On Magic

You’ll have to forgive me – I’m presently running as fast as I can just to keep up with myself – so here is one from the archives and from elsewhere which you might not have seen before. Enjoy…

Fantasy is a lens which sharpens and clarifies the sliver of reality viewed through it, or at least that’s what the very best fantasy is. Magic is one of the tools used to accomplish this, and it’s a powerful one. I’ll even go so far to say that it’s a threatening one, because there is, and always has been, that propensity to react against something that affects you deeply.

Sufficiently advanced magic takes on a reality all of its own and begins to be something believed in on its own terms, with something approaching religious faith. This is possibly the reason why the more fundamental Christian ilk feels so violently threatened by such things as the magic in Harry Potter, because they confuse a powerful system of magic being used to shape a fictional story and certain aspects of the reality in which it is based with a potential rival to their own creed and dogma and set of beliefs and a false dichotomy of “people who like and believe THIS cannot possibly believe OUR magic faith and so they must be like be our enemies”. And enemies are there to be attacked. And thus magic gets a reputation because it’s batting against an already established system which is entrenched, and very much opposed to the things that the new fantasy might be bringing in with it.

 I am going to take this one step further, and perhaps into contentious territory. If any sufficiently advanced technology, as the quote goes, is indistinguishable from magic then it is also possible that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from a religion.

If anything that is beyond our comprehension or ability to explain away by empirical means may be tagged with the word “magic”, then the Christian mythos starts to drip with the thing – what are miracles if not magic? Changing water into wine? Walking on water? Resurrection, for that matter…? But over the course of two thousand years the magic has hardened into a cracked outer shell of dogma. It is no longer the original magic but the recasting of that magic into something useful and controllable by a series of human interpreters who sought to use the instances of true magic into something that supported their own thesis, or theory, or grip on power.

I believe there is real magic in belief. I truly believe that sometimes wishing for something hard enough actually does make it come true because the sheer power of the act of visualisation often means that you are, however unwittingly, also working in real-terms for the manifestation of that thing in your life. I remember reading Richard Bach’s “Illusions: the adventures of a reluctant Messiah” (I couldn’t remember the exact title so I just looked it up and this jumped out at me from one of the book’s Amazon reviews: “I’m a Christian, but believe that when you move beyond a literal interpretation of Christ’s words and see the symbolic message in them, it’s not too different from what’s in this book. But that’s a big leap for most Christians and this book will probably make their blood boil.”) – this encapsulates precisely the conundrum I was talking about up there in the third paragraph…) Specifically, I am thinking about the blue feather incident, where the reluctant Messiah of the title instructs our POV character, his equally reluctant disciple, on the principles of visualisation. Visualise something, the Messiah says, and it will manifest in your life. All right, says the disiple, a blue feather. The Messiah raises an eyebrow but goes, okay, blue feather. CONCENTRATE on it.

Next thing, they’re passing a dairy delivery truck and our disciple’s eyes go wide. Hey, LOOK, he says, and sure enough, on the side of the truck it says BLUE FEATHER DAIRIES.

This is where it gets interesting.

The disciple says that he expected a “real” blue feather. Yes, says the Messiah, but how did you visualise this when you invited it into your life? Were you holding it in your hand or was it just, like, floating disembodied in space?… Floating, the disciple admits. Well, the Messiah explains, that accounts for it. You didn’t personalise the magic and all you did was manifest a generic iteration of the item that you were seeking, not the thing itself in your possession.

Oooooh. It’s MAGIC. It’s real magic because this is delivered utterly matter-of-factly, as though it were common knowledge, as though anybody could do it.

But this is where the organised and dogmatic faith departs from the pure unfettered faith of a child not yet trained to obey all the “rules”. The original miracles are crusted over by the barnacles of creed, words that are repeated verbatim every Sunday to the point of becoming invisible, and completely detached from the things that they may actually mean. True, there are occasional intra-dogmatic kerfuffles within denominations who argue until they foam at the mouth whether “Body of Christ” and “Blood of Christ” are representations of the things they puport to be or whether they MAGICALLY (and I use the word advisedly) transform into the actual real thing when the priest intones the words above the plate and the chalice. Magic is rich and powerful stuff. Powerful enough to make the faithful, who would otherwise recoil at the idea of eating human flesh or drinking human blood, accept even the most potent of the interpretations of those words when they are uttered by a consecrated being over a consecrated thing and freely partake of it despite the implications and moral and ethical contradictions inherent in what they believe they are consuming.

