before. However, when expanded to include all human invention, the idea suddenly starts to become a little nonsensical. Why do computers not work around fairies, or gadgets repel them, when they seem to be fine with the wheel? When does invention and innovation become too much? – explosives, steam power, electricity, medicine, philosophy, mathematics…? In many cases the arbitrary line seems to be drawn at Victorian technology, usually before the discovery of electricity. More about this in Part Two.
Perhaps the most befuddling part of this idea is that if fairyland and the magical world thrives on human imagination and dreams, then why would science and invention destroy it? Humans have achieved so much through the power of dreaming and fantasising about the future, and then finding ways to make their dreams a reality. Invention and discovery requires just as much imagination as fantasising about unicorns and dragons. Modern progress, in a lot of cases, is not something opposed to imagination and fantasy, but a different expression of the same thing. Science isn’t necessarily killing magic; it’s just a different kind of magic (and not that new after all).
In the next article – rural nostalgia and Tolkien, gritty and ‘grimdark’ fantasy, an obsession with realism and the past, magic as technology and technology as magic, urban fantasy, and why the Victorian era represents a boundary between magic and modernity.
Title image by Sebasket.