My older daughter was feeling pretty low so I said I would read to her while she did some drawing. Normally that means Moomin books or Discworld or something. Tonight, she was in the mood for more scholarly fare. She requested: King Arthur’s Enchantresses, Morgan and Her Sisters In Arthurian Tradition, by Carolyne Larrington (a book I got her a few years ago, but which proved a bit much then.)
So I’m reading about Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin, so forth, and this bit comes up, which I think I may include in my science fiction module, next time round.
Is Geoffrey’s Morgan supernatural or human? Did she acquire her magical powers from the Other World, or is she simply an educated, mortal woman who has actively studied the knowledge she wields?
Geoffrey gives us no origin story. But our author writes:
In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, scholars began to formulate a new view of magic. Following, in part, the rediscovery of Aristotle’s scientific writings, this new understanding might be described as pseudo-scientific. Natural things were thought to have inherent properties; they might be cold or hot, moist or dry, for example, and if you had a proper understanding of their qualities and applications you could achieve effects with them which might seem wonderful to those who did not understand them. This kind of natural magic falls into the broader category of the ‘marvellous’: that which appears to be contrary to God’s law, but in fact obeys hidden laws. The contemporary writer Gervase of Tilbury explains that the marvellous is simply that which we do not yet have the learning to understand, but which, in contrast to the miraculous, is not produced by the supernatural:
“we generally call those things miracles which, being preternatural, we ascribe to divine power, as when a virgin gives birth … and those things marvels, which do not yield to our understanding, even when they be natural: in fact the inability to explain why a thing is so constitutes a marvel.”
Some medieval magic, particularly in literary contexts, is thus understood to be inexplicable rather than impossible. A corresponding rationalization is at work in the Post-Vulgate Suite de Merlin, where Merlin explains to the amazed Arthur that a damsel who apparently walks on water to bring Excalibur to him is actually supported by a submerged wooden bridge, a demystification which Malory omits. (9)
(Presumably Malory had the good sense to realize that tales of Arthur shouldn’t be some Scooby-Doo episode, in which it turns out the Lady is just trying to drive down property values on beach front real estate. “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling knights!”)
None of this is too surprising. But I’m always on the look-out for early cases of authors or critics consciously marking the line between fantasy and science fiction in literature. Tilbury is drawing the fantasy/SF line, by implication, in a way that’s familiar (if never quite satisfactory); but I take it he didn’t think he was distinguishing literary sub-genres.
That magic must be subject to God’s laws which human magicians do not have the power to suspend implies that their knowledge is not supernatural. That it could indeed be acquired by all who applied themselves to the right books, or who were admitted to study with an acknowledged master, such as Merlin, is the dominant view held of magic in literary contexts, from the twelfth century onwards. Yet this more modern understanding of magic as natural science was not unopposed; ranged against it was a well-established theological argument that magic is always the province of demons. Both theologians and scientists envisaged the universe as a systematic place where there is an orderly hierarchy from the heavenly to the earthly, and where objects similar in form, or even in name, can affect each other …(10)
I’ll stop there. I’m a bit skeptical. It would be interesting if there were, as early as the twelfth century, a self-conscious critical line between, as it were, MF (miracle fiction) and, um, MF (marvelous fiction). I’m imagining a twelfth century ArthurCon, at which fans divide hotly. It would be great to find an example of someone complaining that it’s wrong to write Morgan as a scientist (or not). Larrington seems to suggest here such debates occurred, concerning literary texts. (Or maybe she’s just saying there was a general intellectual debate at the time.)
Well, I guess I’ll keep reading. What do you think? Was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini maybe SF, because Merlin and Morgan were maybe scientists?