For years, I have always been inexorably pulled towards books about magic. For me, like so many others, the Harry Potter series acted as the gateway to a lifelong addiction to stories of witches and wizards and the magical quests and creatures that surround them. Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl and Witch Child in childhood eventually gave way to the works of Neil Gaiman, JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett in my teenage years and in just the last few months I’ve raced through Practical Magic, A Deadly Education and The Bloody Chamber. Some people might consider this fixation to be childish or would posit that it reflects a desire to escape an increasingly complex and frightening reality. To those people I would say ‘back off, you’re not my therapist’ although there’s probably a kernel of truth in what they’re saying. But this leaves me with a question – why magic? Why not the far off planets of science fiction or the swooning fantasy of romance novels? What is it about magic that keeps pulling me back in times of trouble?
Doubtless an element of this will be that, for me, books about magic act as a time machine, pulling me back to the safety of childhood when I was still waiting for my Hogwarts letter and thought that it was sensible to stay on the good side of fairies, just in case they were real. But there’s more to it than mere nostalgia. Often magical systems revolve around ideals of justice (magic always comes with a price) and fairness (whatever energy you put out into the world will return to you threefold), concepts that children are extremely sensitive to and that adults can all too often forget about. There is something singularly appealing and fantastical about the idea of a world in which unseen powers ensure that people, good or bad, get what they deserve.
But can science fiction not be equally fantastical? Yes and no. The science fiction writer Charles C. Clarke famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” but in a world where I’m more reliant than ever on technology for connection to family, friends, work and the world as a whole, I’m finding that this isn’t entirely true. I think this is because magic, by definition, is something that you call from within yourself. It’s a power that exists independently of your surroundings and indeed often your own consciousness. Magical literature is rife with protagonists calling on previously unknown powers in times of distress, from Harry Potter accidentally releasing the Burmese python at the London Zoo to Alina Starkov fighting off Volcra in the Fold. Technology, and by extension the world of science fiction, lacks the appeal of the magical because it exists outside of ourselves. It can malfunction, break or be taken away in a way that magic can never be because it is inherent. Similarly romantic novels lack this appeal because the fantastical element of these stories is grounded in a relationship with another person. Magic is therefore incredibly attractive and comforting, not only because how it evokes the unique power of humanity but also how it appeals to human desire for independence and self-sufficiency.
Magic in literature is also attractive because of the illusion of control that it offers to the reader. In times where life can feel so uncertain or confusing the fantasy of being able to influence events, protect our loved ones or ward off evil by simply chanting a few words or ingesting the right herbs is tremendously appealing. Magic can sometimes feel like the flightier sister of hope, something that we turn to when the world seems darker than we can bear. In the second book of the Harry Potter series, Albus Dumbledore says that “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it” and this proves itself to be true throughout the series, with magical assistance often appearing at the last possible moment to help Harry to defeat whatever foe he is facing. In a year that has felt very dark indeed at times, it’s been nice to indulge in the fantasy of magical ability or assistance while we wait for scientists to do the gruelling but necessary work to create a vaccine.
So this year more than most years I’m not ashamed to fall back into fantastical books about magic. Their appeal is almost tailor made for the uncertain and frightening world that we’re having to face. Yet, it is important to keep your feet on the ground, even if your head is in the clouds. I know that it will be scientists, not wizards and witches, who make things right in the end and it will be our loved ones, not magical creatures, who keep us sane in the meantime. But magic is certainly a lovely distraction.