The Supernatural Surrealism In Magical Novels

Aslı Değirmenci
Aslı Değirmenci

The underlying reason for this main difference between magical realism and fantasy fiction regarding their treatment of setting, and an influential one at that can be traced back to the locations these two genres have originated from and continue to be produced. It probably would not be a stretch to state that fantasy fiction in its modern fictional form, mostly as novels, mainly emerges from the Western world while magical realism has its origins in Latin America as well as the postcolonial and developing world. Thus, an analysis of these two literary genres and the differences between them reflect the particular cultural and socioeconomic characteristics of the societies they come from. This paper argues that at the basis of explaining these differences are the different stages of capitalism present in the countries and societies from which these two genres of fiction mainly emerge.

By contrasting the fantasy novels that emerge from the most advanced capitalist countries in Anglo-American tradition and the magical realist novels from the postcolonial and developing world around the globe, it is possible to show how these different stages of economic production produce various belief systems and perceptions of the supernatural and influence the way writers create their imaginary landscapes and regulate the extraordinary elements in those worlds.

An essential but mostly overlooked writer, Haitian Jacques Stephen Alexis refers to the qualities of magical realism that is directly connected to the mode of economic production of the country and community (in this case Haiti) that produces magical realist stories. Jacques Stephen Alexis contrasts more developed modern societies to “the under-developed populations of the world,” and in this comparison, he draws attention to the results of industrial capitalism, which he thinks is the main reason that modernized capitalist countries are coming up short of legends. He states that; “Modern life with its stern rates of production, with its concentration of great masses of men into industrial armies, caught up in the frenzy of Taylorism, with its inadequate leisure, and its context of mechanized life, hampers and slows down the production of legends and a living folklore.”

For Jacques Stephen Alexis, the developing or underdeveloped nations of the world have a higher chance of creating magical realist stories simply because capitalism and its unnatural ways of living have not caught up with these people yet.

Among many writers who refer to the compatibility between magical realism and the postcolonial world, one is Homi K. Bhabha who defines magical realism as “the literary language of the emergent postcolonial world.” On the other hand, few writers support Jacques Stephen Alexis’ focus on the economic mode of production as a determining factor in magical realism. Another scholar who has a similar discussion to that of Jacques Stephen Alexis is Fredric Jameson who suggests that the content of magical realism rests on “coexistence of precapitalist with nascent capitalist or technological features.” In a similar vein, Brenda Cooper also focuses on the transitionary nature of magical realism. She suggests that; Magical realism thrives on transition, on the process of change, borders and ambiguity. Such zones occur where burgeoning capitalist development joins with with older pre-capitalist modes in postcolonial societies, and where there is the syncretizing of cultures as creolized communities are created.

What Jacques Stephen Alexis points out perhaps can be more clearly seen in the typical choice of the writers of magical realism and fantasy fiction in their treatment of the temporal side of the setting in their stories. This is because when a writer chooses to set his or her story also determines the economic mode of production available in that chosen time. To be able to formulate this difference between fantasy and magical realism more clearly, it might be necessary to examine the renowned examples of these two genres and how the economic mode of production is represented in these novels. First, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ can be examined more in detail as he influenced a generation of writers that came after him with his Middle-Earth. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is overflowing with magical objects, people with extraordinary powers and supernatural occurrences and is a different world with its own races, physical rules, and even a different ontology.

Middle-Earth is nothing like our world and everything that happens in this narrative is within the rules of its own setting although it creates a contrast to ours. It is also important to note that the world created for this novel (a complete world with its history and different languages and cultures for people of different races) is a world entirely reminiscent of Medieval Dollarspe in the sense that there is limited technological progress and economical mode of production mainly represents a pre-modern and pre-capitalist age. In this sense, qualities of the period in John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s created universe supports Fredric Jameson’s idea that “the landscape of fantasy, with its dungeons and magicians, its dragons and hand-to-hand combat, is an essentially medieval one, or better still and more comprehensively, a pre-modern one.” This pre-modernity also means there is no mass production, either. Every object in Middle-earth is handmade; some of them have their history and even a will of their own — the notorious ring being the prime example. The only instance of mechanization and mass production is when Saruman the Wizard starts creating an army of orcs that will serve him and Sauron, the Dark Lord. He creates thousands of misshapen brutal creatures with more animalistic qualities than human as he destroys the nature around him, in particular a very ancient forest. Treebeard, an ancient tree shepherd that can talk and walk and who eventually saves his forest from the destructive power of Saruman, comments that “[Saruman] has a mind of metal and wheels.” Thus, it can be understood that the only example of mass production in the novel is utterly associated with evil. Of course, the only way for John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to be able to create such a magical world was to situate it in a seemingly pre-capitalist world. The advancement of technology depends on the progress of science, which eventually becomes contradictory to the extraordinary nature of this world. It is this contradiction that lacks in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and most of other fantasy novels.

