Magic? It’s complicated

by Jeff

Top hat as an icon for magic

Image via Wikipedia

Magic is probably one of the central elements of the Fantasy genre. However, magic in fiction seems to me much, much more complicated than what just calling it magic implies. This word is far too short for such a concept.

First of all, what I would call its mode of existence varies greatly from work to work. Magic may either be unnatural, supernatural, truly natural, etc. We’re not even talking about intrinsic goodness or evil here: magic in and of itself entails absolutely nothing metaphysically speaking. Its source will be anything one wants it to be, according to the narrative (and, possibly, the allegorical) needs of the author.

Secondly, magic is extraordinary, as befits the concept, but often relatively to the point of view of the readers, not the protagonists of a story. In a vanilla D&D setting, magic is so matter-of-fact that it becomes just another profession among others. Why would we call this magic? Because it is a form of power (more on that later) that we do not have. In David Eddings‘ Belgariad (to take one example out of many), magic is a rarer talent, and thus we can imagine some sort of wonderment from the point of view of the characters who cannot dabble in it. This is more convincing, but not by much given how it actually plays out: calling that magic should be demeaning, if not insulting, to those who truly understand or control it. We should expect them to explain what the uninitiated (and, by proxy, the readers) do not understand or possess. I’m convinced the very choice of the word magic has to be questioned in this context, within the work of fiction itself. That is, by the way, what Tolkien does masterfully in The Lord of the Rings, in the scene between Galadriel and Samwise that I alluded to in this earlier post.

The ambiguity of point of view, by the way, affects the Harry Potter series just as well, where the reader’s side is quite obviously played on: a normal kid becomes a wizard. This is indeed the main plot device of the first book (and certainly a subplot of the whole cycle). I would add that this was quite effectively done (to me, anyway). But when you think about it, J. K. Rowling ends up somewhat cheating. Magic becomes just another school subject to the characters, but the story keeps being interesting because the readers have no access to it. That is why it still is magic.

The question thus begs asking: why is magic magical to us?

At this point, we could add another layer of intricacy to the problem, as there is often a difference between the words magic and sorcery. To my non native mind, sorcery in English seems to imply a more negative idea (in the sense of a more hostile or ill-willed form of magic). The Merriam-Webster seems to agree. How these “powers” are structured according to their domains of use, as much as their ritualization, will not interest me here, however. Their overall function matters a lot more.

That function is power. Power over our environment, including of course the people in it. That is Tolkien’s goetia. Magic may mean having the “power” to create something prettier than what a plain mortal human being can do, but that is not the same kind of power. Magic is above all control, over nature and over minds. That is why its mastering may entail a certain cost (and also why magic as pure art is rare outside of Tolkien, for all I know).

When magic is opposed to science or contemporary technology, both can be argued to share that same function. This is the essence of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third LawAny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

My respect for this great author notwithstanding, I find this characterization grossly unsophisticated. It is trivial to admit that our imagination, or a fictional character’s, ascribes to magic everything that can’t be possibly achieved at the moment, such as invisibility, teleportation, levitation, instant fireballs, reading minds, healing, and so on. It is also trivial to take for granted that any technology that we do not master yet may grant us the same benefits some time later. But this is quite beside the point:

  1. Magic does not necessarily equal a lack of knowledge and understanding per se. Magic can in fact be as arcane as it can be scholarly, and not just at Hogwarts. It implies that magic can be rationally explained, in its own terms.
  2. Magic is not always a simple effect arrived at through an effort of research. Magic also sometimes relates to intuition and raw talent, originating from within. You may well successfully levitate at 20 km/h with a pocket-size ultra-silent jetpack that we are unable to produce yet, but what matters here is that we can imagine someone doing this without any such device. Seen in this way, how can magic ever be less cool than technology?
  3. Magical effects are the same as superpowers in comics. All the “powers” mentioned above (and more) also belong to superheroes. In this particular context, they are generally explained and rationalized away in scientific terms (most often through some sort of experiment accident). Yet I am sure that nobody would put Spiderman and Dumbledore in the same category.

The bottom line is that magic cannot be limited to its own effect. That is why Hermione still performs magic when she repairs Harry Potter’s glasses with but a wave of her wand. That is quite a far cry from a killing fireball or immortality. Therefore, magic is not necessarily doing the extraordinary. It is also performing any task extraordinarily.

Because of all this, the true nature of magic is not to be found in simple distinctions like science and ignorance, research and intuition, or low and high technology. I think the correct way to look at it is to oppose modernity and past. Not in a material way, but in terms of distance. Simply put, magic of all forms and functions is primeval and remote to us readers, even when the fictional setting is contemporary (we are all Muggles after all). Magic is wondrous because there is something poignant in rediscovering something special and unique that has been lost and forgotten. It is a door to another realm, like Alice’s, that is implied to have always been there, now terribly enticing. Magic is a token of our deepest desires. As such, it is simply another vehicle for myths, whose specific form in this context depends on the fact that Fantasy, as I have argued before, is an inescapably historical genre.

In the end, where science-fiction technology may be considered forward-looking and optimistic, the same effects but presented as magic feel rather like a melancholic regret.