One of the predicates of the arguments made in the other articles on magic is that, in the world of the story in which magic appears, the “magic” is a more or less natural phenomenon. While the “…means apparently unrelated to [the] ends…” which constitute the magic are apparently unrelated from our point view, they are, in fictional fact, related. Even a freshman student just on their way to Hogwarts can learn that saying “oculus reparo” and waving a particular stick will repair glasses. Harry is surprised because he’s lived with muggles his whole life. But it doesn’t surprise Hermione or anyone else in the “wizarding world”. It is the common way of fixing glasses it would seem, and simply “the way things are”; just like heating up bread in the real world makes it into toast.
For magic to be wonderful it is important that it be unexpected for us here in the real world. But it is also important that, in the context of the story, it be a natural part of the course of things. Otherwise it becomes not a symbol of competence born of wisdom or special knowledge, but a symbol of evil.
This isn’t to say that the characters can’t find the effects of magic in such stories wonderful. One of the major points of the previous articles is that people find skill wonderful and impressive in every context, and magic accurately represents that.
But, if the magic is not natural; if the means are not a part of the coherent structure of the world of the story, but are a violation of that structure, then, even if it is unexpected and requires long practice and special knowledge, it’s evil, and not simple competence (although it’s impressive evil).
This is because of the nature of evil, which is a disputed concept (mainly by evil people).
In one theory of things (which is really a sort of failure to have a theory) all meaning is constructed by finite persons, and therefore anything is “for” whatever people say it is “for”. One result of this way of thinking is that “good” means getting what you want innocuously enough and helping other people get what they want, while “evil” means somehow gravely hindering people in their goals. This is all it could mean in such a theory, because people are thought to be the only source of moral force.
Someone who takes this view will not see what I mean by unnatural magic (so to speak) in literature as a symbol of evil, because they don’t acknowledge an intrinsic order in things (if there is no health, there is no illness) and so whatever means can be used to achieve the desired ends (with some arbitrary restrictions to allow for other peoples’ desires for some reason) are ok by them.
However, the moral order is something we’re part of, not something we invent. (Some direct evidence: desire and aversion themselves are not human inventions). There is such a thing as health; and so there is such a thing as illness. It is possible to do things rightly and to do them wrongly. If I don’t clean my teeth, they will rot. If I neglect my children’s health and well-being in order to keep my teeth clean, I’ll have clean teeth, but something worse than rotten teeth will result. Good is not doing what I “want”. It is doing what should be done, the way it should be done, and evil is either doing what shouldn’t be done, or doing it in a way that shouldn’t be done.
Magic that is unnatural in the world of a story is a direct simile of this violation of the order of things; human sacrifice for example. You know: cloaked figures plunging daggers into the hearts of innocent girls tied up inside magic circles, stuff like that. It reduces a human being to a mere means to the end of another; the end being some kind of esoteric power or the pleasure of some sinister god.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great symbol. Lots of people perform human sacrifice for power and gain all the time. Take, for example, that people talk about “human resources” all the time as if it wasn’t the creepiest, most vampiric, Borg-like phrase. I imagine CEOs hitting the little button on their intercoms and saying “Janice, I need more toilet paper in my private restroom. Oh, and throw some more menials in the grinder, we need more human on the third floor.”
So, evil magic is a good literary device, but it is also a different one than magic itself. The context makes a lot of difference.
© 2013 John Hiner III