True magic lies in weaving together something that is impossible with something that is yearning for the impossible in such a way that the impossible thing becomes not just possible but inevitable.

This is what writers do every day.

What is it that makes magic come alive for the reader? Is it that the writer must believe in it first, and to what degree should that belief be taken – philosophical, empirical, dogmatic? What is it about magic that pulls in the human mind? What are the riptides and the undertows of that wine-dark sea in which we all like to occasionally drown?

What makes magic… for YOU?…

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  1. 1. Megs

    While I agree with the majority of your points and I love a well-written magic system, I just want to point at that the primary fundamental Christian issue with the magic of Harry Potter books is that it’s specifically the kind of magic forbidden BY Christianity (fundamental, Bible-verse backed-up varieties anyway). So while some can ignore that and go “it’s fiction,” others feel it needs to be stamped out just like the real-life counterpart it parallels.

    Personally, I’m the kind of girl that simply accepts there’s a lot of stuff in this world that doesn’t fit with me personally and when I come across it, I go my way, it goes its.

    Now, off that side-topic, what makes magic for me (in a book at least) is a world consistently and completely built around that magic. If the rules of the world have broad, far-reaching inevitable consequences that are always strictly adhered to by the story (whether or not the characters believe), for the duration of the story, I will believe. I like a world I can get lost in, that is what it is, however different from mine it may be. That makes magic to me.

  2. 2. Ryl

    Excellent post, Alma! Deep, insightful, and well worded.

    I found myself nodding in agreement with its components and its entirety. We appear to have made many of the same observations regarding dogma — a thing I avoid like the plague, as it wants to mess with my mind while it insisting on getting between me and my maker.

    Magic for me manifests as Sensawunda. It has that innocent power to return me to my own innocence and that time/place when I believed — no scratch that, when I *knew* all things were possible.

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    Megs – “I go my way it goes its” is a pretty good philosophy in a nutshell. I hadn’t quite articulated it in that pithy a manner, but I can fully get behind it as you stated it.

    Ryl – thanks – and yes, indeed, the Sensawunda is a powerful thing…

  4. 4. Rupert

    “MAGICALLY (and I use the word advisedly)”

    I assume by ‘advisedly’ you mean ‘because I’m uninformed’. Either they are right, and it’s not magical, or they are wrong and it’s not happening at all. A true dichotomy.

    “despite the implications and moral and ethical contradictions inherent in what they believe they are consuming”

    Again your lack of knowledge and understanding of their position leads you into making uninformed claims about them. What are the moral contradictions of which you speak? Thou shall not kill? Thou shall not be a cannibal? Luckily neither of these are violated when christians eat ‘the body and blood of God’

    Better research will help you avoid these kinds of errors in the future. An easy trick is to ask yourself each and every time you are about to describe the thoughts and beliefs of ‘the other’ – “Why do I believe they believe this? Where did I find out about this? Was it a trustworthy source? Have I ever spoken to one of these people and what did they say they believed. Does this contradict what I assume they believe?”

    And if after that you aren’t sure, and you can’t find anything trustworthy to base your opinion on just seek out one of them to ask, or don’t include it at all.

  5. 5. i-10

    Sweet article. Gonna pick up a copy of Illusions: the adventures of a reluctant Messiah i think.

  6. 6. Alma Alexander

    i-10 – have fun with “Illusions” – it’s the kind of book that you get something new and different out of every time you re-read it…

  7. 7. Alma Alexander

    Rupert – I am aware of the concept of transubstantiation, and its interpretations. The post here was looking at a certain angle of magic and magic-as-faith and faith-as-magic.

    I was fully cognisant of the possibility that, by posting this particular article, I might be kicking a hornet’s nest and letting the stingers out – but please do be aware of the fact that I am not writing a religious tract or treatise here, just exploring ideas. You are, of course, free to disagree with them, or interpret them differently as you choose. But if you choose to do that then please keep in mind that this post wasn’t written about what I believe that other people should, or should not, or must, or ought to, or are obliged by their particular brand of faith, to believe. Neither should you be telling ME that.

    Faith is between the faithful and their God. I was writing IN GENERAL TERMS. You are making it personal, and specific. If you wish to join the discussion in general terms, that would be wonderful – but telling everyone else that they simply “don’t understand” is not a helpful starting point at this level. We aren’t here to argue personal religious beliefs – it is neither the time nor the place.

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Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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