The concept of magic has been around since the dawn of mankind. Modern people associate the belief in magic with superstition, so the belief in real magic is waning. However, the belief in fantasy magic is growing. People love stories where magic is real. Fictional magic can take many forms because the rules and intent of magic within a story has literary purpose.
I am listening to A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, and beautifully read by Josephine Bailey. It is the first book of a trilogy about four girls in Victorian England that get seduced by the power of magic. One metaphor for magic used in this book is addiction. The girls have hangovers after using magic. They are drawn to magic because of their unhappy lives and magic makes them feel good. They are warned about the dangers of magic, but they become addicted, knowing that magic killed the two girls that are their spiritual guides. In A Great and Terrible Beauty magic is seen as a kind of high, or escape of from the real world.
The metaphor for magic in the Harry Potter books is different. J. K. Rowling treats magic as if it was a science, to be studied in school, with textbooks, journals, and learned societies. Magic has rules and limitations, and mastery of it takes work, skill and talent. This is probably the most popular metaphor for magic. Readers love everyday stories of practical magic.
Older books, especial from medieval times and earlier, see magic as a metaphor for good and evil, directly related to God and Satan, or gods and goddesses. There is white magic and black magic, and human users get their magical power through association. As humans self importance grew, and the power of the gods declined, the nature of magic was moved into hidden aspects of reality. It was the secret knowledge of adepts. Stories like The Lord of the Rings comes out of this heritage.
Nowadays magic doesn’t have to have a philosophical justification. Every writer who creates a new series of books about vampires decides the rules for how they live in their literary creation. Magic is a tool that shapes fictional form, which can go from sexual magic (True Blood) to comedy magic (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to satire magic (Saturday Night Live) to alternate history science fiction magic (“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang).
The sad thing is sometimes people really do want to believe in magic. They want their fictional fun to be reality. All religions believe in magic of some sorts. Miracles are the metaphor for religious magic. But people also want to believe in concepts like luck, Karma and voodoo too. Thus magic is a metaphor for altering reality. That’s where it gets really dangerous. New Age believers are convinced in the power of mind over matter. That’s an especially dangerous belief.
That’s why you must ask yourself: Do I believe in real magic or just fictional magic? Fictional magic is just a plot device to create fun stories, and sometimes its also used as a moral metaphor, like in A Great and Terrible Beauty. But if you think anything other than the laws of science rule reality then you have something to worry about. And I don’t mean worrying about being delusional, which you probably are. No I mean, you have to worry about knowing the rules of your magic.
For example, if you believe in angels, you have to also believe in devils. If you believe magic can help you then you also have to believe it can hurt you. If you can hex someone, they can hex you. If you believe in ghosts, then you are never alone. It gets creepier and creepier. That’s why I love the magic metaphor in Ted Chiang’s gorgeous story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” where he uses a fantasy time machine to teach the lessons of the Koran. All magic has laws, even if magic might be real. All magic has philosophy, even if its untrue. The best magic is fiction that teaches us lessons about living in the world of reality.
So, whenever you encounter magic ask yourself: What does this magic imply.
JWH – 11/14/10