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Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Thursday, May 05, 2011

David B Hart, Jonathan Strange, and Mr Norrell

I'm still reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke and liking it very much. As Wikipedia states, it's an ... alternative history set in 19th-century England around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, it is based on the premise that magic once existed in England and has returned with two men: Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange .... and I've come to an interesting footnote in the story which discusses religion and magic. It reminded me of what David Bentley Hart wrote about magic

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(the punctuation may be off as I'm listening to,, not reading, what's below) -

Jonathan Strange: There used to be a proverb, defunct now, something about priests sowing wheat and magicians sowing rye, all in the same field. The meaning is that priests and magicians will never agree (4).

Footnote 4: The meaning was perhaps a little more than this. As early as the twelfth century it was recognized that priests and magicians are in some sense rivals. Both believe that the universe is inhabited by a wide variety of supernatural beings and subject to supernatural forces. Both believe that these beings can be petitioned through spells or prayers and so be persuaded to help or hinder mankind. In many ways, the two cosmologies are remarkably similar. Priests and magicians draw very different conclusions from this understanding. Magicians are chiefly interested in the usefulness of these supernatural beings - they wish to know under what circumstances and by what means angels, demons, and fairies can be brought to lend their aid in magical practices. For their purposes it is almost irrelevant that the first class of beings is divinely good, the second infernally wicked, and the third morally suspect. Priests, on the other hand, are scarcely interested in anything else. In medieval England, attempts to reconcile the two cosmologies were doomed to failure. The church was quick to identify a whole host of different heresies of which an unsuspecting magician might be guilty .... This is not to say that all magicians avoided confusing religion and magic. Many spells which have come down to us exhort such and such a saint or holy person to help the magician. Surprisingly, the source of the confusion was often the magician's fairy servants. Most fairies were forcibly baptized as soon as they entered England and they soon began to incorporate references to saints and apostles into their magic.

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