The Battle of Science and Magic – Part Two: Nostalgia and the New
In the previous article we looked at the idea that science destroys magic through encouraging disbelief, and how this has influenced fantasy stories involving magic, folklore and fairies. The first article also explored the idea that modern technology is somehow harmful to magic and magical creatures, and examined how interpretations of this in fantasy can be illogical.
This time I’m continuing to look at how the fantasy genre has been shaped by the idea that magic and science are incompatible.
This is seen again and again in fantasy: Tolkienesque worlds in which progress and industrialisation are shown as damaging to both the land itself and to the magic of the land. There are several reasons for this common idea, including the incredible influence of Tolkien on fantasy, the real problems and changes that occurred during our own industrial revolutions around the world, and modern environmental concerns.
Clearly there are important messages involved in this theme, but in many cases it goes further than such concerns, tapping into a strong sense of nostalgia for the past. It reflects a longing for the country, for the ‘English idyll’, for the charm of old ways and less complicated times. There is a sense that modernity has killed a kind of simple country magic of the past. Going back to Tolkien, the passing of the elves from Middle Earth is highly symbolic of this idea. The world is moving on, has become a place for mankind and for invention and progress, not for the immortal elves who seem to drift along in an unchanging society. This is shown to be a very sad thing.
Everyone likes to indulge in a little nostalgia now and then, but there are some problems associated with it. Firstly, these ideas are based on a view of the past that isn’t always realistic. This kind of ‘country idyll’ was a dream only accessible to a limited number of people, and life was certainly not easy or enviable for the majority of society. A second problem is that to condemn all progress is to ignore everything amazing that has come out of human ingenuity: medicine, discovery, positive social change, etc. Finally, this kind of nostalgia idealises the past without addressing certain attitudes of the time that we would now find unacceptable. This is particularly the case with steampunk, which in many cases paints a rather rosy glow over a time of imperialism, racism, and exploitation.
This is why Moorcock, George R. R. Martin, and similar writers are sometimes seen as a kind of anti-Tolkien, and their work as a reaction against nostalgic epic fantasy. They use the past to inspire their setting, but do not necessarily idealise it. Early, ‘gritty’ reactions against Tolkien’s style have now led to a whole sub-set of epic fantasy known as ‘grimdark’; these completely destroy any nostalgia by showing their past-inspired worlds to be overwhelmingly violent and miserable places. This can bring new problems, mainly that an overabundance of stories containing the worst kinds of prejudice and subjugation suggest that the past was actually worse than it was, and that it is impossible to imagine a world where certain kinds of people could be empowered. Ironically, in striving for realism, the nostalgic approach and the grimdark approach are in danger of being just as unrealistic as each other. Obviously, the point at which these issues become a problem is subjective, and there is always interesting debate about them to be found on fantasy forums and on fantasy authors’ sites.
However, both approaches do share one thing in common…
Fantasy: The Past + Magic
Fantasy goes hand in hand with the past, particularly the epic fantasy and sword and sorcery sub-genres, which often take place in a pseudo-medieval setting. Steampunk is also placed firmly in the past, almost always in the Victorian period. Other past-inspired settings pop up occasionally, but one thing is clear; fantasy is a genre very much connected to the past.
This is partly for the reasons already discussed; that combining fantasy with science is seen to kill the mystery and the magic of it, or that magic is considered to be incompatible with the modern world. It is also due to the common trappings of fantasy being rooted in the past; tales of dragons, myths and monsters, knights and quests – these can all be traced back to times long ago, and so it feels natural to set the stories there. Another reason, as mentioned earlier, is that when creating a secondary world and including magic, adding realism then grounds the story to our world, making it more believable. Since the creatures and ideas used can be traced to the past, by building a world that looks as much like that past as possible, the author pulls the magic out of the domain of fairytales and children’s stories, giving it a sense of authenticity and respectability. This begins to look less like creating another world and more like re-imagining the past.
