The influence of magic in literature

Watter invloed het fantasie en die magiese in letterkunde op ons samelewing? 10 March 2014, Woordfees, Stellenbosch.


The blurb for this event at the Woordfees frames the discussion as an exploration of the “effect that fantasy and magic in literature have on our society”, and in particular, whether this focus on the supernatural and the impossible in recent literature has a positive or negative influence on the (predominantly adolescent) readers who make up the target market for these novels.

I was particularly interested in attending this talk, since I am currently engaged in a research project that addresses the function of the supernatural in South African literature, as well as other South African cultural texts, such as music videos, films, photography and journalism.

I proceed from the premise that for most South Africans, witchcraft and a belief in the power of the supernatural is a commonplace feature in both rural and urban areas. In general, I am interested in the way in which “everyday statements about witchcraft and other forms of harm involving invisible forces can be taken by reasonable people living in the modern world as plausible accounts of reality” (Ashforth, 2). In particular, I wish to investigate the effect on the formal, stylistic aspects of language and other modes of representation when the supernatural is introduced as a signifying element in texts intended for popular consumption.

Throughout South Africa's literary history, we can trace representations of witchcraft and the supernatural as “plausible accounts of reality”. An early example, for instance, is Thomas Mofolo's Chaka, first published in Sesotho in 1931. In the 1981 translation by Daniel P Kunene, the story is told in the third person, and begins with a description of the South African landscape that invokes an ethnographic or anthropological framework. In the first few pages of chapter one, the narrator describes the South African landscape, and introduces witchcraft and animism as an inherent part of this landscape.

Similarly, we find accounts of witchcraft and the supernatural woven into the fictional realities represented by writers such as Bessie Head, Njabulo Ndebele, Zakes Mda and, more recently, Ingrid Winterbach, Lauren Beukes and Niq Mhlongo. Over and above the manifestation of the magical in work by black South African writers, there is also a strong tradition of the supernatural in Afrikaner culture: In his book on the popularity of spiritualism under Afrikaners in the 20th Century, Agter die somber gordyn (2011), Johannes Bertus de Villiers notes that, being culturally linked to Europe, Afrikaners were receptive to the tenets of spiritualism as it was imported to South Africa from Europe in the late 19th century. He points out, however, that Afrikaners were also prepared readily to accept the influences of spiritualism because they had a pre-existing, indigenous occult tradition based on belief in ghosts, prophets, and “sieners”, as well as the notion that the walking dead would at times communicate with the living (24). Part of de Villiers's project is to trace the influence of spiritualism on Afrikaner writers such as C Louis Leipoldt, DJ Opperman, Sheila Cussons and ID du Plessis, and how this influence helped to shape Afrikaans literature.

It is with this contextual understanding of the influence of the “magical” in South African literature that I then take my seat at the Erfurtkafee. Predictably, the crowd is predominantly white, and almost exclusively Afrikaans. This is understandable, given that the Woordfees positions itself as the pre-eminent Afrikaans cultural and literary event on the calendar, but the linguistic and cultural homogeneity of the crowd immediately precludes the possibility that the discussion may open up into the kind of probing analysis that could truly offer an understanding of the effect that the representation of the supernatural and the magical might have on “our society”.

It soon becomes clear that the literature under discussion is in fact contemporary Afrikaans adolescent literature. The invited speakers are Fanie Viljoen, who writes for children; Nanette van Rooyen, a freelance writer of children's books who has been translated into Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho; and Christof Odendal, chairperson of the Adam Tas society for Afrikaans.

The facilitator invokes the popularity of recent films such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games as evidence of the growing – or lasting – preference for fantasy in contemporary youth culture and Nanette points out that young readers enjoy fantasy (witches and zombies) as a form of escapism. Fanie suggests that the early introduction to fairytales inducts young readers into the realm of fantasy and the supernatural. He posits that fantasy offers young readers a framework through which to understand their entry into adolescence. He notes that, in contrast to South African English literature, Afrikaans literature tends to abandon representations of the supernatural as soon as there is a shift toward adult fiction. This is an interesting point, although I would argue that novels such as Winterbach's Niggie, Dalene Matthee's Toorbos and Kerneels Breytenbach's Piekniek by Hangklip are compelling examples of the manner in which the supernatural might be seen to manifest in more adult Afrikaans fiction.

The conversation turns to the conventions of magical realism, the genre in which representations of the supernatural tend to be classified. Drawing on the definition provided by Wendy Faris, Nanette outlines the basic principles of magical realism for the audience: an undiluted “magic” in the story, which must be set in a realistic world; the world of the magical and the “real world” need to brush against each other. This encounter between the two worlds causes reader discomfort, which in turn compels the reader. Questions of identity are foregrounded, and the rules of time and space are suspended, with characters moving in time and space in ways that defy the laws of physics.

Moving on to the question of the lasting popularity of magical realism and fantasy among young adults, Christof suggests that magical realism allows young readers access to protagonists who are more than human. Fanie picks up Christof's point and notes that as readers become older, they want “bigger” stories that help their development into adults: the safety of the familiar, offset with the novelty of adventure.

Throughout the conversation, I note that while the speakers are discussing the depiction of worlds where the boundaries between the physical world and the world of the supernatural are blurred, they all seem to accept the fact that the supernatural is contained by the fiction. None of them seem to consider the manner in which accounts of the supernatural prevail in daily South African discourse, with stories of Tokoloshes, water snakes, “witch doctors”, shape shifters and zombies dominating much of the linguistic landscape. When Christof mentions that in children's literature the fantasy is pervasive – in other words, the world with which we are presented is a fantasy world, and signalled as such from the start – he off-handedly mentions Snow White as an example. Again I am struck by the fact that, in the world of the early 19th century rural European peasant, from whence the brothers Grimm collected folk tales that included Snow White, witchcraft and the supernatural were very much part of the day to day fabric of their lived reality.

During question time, an audience member asks whether young people today actually read. All the panelists confirm emphatically and at length that, yes, young people certainly love to read, as long as the subject matter interests them. There is time for a last question, which falls to me, and I point out that for the greater South African society, the supernatural and the occult signify powerfully as part of a lived reality, and I wonder about the implications of trying to contain this within the conventions of fiction genres. But time is running out, and the best answer I get is “Yes, there is magic all around us and we should certainly look to the everyday for inspiration”.

Ashforth, Adam. “Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa”. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

De Villiers, Johannes Bertus. “Agter die somber gordyn”. Cape Town: Griffel Media, 2011.

Mofolo, Thomas. “Chaka” [1931]. Trans. Daniel P Kunene. Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1981.

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