Another quite popular example of fantasy fiction that I want to refer to is Joanne K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series. While many fantasy novels follow John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s example of creating a new imaginary world for the magic to be possible, Joanne K. Rowling sets the story in our contemporary world, so magic does exist in this world and now, yet there are rigid rules keeping the magical world hidden from the non-magical one. Joanne K. Rowling even has a name for the non-magical part of this world; it is called “muggle.” The clear-cut distinction of our muggle world and magical world is highly emphasized throughout the series; these two worlds never come together and create a coherent (or chaotic) reality, and it is only the magical world the reader has access to in this series; the problems of our muggle world do not matter. Furthermore, the magic world is heavily regulated with rules as much as our world, if not more. I think the Ministry of Magic is a prime example of this. Politics and diplomacy are a great part of this magical world, with the Minister of Magic acting as the highest authority figure. Later in the series, specifically in the fifth book ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,’ the Ministry of Magic gets infiltrated and becomes the main way of monitoring the wizarding community for Dark Lord Voldemort’s purposes by using certain kinds of magic. Though it seems very exciting to us muggle readers, the magical world can be tedious: for instance, there are witches and wizards stuck in dead-end boring jobs in the Ministry of Magic. One such person, Ron’s father Mr. Weasley, is an admirer of our muggle world and he is at a loss for words in the face of technological wonders like television, cars, and planes. It is clear in this sense that what Joanne K. Rowling creates is almost a magical parallel universe where the rules are different but still there. Thus, it is possible to conclude there is no contradiction resulting from the magical and supernatural happenings. In fact, Joanne K. Rowling’s imaginary world is the secret and magical equivalent of our own world. In the series, the reader is more than once reminded that two worlds were not always separate: it is only in 1692 that International Confederation of Wizards declared “The International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy” deciding that the magical world should go into hiding and the magic should not be performed in front of muggles. There is certainly a reference here to ‘Salem Witchcraft Trials’ of 1692 and 1693. However, it is also obvious after the seventeenth-century, with the unhindered rise of scientific developments and capitalism, it would not be possible to create a universe in which the magical and supernatural coexisted with the reality of an advanced capitalist environment. In other words, without this international secrecy rule, it would not be possible for Joanne K. Rowling to situate her novels in our temporal and spatial world.

From these two examples of fantasy fiction, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Harry Potter’ series, I want to move towards magical realism once more and explain how the magic of Middle-Earth and Hogwarts constitutes a different plane than magical realist novels like Ahmed Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ (1981). Being one of the most famous representatives of magical realism, ‘Midnight’s Children’ borrows a lot from Latin American magical realist writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. Following their example, Ahmed Salman Rushdie sets his story in our contemporary world complete with its capitalism and imperialism, yet there is space for magic, prophecies, and humans with superpowers in this world. Having been born at the exact time India gained its independence from Britain (thus, being one of many children of midnight with extraordinary powers), the story of Saleem and his family is intertwined with the political and historical events of first India, and then Pakistan and Bangladesh as these countries come into being.

The spatial and temporal setting of Ahmed Salman Rushdie’s novel, as it is the case with ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ allows for the depiction of the reality of these developing countries with different levels of their capitalist economies in which various modes of economic production can be seen. Registering the story of Saleem’s family also becomes recording the history of India’s transition from colonialism to independence and then the various struggles it had inside and outside the country. In fact, the novel contains so many historical details about events that happened in the last century in the Indian subcontinent that Ahmed Salman Rushdie himself explains that ‘Midnight’s Children’ is considered to be “pretty realistic, almost a history book” by Indian readers. He also adds that while the Indian reader is more inclined to prioritise the historical and political content of the novel, the Western reader usually perceives the novel as fantasy. The fact that there is so much disparity among the readers from different parts of the world in describing a work of fiction also gives us an idea about how different readers perceive the supernatural elements and the possibility of their reality from different parts of the world. In ‘Midnight’s Children,’ like in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ the supernatural does not have rules and regulations; it is arbitrary, chaotic and familiar in its chaos.

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