Why is magic so focused on the individual?
This article was featured in The Aramchek Dispatch, a zine put together by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Club and Creative Writing Club at Cal State Fullerton. Unfortunately, the block quotes around quoted material were omitted in that edition. Please note that full attribution of sources appears in the text below.
Magic systems vary widely across the literary world, but almost all works of fiction that include magic have certain things in common. Usually, a character discovers that they have an innate ability to do magic, whether it’s through using wands or speaking words or some other method (or multiple methods). In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, not anyone can be chosen to go to Hogwarts–they are selected based on an inherent ability that exists within them and is detectable by the Ministry of Magic. In V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, magic users begin to learn their affinity for a certain type of magic by use of an elemental game board at a young age. In both of these worlds, and in many others besides, there are characters that are extremely skilled at magic–and some that have no magic at all. Even in worlds where magic is treated like a natural resource, such as the ley lines in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, the method used to tap into that source varies widely from character to character. Magic in these instances is inextricably tied to the individual and their own skills and abilities.
Why is magic so focused on the individual? First, let’s define magic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The use of ritual activities or observances which are intended to influence the course of events or to manipulate the natural world, usually involving the use of an occult or secret body of knowledge; sorcery, witchcraft. Also: this practice as a subject of study.
In terms of fictional magic systems I would argue that this definition is incomplete. When magic is included in the world of a story it is used as a plot device–it will serve as a method to propel the characters forward in their goals or hold the characters back. It is the means by which the characters function in order to get what they want, whether it is used by the protagonist or the antagonist. Magic is a tool, often used in lieu of technology available to those in the real world, or as a way to supplement it. Think of Arthur Weasley from Harry Potter, a blustering wizard enamored with “Muggle” technology that was unnecessary for wizards, such as telephones and cars. In this sense, magic and technology are interchangeable–both are used as a means for humans to achieve their goals, whether they be small, mundane tasks or world-saving objectives.
Thinking of magic like a as a technological endeavor is not a new concept. Some scholars argue that magic was a precursor to modern scientific and technological thought, and that the reason was capitalism. Capitalism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the possession of capital or wealth; an economic system in which private capital or wealth is used in the production or distribution of goods and prices are determined mainly in a free market; the dominance of private owners of capital and of production for profit.” Greed and desire for profit, wealth, and control are what drove the industrial revolution, and so, too, drove the desire for magic. Magic was the bridge between desire and execution of achieving that desire. In his book Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford argues that “It was in magic that the general conquest of the external environment was decisively instituted.” Think of the alchemists and the occultists of the 15th and 16th centuries that aimed to turn lead into gold–to use magic for material and capitalistic means.
C.S. Lewis, writing in his 1943 book The Abolition of Man, argues that magic was not a precursor to science, but rather a concurrent practice.
There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak … There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages … For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.
When we think of magic like a machine, or as a tool for humanity to use to bend reality to their own wishes, it is impossible to separate it from the world of economics. Magic was born from capitalist desires and is still inextricably caught up in it in modern fantasy fiction. It makes sense, then, why so much fiction involving magic is based on individualistic ideals. If magic is predicated by a capitalist desire to acquire wealth and power for an individual, an individual’s skill and ability to do such things are valued above all else. Characters with better magical ability are seen as competitors, not co-conspirators. And those with no magical ability, like Mr. Filch from Harry Potter, fall into the cracks of the magical society. As readers we accept this. In fact, we almost applaud the way that he is allowed to remain at Hogwarts and at least hang out with the wizards we admire, even if he’ll never be one of them. His identity is synonymous with his individual ability to do magic, a handicap of which there is no way to overcome.
The pervasive characteristics of individuality and capitalism within fantasy fiction is extremely problematic. These values that are intrinsic to our society find their way into worlds that are supposed to be drastically different than our own. Even in dystopian novels and end-of-civilization zombie movies, capitalism persists despite irreversible global changes. In the 2005 documentary Zizek! about Slovenian sociologist and philosopher Slavoj Zizek, Zizek states that “it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.” Capitalism is inevitably laced through our fiction, even in worlds that are supposed to be decidedly not our contemporary society.
This dependence on individualism and capitalism is stunting the growth of fantasy as a genre. Of course most magic systems are bound by certain rules in order to maintain suspension of belief–but what if those rules were different than the rules of capitalism? Magic would be a very different thing if it was imagined outside the scope of greed and wealth accumulation, outside the ways that it can benefit the individual. Magic could take many new forms–like social magic, coming from a collective rather than one individual source. Magic could work like a choir, a melding of voices of all types, not just a solo. In its current form, assumptions about its purpose and usefulness are placed upon magic without regard to why it exists, only what we can do with it. To reimagine magic outside the constraints of individualism would be to reimagine fantasy fiction as a genre.