Magical Bricks: Religion, Spirituality and Modern Magic in the Toy Box

June 08, 2018

Is Lego’s flirtation with magic for kids only?

Brick set “Azari and the Fire Lion Capture” on display in Norwegian Toy Store. Photo: Sissel Undheim. 

Brick set “Azari and the Fire Lion Capture” on display in Norwegian Toy Store. Photo: Sissel Undheim. 

Toy box magic

Magic is everywhere in children’s popular culture. Trough Disney’s “Movies, magic, more” and the magical creatures of J.K. Rowlings captivating universe, ‒ from stories of the tooth fairy to the super human powers of super heroes, our children are constantly reminded of the possibility that there is something more, - something beyond the boundaries and limitations of the empirical everyday world.  The romantic mythology of childhood as an enchanted place that needs to be nurtured and shielded from the worries and dullness of adulthood is nothing new. However, by the means of new media, magical narratives and conceptualization of magic change and adapt as new toys are produced for new generations. But what does Lego have to do with this?       

The brick set 41192 Azari & the Fire Lion Capture from the series Lego Elves gives an impression of the kind of magic at play:

The fictional stories about Azari, Rowan and all the other “magical creatures from Elvendale” are available on Lego’s web pages as comics, animated webisodes and other multimodal media. These stories provide the background for new characters and brick sets as the narratives evolve. This is what Stig Harvard has called narrativization, one of three intertwined processes he has identified as the mediatization of Lego. Narrativization implies that the focus in playing with Lego shifts from the bricks primarily being tools for construction, to using the result of the construction to enact fictional narratives. In this way, the children are invited to “play out your own LEGO® Elves stories” and actively engage with the narrative themselves. Lori Landay has pointed out how a number of transcultural elements of myth have become part of the Lego remix and what she calls “The mythology of Lego”, ‒ a rich and diverse narrative which is itself reinscribed as one plays with the physical bricks.

The magical world of Lego’s Elves echoes Victorian fascination for fairies and elves, and contemporary providers of fairy aesthetic and otherworldly magic are numerous. Disney’s Tinkerbell, as well as Peter Jackson’s big screen adaptations of Tolkien’s novels are both examples of the pop-cultural intertexts that still contribute to the contemporary popularity and distribution of elves and fairies. Lego’s Elves are thus not particularly exceptional in the (girls’) gendered sections of the toy store. Rather, these popular brick sets seem just one of innumerable examples of evidently popular, pastel colored elves, fairies and fairy tale princesses that provide everyday magic and make believe to the children who play with them. An interesting aspect is how toy store elves signal very clear gender codes, through colors, protagonists and other more or less subtle markers. The boys’ side of the shelf is however no less magical, as ninjas ride dragons and defy all rules of nature, and phoenixes save the world from another apocalypse. And, on more gender neutral ground, as magical bricks that seem to transgress gendered norms, we find the world’s most beloved wizard himself, Harry Potter

Life size Harry Potter Lego figure, Outland, Bergen. Photo: Sissel Undheim.

Life size Harry Potter Lego figure, Outland, Bergen. Photo: Sissel Undheim.

Going global

Lego, as the world’s biggest toy company, has since 2014 demonstrated an unparalleled impact on the global pop cultural market through their ubiquitous transmedia products. Big screen productions, such as Lego the Movie (2014), The Lego Batman movie (2017) and The Lego Ninjago movie (2017), as well as a plethora of digital games, web sites, animated TV-series, amusement parks and social media platforms invite and engage the (children of) potential customers to play with Lego bricks in ever new ways.  Cross-branding and collaboration with other major actors in pop culture industry provide us, for instance, with brick sets featuring famous Marvel Gods, such as Thor vs. Loki and the Ultimate battle for Aasgaard. In addition to the collaboration with already established pop-cultural “brands”, Lego has also developed its own immensely popular series. Trough Ninjago, Elves, Chima and NexoKnights, Lego has created its own transmedia supersystems. In these series, superhuman forces, magic and new age inspired world views play an integral part in the narratives that form the fictional universes. References to superhuman forces in these Lego universes echo a vague yet almost omnipresent kind of “religion” that is increasingly recognized as an important field of research within the study of religion.

Several scholars of religion, most recently LauraFeldt, Carol Cusack, and Signe Cohen, have for instance pointed out how the Harry Potter success is highly relevant material for studies of contemporary religion. Although it is tempting to identify the multiverse of Lego as merely play and fiction, and use “fiction” to isolate what goes on there from “religion”, there are of course no such watertight walls between these categories. A recent exhibition at the British library displayed historical material that had served as inspiration for J.K. Rowling as she wrote the Harry Potter novels. The novels have in turn inspired self-identifying wizards and witches. In her book Invented religions, Carol Cusack remarked how the Grey school of Wizardry is evidently inspired by Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. The school is led by headmaster Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, one of the leaders of the neo-pagan Church of all worlds from the 1960s. According to Ravenheart’s biography presented in the magazine Green Egg:

Although any links between the popularity of Harry Potter and the reported rise in mail-order magic can of course not be proven, both can be seen as part of a broader tendency where many now positively refers to, or even identifies with, what would previously often be defined as heretical religious “outgroups”, such as witches, pagans or so-called indigenous religions, as a way to critique hegemonic institutions, both religious and not.


