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On Pop Culture’s Effect on the Perception of the Supernatural

Some literature has always possessed a reactionary element, with fantasy being no exception. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire serves, in part, as a reaction to the idea that fantasy is a genre for children and lacks the maturity of science fiction. In the same vein, my Eschaton Cycle reacts to the changing definition of the idea of “magical,” both by trying to bring it back to its roots, and trying to achieve the primal resonance of the supernatural through the inclusion of the horrific.

A disclaimer: herein I talk about popular culture’s influence on fantasy concepts. I actually love D&D and fantasy RPGs, video games, and watching Disney movies. I in no way wish to imply anyone should not enjoy these things. Rather, I merely wish to discuss how they’ve shaped our mindset.

What does the word “magical” conjure up for you? For many, I think there’s an impulse to envision Disney movies, Disney World/Land, or sanitized fairytales. Magical implies wondrous, but has generally lost any sense of trepidation we might have traditionally associated with the Otherworldly.

Connoisseurs of history probably know the word “magic” comes from the Persian magus, people who were viewed with awe and fear, especially by the Greeks. These were miracle workers, sorcerer-priests, and dream interpreters. They were not the goofy, child-friendly wizards we see in Harry Potter.

Actual Greek sorceresses like Circe and Medea were generally gods or descended from gods. They used mysterious drugs, poisons, and wands to perform horrifying feats. While listeners were no doubt entranced by such ideas of a beautiful sorceress, we cannot forget these women were also feared. They were outsiders, possibly unhinged, and always very dangerous. They wielded powers mortals could never begin to understand.

Our reshaping of meaning goes beyond magic workers and extends most especially to magical creatures.

What does a goblin mean? In most fantasy RPGs, goblins are matters of comic relief. Perhaps annoying in larger numbers, but generally posing little threat, and famed for their stupidity. Historically, various types of goblins were mysterious, usually invisible beings, who would murder, steal, and torment.

The idea of mocking them feels out of place. Fairies got their name, literally “fair folk,” because people were afraid to offend them by speaking of them directly. Real people, truly frightened to risk their wrath.

Speaking of magical creatures, I mentioned fairytales. While these may be based on traditional folklore, in modern decades these stories, like the general idea of magic, have taken on a cutesy air that might seem unrecognizable to our ancestors. Modern culture, in an effort protect the young, has transformed often horrific tales of abduction, murder, rape, and alien morality into stories safer for kids.

Is this wrong? My daughter loves Disney’s Little Mermaid, but I wouldn’t consider reading to her the original Hans Christian Anderson tale, which would leave her in tears. In the original version of what becomes Sleeping Beauty, the prince rapes the sleeping princess. She doesn’t wake up until she goes into labor nine months later with his children.

So I sure as hell wouldn’t call this sanitizing wrong at all … except insofar as it reshapes adult consciousness and leads us to assume these tales are inherently childish. In fact, Tolkien wrote a famous essay on the matter, the helped shape Middle-Earth (https://www.amazon.com/Tolkien-Fairy-Stories-Verlyn-Flieger/dp/0007582919).

What does it mean for me, writing so many years after Tolkien? I am introducing traditional elements that, through years of popular culture, have adopted significant cultural baggage. Because I believe that—in the time of our ancestors whose stories I retell—the supernatural held significant fear, I must work to recapture that sense of dread.

People think they know what magic, fairies, goblins, and so forth are … so to produce anything resembling fear at their mention, we need to tap into the kind of existential dread created by authors like Lovecraft. The fear of the unknown.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

—H.P. Lovecraft

As such, the supernatural in Eschaton is alien, horrific, and intended to tap into our deepest fears. Supernatural creatures are invisible, intangible, and utterly lacking in human morality. Many are actively malevolent. Practitioners of magic (the Art) often go insane through their contact with these entities.

This also necessitates that, while aspects of the supernatural get explored, magic in my work cannot be categorized into clearly delineated boxes. There will always be more that wielders of the Art don’t know than what they do.

And that means even they have to fear it. At least while their minds last.

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