20 August 2011

“The gates of magic were open to everyone…”

This afternoon I happened to be thinking about how L. Frank Baum portrayed Dorothy in his Oz books as an “ordinary little girl,” not inherently magical or unlike her readers. Of course, if she got her hands on the Magic Belt, watch out!

That presents a world of possibility fundamentally different from what’s proffered in series like Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson. Those portray an innate, unbreachable divide between people who can work magic and those who can’t.

Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books depict a situation in between, a world where some people are have natural magical aptitude but—to the magicians’ dismay—“ordinary” humans can break the barrier.

This evening I found that novelist David Liss has been pondering the same issues in an essay at io9:
In my research, what I found most interesting was how common and ordinary magic was to people in the past. There was also dark and mysterious magic, which was part of a hidden world populated by unknowable beings, but mostly there was ordinary, routine magic that was incorporated into everyday life. It was part of this world and part of nature, and most people didn't trouble themselves too much with how or why it worked. That it did work was taken for granted.

In the past, people generally believed they could acquire magic in two ways: through learning the craft, either from another practitioner or from books; or through obtaining magic from a powerful being-think Faust or the classic, demonized witch, both of whom get their mojo from Satan. Anyone could learn magic as long as he or she had access to the knowledge or could make a connection with the right supernatural entity. The important point is that in theory, the gates of magic were open to everyone, and what I find most interesting is how that has changed in popular culture. . . .

Magic has gone from being an open system to a closed one. Their massive popularity make the Harry Potter novels and films the most glaring example, but it's everywhere, and has been for decades now: TV shows like Charmed and Wizards of Waverly Place, books like those of Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris. More often than not, magical practitioners are born, not made. Magic is an exclusive club. You can watch and be envious, but you can't join.

I can't prove it, but I strongly suspect the turning point is the TV show Bewitched.
Of course, that show was inspired by the 1942 film I Married a Witch, itself adapted from the novel The Passionate Witch, and the 1958 film Bell, Book, and Candle. All three use innate magic as a metaphor for the power a woman might sacrifice in marrying. The theme of innate, unobtainable powers has been around for a long time. What may be new is the dominance of one approach over others.

In response to Liss’s essay, Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress writes, “I wonder if a sense of biological magic also correlates to a sense of unease about how much power we have to impact our lives and to change the world”—by which she means how little power. Of course, kids fantasize about getting the call to Hogwarts or Camp Half-Breed, not being left behind.


James C. Wallace II said...

I addressed this issue, in a way, when In wrote Magician of Oz. I gave Dorothy the opportunity to cast a magic spell (with some help) and made it a point to observe that there is a great difference between making a wish and casting a spell.
I've always wondered what that difference is and to date, I still haven't resolved it. But, Dorothy still got to try her hand at magic, as did Amanda Diggs in Family of Oz.

RAB said...

This topic brings to mind a line from Jules Feiffer in The Great Comic Book Heroes that I've quoted on my own blog: as a boy, Feiffer preferred Superman to Batman because if he were ever trapped in a steel vault, the only way he was going to break out was by being born super-strong; it was obvious from his school grades that he wasn't ever going to invent an explosive in his underground laboratory. He didn't want to train to be strong or study to be smart, so being born special was the only option. I was always more of a Superman guy myself, but even I must admit Batman represents a higher aspiration.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Well, you don't fantasize about being left behind because, if there's a magic world out there, it doesn't seem to be this one. How would fantasizing about being left behind be any different from having to get up in the morning and go to school? Rather redundant, isn't that?

James C. Wallace II said...

If you wanna see real magic, find your local Ring, or magic club and attend one of their meetings. You'll never look back...
International Brotherhood of Magicians (I.B.M.)has a great website that will locate a Ring (which is what we call our organization) in your area.


Carpe Noctum!

J. L. Bell said...

Between Batman and Superman stood Captain Marvel, who offered the spectacle of an ordinary boy becoming the World’s Mightiest Mortal. Of course, it was pure magical thinking.

J. L. Bell said...

All fantasy is indeed wish-fulfillment of some sort, of course. But fantasizing about being born a special sort of person (e.g., a wizard, a demigod) is different from fantasizing about being a very lucky person who stumbles into power, or a very deserving person who earns that power.

Let's think about the biology behind "Camp Half-blood” parties of the sort bookstores threw to market the Percy Jackson books. They offered kids the fantasy that either (a) you weren't actually the child of both your parents, or (b) one of your parents was secretly a god.

Me, I'd prefer the fantasy that I might someday take the wrong turn or get caught in a storm and end up on the Yellow Brick Road.

J. L. Bell said...

Alyssa Rosenberg's response to Liss ties his observation to the possibility that we feel ourselves to be powerless to change the world, even with effort, so we imagine having innate power.

It could also be tied into many people's observations that these days we all think of ourselves and people related to us as above average—making the idea that we'll be the ones with special powers easier to accept.