If someone was talking to you casually and they said that some character in a relatively recent book, comic, game, or movie used “magic”, what would you think you know about that character, without any further information? I don’t think you’d know any more than this: said character uses means apparently unrelated to his ends to achieve them. In addition,those ends may be impossible under conventional circumstances. Really, that’s it; after the countless fictional worlds containing countless variations on the theme, that is the dry and general, basic understanding of magic we are left with. Does the character make grim bargains with other-worldly spirits? Does the character tap into an invisible force and bend it to his will? Is there no explanation whatsoever? To know that, knowing it was “magic” isn't enough.
The word “magic” is ubiquitous in pop-culture, and its ubiquity has made its meaning unclear. The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, and Disney all have “magic” associated with them in one way or another. And different, but related, things are meant by it in each case. So, over the course of a few articles, let’s see if we can untangle this mess a bit and figure out what we’re so enamored of; because it’s clearly not just staves, wands, and pointy hats.
One clear reason we (humans) are attracted to the concept of magic is that it is wonderful; wonderful in the direct sense of astonishing or marvelous. It is this simply because it is unusual, and it is unusual by definition. Even if “magic” is an everyday occurrence in the world of a story in which it appears, it is not an everyday occurrence here (or else we wouldn't call it magic, we’d call it heating the house, or making a phone call, or whatever) and it’s easy for unusual things to astonish us, because we weren't expecting them.
But this is only the surface of why magic is wonderful; someone jumping out at you and going “boo” is unexpected, but it is not wonderful. Magic is wonderful because it is unusual and a sign of something beyond the appearances. That we do not expect it highlights the fact that something mysterious, something hidden, is taking place and causing what we see on the surface. We want to know and to understand, and we have a sense that there is something beyond what we see. And if someone has lost that sense in reality, he at least wishes there was something mysterious, and so he plays D&D. This is the crux of what is both good, and potentially dangerous, about the aspect of wonder in the “magic” of pop-culture.
On the one hand, magic in literature becomes an analogy. One of the best things about analogy is that it points out without just positing. If I say to you that someone is devious and unpredictable, you’re left with two words for which you have more or less dry definitions. If I call that same person a snake in the grass, you have to hold in your mind both the image of a snake in the grass and the person I’m talking about, and compare them yourself in order to identify the similarity.
Occasionally I make a stupid joke. I say to someone “hey, I can move things with my mind,” and when they look at me quizzically I pick something up with my hand. This is a stupid joke but not, therefore, unimportant. It’s stupid because, obviously, picking something up is not what people mean by moving something with their mind. But, it’s a good joke because picking something up with your hand is picking something up with your mind. And, if you take the time to reflect on the relationship between the mind and the body, and the fact that physical objects can interact with each other, you’ll realize that both are pretty inexplicable and amazing realities. So, magic in literature can be a helpful analogy, if the person watching (or reading, or playing) is properly disposed, because they can say: “wow, isn't it amazing how Hermione fixes Harry’s glasses with a wave of her wand? And hey, optics and lens grinding are pretty amazing on their own!”
The problem, on the other hand, is the problem of the guy playing D&D because he wants to quit the world he thinks he lives in (a flat, explained, uninteresting one) to live in a better one (a magical -- i.e. wonderful -- mysterious, exciting one.) The “problem” here isn't that he is looking for wonder and mystery; it’s that he’s going about it in an empty and ultimately dissatisfying way. If he really did live in a flat, explained, dead universe devoid of mystery I’d say: “Go! Flee from that pile of crap, even if only into your imagination!” But that isn't the case, and ultimately he’s going to have to live here, and it’d be a shame to miss out on the fact that it’s a good place to live.
© 2013 John Hiner III