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Saturday, 20 August 2011

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.


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