J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” first delivered as a lecture in 1939, is a pioneering text in the definition of the fantasy genre. It is notable that Tolkien takes pains here to distinguish between what he means by fantasy literature, which displays the benevolent quality he calls “enchantment,” and another sort of enterprise that he does not like and that he calls “magic.” He writes:
Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practised, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.
While some might confuse the impulse of fantasy with that of magic, fantasy “is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician.” True fantasy, he says, “does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.”
Tolkien’s description of fantasy and its enchantments is recognizable in his own Middle Earth. But what is he going on about when he speaks of “magic” and its “domination of things and wills”?
Tolkien is attempting to separate fantasy literature out from other kinds of writing and writers whose fantastic writing was connected with the modern occult.
The occult revival in late Victorian England drew the interest—and, in some cases, the allegiance—of a number of writers, some quite prominent in or influential upon the history of fantasy, supernatural horror, and occult fiction. Members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn included William Butler Yeats and Aleister Crowley (pictured above). Arthur Machen was also a Golden Dawn member and, with fellow supernatural horror writer Algernon Blackwood, joined Waite’s Rosy Cross group, as did Tolkien’s fellow inkling Charles Williams.
Other Victorian writers of significance to the development of fantasy, such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Bram Stoker, H. Rider Haggard, and Edith Nesbit, were not (despite rumors) Golden Dawn members yet still moved in orbit around occult groups and interests. Tolkien seems to have been sufficiently aware of the modern occult and its connection with fantasy writing to want to define fantasy in opposition to it.
Indeed, in the first decades of the twentieth century, the occult was a regular theme in fiction, with occult thrillers and novels built around occult motifs, and sometimes written by practicing ritual magicians such as Crowley and Dion Fortune, as well as authors with much less personal connection to occultism. Crowley’s novel Moonchild (1917), for instance, tells of a group of magicians (including nastily satirical versions of real-life figures such as Waite and Yeats) who try to bring about the birth of a magical messiah, a concept with parallels to Waite’s notion of Zoharic marriage.
Fortune’s novels are mostly romances and expressions of neo-paganism and incipient New Age spirituality. Their plots often concern practical, bourgeois concerns with real estate, as in The Goat Foot God (1936) in which the main character wants to purchase a house on a mystical ley line in order to turn it into a functional temple to the god Pan, or The Sea Priestess (1935), in which a reincarnated Morgan le Fay needs to do a similar home remodel in order to revive the rites of Atlantis.
Only occasionally do these fictions feature the Occult Jew. Edith Nesbit’s Dormant (1911), for example, includes the yarmulke-wearing antiquarian bookseller Nathan Abrahamson, who uses a crystal and spirit lamp to tell the fortune of the book’s heroine, and provides necessary information about occult matters at a few points. “Oh, these Jews have ways of finding out things,” remarks Nesbit’s protagonist, not unadmiringly. Sax Rohmer’s Brood of the Witch Queen (1918), a novel with a Crowley-like villain, contains a Polish Jewess named Mirza who “practised the Black Art in life, and became after death a ghoul.”
Such Occult Jews are less common than references to Jewish occultism. For instance, Somerset Maugham’s 1908 The Magician, another novel with a Crowley-like villain, includes a disquisition on “the most wonderful, the most mysterious, of all the books that treat of occult science,” which turns out to be the Zohar. A character recounts the legendary story of the Zohar’s ancient origin. Then he admits that he doesn’t believe a word of the story and offers the modern historical version of the text’s thirteenth-century provenance as an alternative.
The fantasy genre, as it developed in the twentieth century, was both intertwined with and distinct from the occult in tone, setting, and cultural frames of reference. Mark Valentine observes that the occult novel (he calls it the “metaphysical thriller” and mentions Williams, Fortune, and Crowley, among others) in Britain between the wars, did not feature the “elaborate, invented worlds inspired by ancient epics or fairy tales” typical of the fantasy novel as developed by William Morris, E. R. Eddison, and Hope Mirrlees. “The essence of the metaphysical thriller,” says Valentine, “is that it takes place in the contemporary, more-or-less everyday world. It involves the effect of spiritual forces, images and incidents in that world.”
The fantasy literature that reached its classic form in Tolkien’s legendarium did not draw its inspiration from the esoteric arts of the Renaissance or the magical systems of the Victorian period, but rather from Arthurian romance, European fairytale, and Norse and Celtic myth. Both Tolkien and Lewis, with their love of secondary worlds and northern mythologies, were an important factor in the distancing of fantasy from the occult. In addition to their robust and mostly normative Christianity, their expertise in medieval and Renaissance texts and languages surely made dabbling in second-hand hermetica less interesting to these dons.
Moreover, in contrast to believers in occult systems, both men suggest that fantasy requires the material of a mythology that is not believed to be literally real, in order for it to work its transformative imaginative power. Lewis indicates as much in his remarks on the “free creation of the marvellous” that today we know as fantasy literature, and whose origins he traces to medieval allegory and its transmutation of a pagan heritage no longer claimed for religious belief. “The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief,” he writes; “the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination.” Lewis was nevertheless somewhat more intrigued by the esoteric and outré than Tolkien, and moves into occult territory in his “Ransom Trilogy,” especially That Hideous Strength, though Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew from the Narnia series reads like a further criticism of what Tolkien calls “magic.”
In the case of Tolkien, it is significant that Middle Earth’s sole “Necromancer” is a false identity—Sauron’s cover in The Hobbit—as if to suggest that enthusiasts of the occult are missing the point. Indeed, the wizards in the Tolkien tradition tend not to be scholars like Rowling’s Dumbledore, but embodiments of divine or elemental forces, like Tolkien’s Gandalf. Magic is something inherent in them. Rowling’s wizards may be magical by birth and bloodline, but they must still study in academies like Hogwarts to learn their craft.
As we have seen, Tolkien denigrates a magic that is “not an art but a technique.” He names the magic of his Middle Earth, and the numinous quality he finds in the best works of fantasy, “enchantment,” and says that it is “wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician.” This distancing from the occult and its technical approach to magic is one of the marks of the “high” or “epic” conventions of Tolkienesque fantasy. Yet, much like Tolkien’s Sauron, the influence of the occult never really left fantasy, even if it spent some time in the shadows.
Coming up: Charles Williams
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. e-book, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford University Press, 1977. Reprint.
Maugham, W. Somerset. The Magician. e-book, Digireads.com, 2011.
Nesbit, Edith. Dormant: A Gothic Romance. e-book, Didcot House Publishing, 2017.
Rohmer, Sax. Brood of the Witch-Queen. e-book, Project Gutenberg, 2006.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London, Boston, and Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1983.
Valentine, Mark. “The Rise of the Metaphysical Thriller.” Wormwoodiana, 13 September 2020. http://wormwoodiana.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-rise-of-metaphysical-thriller-part-1.html.
 Tolkien 1983 [p].
 Hutton 2005 situates Fortune in the history of contemporary neo-paganism. Fortune called her magical system Qabalah though it had little to do with Jewish sources.
 Nesbit 2017; Rohmer 2006.
 Maugham 2011, 32.
 Valentine 2020.
 Lewis 1977, 82, 83.
 Tolkien 1983, 143. Relevant to Tolkien’s famous essay is Hanegraaff’s observation that Western esotericism in the modern period also became “reified as a positive counter-tradition of enchantment (or, eventually, re-enchantment) by those who felt that the evaporation of mystery emptied the world of any deeper meaning” (Hanegraaff 2012, 254).