 ‘Lego religion’

Not necessarily “Religion” as we are traditionally taught through the doctrinal focus of the so-called World Religion Paradigm, the religion of the Lego toy box reflects the much less easily defined blend, or “gray areas”, of contemporary religion. Elements associated with spirituality, magic, folklore and what is often called “indigenous religions” seem to pop up everywhere in children’s popular culture, and Lego is no different. The kind of religion we encounter in Lego may range from the sacred life force “Chi” of Lego, Legends of Chima, to the magical Elves, ‒ from meditating ninja masters (fig. 3) to J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic beasts. These fictional Lego Universes thus exemplifies in countless ways what professors in the history of religions Ingvild Gilhus and Lisbeth Mikaelsson already in 1998  argued is a characteristic of contemporary new age spirituality, namely a re-enchantment of culture where “religion is spread thinly”. In the world of Lego, we actually find this visually conveyed as a sprinkling of magic light, like a blow of Pixie dust, or as glittering energies that move swiftly on the screen. Religion in this sense is not chunked out in easily identifiable pieces, but rather, as Gilhus and Mikaelsson have demonstrated, like a light sweetening frosting of shimmering fantasy allusions that is “spread thinly” and “everywhere”. The kind of “everyday magic” that is conveyed and elaborated upon by Lego’s products, as well as other pop-cultural media for children should therefore also be part of the picture when images of contemporary religion are drawn. 

Sensei Wu. Wall decoration from Ninjago the Ride, Legoland, Billund. Photo: Sissel Undheim

Sensei Wu. Wall decoration from Ninjago the Ride, Legoland, Billund. Photo: Sissel Undheim

The (folk) religion/spirituality/(re-)enchanted magic of Lego may thus best be defined as multilayered hybridization of contemporary tendencies identified and explained in a variety of ways by scholars of religion in recent years. Lego’s combination of transmedia, fantasy narratives and actual toy bricks invites insight from recent research on religion and fiction, as well as the intertwined subfields that have now come to be known as religion and media, religion and popular culture and material religion. Nikki Bado-Fralick and Rebecca Sachs Norris have in their book Toying with God called for attention to the often overlooked yet rich material for religious studies that may be found in games and toys. Combined with new approaches to the concept of religion in religious studies, Lego can serve as an interesting   example of this

One of the best ways to describe the religion we encounter in Lego’s multiverse is perhaps as the kind of mediatized religion that Stig Hjarvard calls “banal religion”. “Banal religion” is, according to Hjarvard, transmitted, and at the same time also produced, by and through media. It often has a strong focus on attention-grabbing visuals, symbols and narratives. Unlike institutionalized religion, banal religion is perhaps less noticeable as “religion”, yet is all the more present in our everyday lives through media’s omnipresence and impact.

Identifying the religion of Lego thus necessitates a “rethinking of religion” of the kind that Ingvild Gilhus and Stephen Sutcliffe have argued for in their book New Age Spirituality. They point out that a redefining that captures the variety of contemporary religion also needs to incorporate a wider web of fluid New Age inspired tendencies and expressions. Transmitted, and at the same time transformed by the process of meditatization, the intertextual, partly self-referential pop cultural play with fantasy, mythology and folk religion of the Lego multiverse thus both reflects, and becomes in itself a part of, contemporary religious change.

The Lego multiverse

The vagueness and complex layers of references to supernatural forces and character, makes Lego’s “religion” a kind of religion many would be reluctant to even call religion. This is further intensified by the so called Multiverse of Lego’s digital game Dimensions, where the many separate Lego Universes may be combined and transgressed in seemingly infinite new ways. 

The temple of resurrection. Ninjago, 2017. Photo: Sissel Undheim

The temple of resurrection. Ninjago, 2017. Photo: Sissel Undheim

The combination of bricks and transmedia narratives provide inspiration for enactments, elaborations and new stories made by each individual player and their own toy box.  The ever expanding multiverse of Lego, by its very hybridized and transmedia network of pop cultural intertextual references, can of course not be seen as isolated from dynamic processes of contemporary religious change.  It is interesting to note that there are no monotheistic gods or gods from major world religions represented in the brick sets that are sold today. Instead, there is a celebration of pluralism, energies, magic, benign ‒ but also dangerous, ‒ superhuman beings, pop-culturalized “dead religion” and gods and monsters.

Religion and children’s popular culture

While news media seem to focus on conflict and the major religious traditions of religious authorities, the religion encountered in popular culture for children, and particularly that produced for a transnational market, tend to avoid any kind of potential controversy that may cause lack of profits. In contrast to the “evident”, and very Christianity-centered “religiosity” of Playmobile’s Nativity set, Luther or Saint Nicholas, Lego most likely reaches a much larger market by being less explicit. It is therefore interesting to note that also Playmobil have launched their own Fairies  and Magic series, perhaps as a way to adapt to a more global market.

To the extent that “religion” is part of these Lego narratives and fictional worlds, it is both vague and often just suggestive, merging magic, spiritualities, “ancient wisdom” and folk traditions with fantasy and fiction. The sparkles of “magic” that enchant these toy worlds are lightly sprinkled and blend with layers and layers of cultural references. It is a blend with no sharp edges, and therefore also seemingly uncontroversial. Breaking down these boundaries between magic and religion, new age spirituality and religion and the whole spectrum of non-religion and religion, the playful and amicable “spirituality” of Lego is the kind that apparently just intends to make everybody happy.

Lego provides a place to enact thrilling apocalyptical battles between good and evil, but also material to play out the quest for spiritual harmony, ethereal beauty, magic and fun, ‒ for breaking rules, ‒ for constantly tearing down and then reassembling all kinds of available bricks in order to create something new and unique. In this sense, the differences between the Lego magic of the toy box and the everyday religion of many grown-ups of today might perhaps not be so big after all.