The Metaphors of Magic


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.

A Great and Terrible Beauty coverI 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  

7 thoughts on “The Metaphors of Magic”

  1. I had considered reading this series before, but it is just one of many things out there to read. I’ll be interested in your thoughts on this one when you are done, especially if you continue on with the series.

    Magic is one of those things in fiction that can be done really well or really poorly, as we all know. One of the criticism of fantasy fiction (fair or unfair) is that it is often derivative of the other stories that have gone before. Because of that I think several authors today are making an effort to either do things different with their magical systems or just do something that has been done before better.

    Having not read any of the Harry Potter books, I’m not sure Rowling did anything different, but taking magic and giving it an educational bent made it something that the target reading group, school-aged kids, can understand and relate to. It also gives them, and of course the adults who love it, an escape that still has parallels to their actual lives. I imagine many a Harry Potter reading child sat in school wishing that instead of math class they were sitting in a lesson at Hogwart’s.

    I haven’t read Sanderson either, but I understand he has done some interesting things with magic in his Mistborn series. In reading the synopsis for that Felix Gilman book I just received from Tor, Half-made World, mixes steampunk ‘science’ with magic/the spirit world by having demon-possessed weapons. It all sounds interesting though like anything I read if the story isn’t good all the bells and whistles, be they old tropes or new fangled ideas, won’t keep me interested in reading.

    I don’t believe in “luck”. I certainly do believe in fictional magic and believe that fictional magic, be it “magic” or the magic of fiction, can have inspiration and positive influences in our lives. Conversely I’m sure it can have negative ones as well. I suspect each of these have as much to do with how a person receives and processes information as much as it does the skill of the author. In other words, I think people who lean towards being inspired by stories, etc. find that inspiration all over. People who tend to misuse avenues of escape, be they alcohol, drugs, or something as “simple” as spending too much time reading and/or watching tv without balancing that out with the work and play that needs to be attended to in order to live a healthy life have the potential to be led astray by fictional magic. These are of course major generalizations, and I’m mostly babbling, but there you go.

    I certainly do believe in the spiritual, good and bad, and though you would call me delusional I remain firm in my confidence that I am not. Those beliefs aren’t really served by my fiction as I tend not to read “Christian” fiction. My reaction to magic in fiction mostly relates to just what I mentioned before…if it aids in telling a good, compelling story, then great. If it is all a story has to recommend it, then it does little for me and, if anything, annoys me because it serves as an example for the genre-bashers to point to in their arguments that this or that kind of fiction is worthless, etc.

    Sorry about going all over the place with this comment, but I’m just kind of going with the thought flow here.

    Going back to where I started, I hope either in a post or in the comments here you let us know what you thought of A Great and Terrible Beauty.

    1. I was within twenty minutes of finishing A Great and Terrible Beauty when my battery went dead. I’m charging it now. The story is only so-so for me, so I’m not going to jump directly into book two. After reading The Hunger Games trilogy this year I have very high expectations for trilogies. A Great and Terrible Beauty did some interesting things with the metaphor of magic, but the story line is weaker. It might have a stronger appeal to young women. That’s the trouble with some YA novels, some really are aimed at girls, or younger people in general, and lack the appeal for an older male. Other YA novels have broad appeal to all ages and genders. Carl, you really should read the Harry Potter novels. They are wonderful.

  2. Jim, do you really think that belief in real magic is waning? I wish I could believe that. Watch this trailer for the new “Psychic Kids” TV show, where fake psychics abuse troubled children for fun and profit, and see if you can still believe that.

    Or read about the revival of interest in exorcisms in the Catholic Church. Or the belief in homeopathy, ESP, dowsing, astrology, ghosts, faith healing, and on and on and on.Unfortunately, magical thinking is everywhere these days.

    Carl, I agree that fantasy fiction tends to be derivative. It’s rare to find something really new. But have you read “The Curse of Chalion” by Lois McMaster Bujold? I thought she had a very fresh take on the supernatural (and a wonderfully entertaining book). Yeah, that’s just another word for magic, but I can accept it in fantasy fiction, just not in real life.

    1. As compared with beliefs a hundred years ago, I do think the belief in magic is waning. And if you count all the possible ways to attribute thinking to magic, there are still billions of believers left.

      On the other hand, there are signs of change. The other night on ABC World News Tonight they interviewed pastors that had become atheists. Evidently that’s a small but growing problem. And as one man said, he couldn’t just quit his job because it was the only thing he was trained to do. So he had to continue preaching. So we don’t know how many people have stopped believing in magic but just don’t say so. How many people talk about ESP, but do they really believe? Ditto for all the others.

  3. I haven’t read any of Bujold, just one of many great names whose work I have yet to sample. I’ll keep this story in mind though when it comes to trying her work. Thanks! Although I did mean what I wrote about fantasy being derivative, I did want to clarify that I did not necessarily mean that as a negative. It certainly is in some ways, but I ultimately just want a good story and I’ve read many a good story in just about every genre that is derivative of something but still held up well. I just find it even more refreshing when someone comes up with a new, or different, take on a genre, trope, etc. AND can tell a good story.

    I’m sure the HP novels are fun. My not reading them initially began because of the whole snobbish thing that tends to happen when “everyone” is reading something. But now I haven’t read them simply because I have so many other books that I own or are on a list that I want to read more than I want to read HP. I’ve read great things about the Hunger trilogy as well. YA literature really is all over the place. Some books are clearly written with both adults and young adults in mind, others stay closer to their intended audience, be that an age or sex. I find that when I discover some fantastic YA novel that I judge many of them after that against it and am not as satisfied.

  4. Thanks for the article. I found it looking for ‘magic as a literary metaphor’. There’s another angle BTW. We could view magic as an archaic technique for ‘programming’ the subconscious. Just my two cents.

    1. I wonder if some of the ancients understood just how impressionable the mind really is, and developed magic to influence people. Few people have a solid grasp of reality. We all fool ourselves in various ways. Could shamans have understood this?

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