In some ways, this obsession with the realism of a specific era is a little misguided. It’s not the time that’s important to some of our greatest influences, but the feeling and themes involved, which can be recreated in any period, or in any fantasy world. A secondary world will now be criticised if too many elements in it seem to be anachronistic with each other, yet this is exactly what many old stories are like. The story of King Arthur spans the ages; it picks up elements from the dark ages, the early medieval period, and the high medieval period. It tells of knights, chivalry, magic, a fragmented England in need of a king, the coming of Christianity, the search for the Holy Grail, jousting and dragons. Attempts to fit King Arthur’s tale into any one specific period of history seem to completely miss the point. Similar things can be seen with the Odyssey and the Iliad, and any other tales or myths that are passed down orally. In them, the story, themes and ideas are more important than the details. In a similar way, despite its obsession with the past, secondary world fantasy isn’t actually about the past, and never has been.
It is also interesting to note that the Victorian period seems to be the boundary between fantasy and modernity. Even the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, set in modern day, uses Victorian trappings for its magical world. The Victorian world represents the last time that magic and science could still mingle freely. It was a time of sudden invention and discovery, and, significantly, when scientific theories began to question long-held beliefs about God and creation. Science could be used to shame the false mediums, and to prove that fairies weren’t real. A backlash against this meant that the Victorian period was also one obsessed with spiritualism, ghosts and the supernatural. It was a time of juxtaposition of opposites, perfect for the fantasy writer. It is no wonder that the Victorian era has proved so popular in fantasy, but also that it marks the end of the time in which magic could exist alongside modernity.
There is one obvious example of fantasy moving away from the past, and that is urban fantasy. Urban fantasy has existed for a while now, but has seen a huge boost in popularity in recent years. This sub-genre seems to deliberately twist or reject the clichés of past-inspired fantasy, showing that even the oldest myths and creatures can exist alongside modern society, even interacting with it and finding ways to fit in. Despite this, many urban fantasy stories do still make use of the idea that magic and technology aren’t really that compatible. It is also still incredibly rare to find a secondary world modelled on our own times.
Magic is our Technology – Technology is our Magic
When fantasy, secondary world or otherwise, really has to include a modern invention, a magical substitute is often found. The most obvious examples can be found in the Harry Potter series, where it’s fine to travel to Hogwarts on a steam-powered train but anything that requires electricity is always replaced with a spell or magical device.
The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett displays both magical substitutes for technology, and real non-magical inventions side by side. So, a camera is operated by an imp that sits inside and paints a picture at super-speed. Other inventions, such as the Clacks (semaphore towers – a method of quick communication), and the printing press, as well as services like the post office and banks, mirror their invention in our own world. This approach is quite rare, yet innovation in the Discworld never destroys its sense of magic (or its very literal magic either).
In other stories, magic replaces technology in more ways than one. Magic is increasingly becoming a dangerous thing, a force that can shape the world but also destroy it, that can either unleash terrible demons or mess with the balance of nature. In these ways, magic is a metaphor for the ways in which technology can be both beneficial and harmful to our own world.
There are also stories that combine elements of science fiction with fantasy, sometimes called science fantasy, showing magic existing in the future or at the end of the world, such as in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books. This is still a very small sub-genre and open for a lot more experimentation. Magic in space is even rarer, with Warhammer 40K being the biggest example.
For a long time fantasy as a genre has accepted the fact that science and magic are incompatible or even harmful to each other, and this has strongly shaped how fantasy has looked and changed over time. But in many cases, these boundaries are much less rigid than they seem, offering up new possibilities and interpretations for fantasy writers. There will always be a place for fantasy and magic that is spiritual, mysterious and unexplained, but why that necessarily should not exist in harmony with technology and modernity is less obvious than it might seem. This doesn’t have to mean classifying or explaining magic; science seems to break the rules perhaps more than magic does. It means recognising that modernity is not destroying our imagination and our dreams; far from it. It is only adding to them.