Sunday, August 21, 2011

Are magicians made or born?

This idea has popped up a few times at all my favorite web hangouts, so I think it's time someone burst this particular bubble. Let me sharpen my needle.

On the science fiction (and occasional fantasy) blog io9, author David Liss makes the claim that our idea about magic has changed: it used to be that anyone could be a magician--all you needed was the right book or the right pact with the devil (or whomever); but sometime in the last century, our idea of magic has become more elitist--only those who are born with the right spark can become magicians. Without any claim to certainty, Liss pegs this change to around the time of Bewitched, which wins him points, because I used to love that show.

Pretty soon, Alyssa Rosenberg was making some interesting connections between this idea (magic is only for special people) and a sense of powerlessness that we might feel in the face of powerful forces--dynastic, corporate, or what-have-you. (I'd want to connect that to Carl Freedman's comments in 2004 on the transition in GOP politicians from Reagan--the everyman--to Schwarzenegger--the inhuman. But just because I like this idea of Rosenberg's doesn't mean it's true.) And then Andrew Sullivan thought this idea was worth linking to.

But it's not. And here's why:

(1) Liss doesn't really provide any evidence demonstrating that there was this shift from the everyman magician (everymage?) to the elite born magician.

He mentions Faust, which I'll give him: anyone can pact with the Devil and become a magician or witch. He also could have mentioned the magical scientists/mathematicians, like Pythagoras or Paracelsus--anyone can be an alchemist or magical-scientist, since all you need in those cases is to be smart enough to understand the formula/read Enochian/run the numbers. And let's add Shakespeare's Prospero as a significant figure of the "being a magician is a choice" school of thought. (After all, Prospero could quit being a wizard because being a wizard wasn't an intrinsic part of him.)

(Actually, "read Enochian" is an interesting example, since Enochian was the work of two people--the everyman John Dee and the special medium Edward Kelley. Gosh, it's hard to come up with examples to support Liss.)

Against those examples, we have Merlin, often a half-demon; Tolkien's inhuman wizards; Leiber's inhuman Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face; Ursula K. Le Guin's Ged (born of a smith, but born special); and pretty much every other case of a chosen hero having a special destiny--and most of those are clearly before Bewitched

(Sidenote hypothesis: It's no surprise that the everyman using magic often occurs in horror--c.f., any Lovecraftean story--whereas the innate magician often appears in more epic genres, like fantasy.)

So, before I could give Liss this point, I'd really like to see more examples proving the switch from everymage to elite mage.

(2) Further, Liss's argument slips between the idea of inherited power and innate power--both of which may be undemocratic and elitist, but which aren't the same sort of undemocratic elitism.

That is, if anyone can be a magician, you've got a wide degree of social mobility: for example, the village smith can become a wizard if only he finds the right book or makes the right pact or etc.--this is the scenario that Liss wants (everymage). This is the radically democratic model.

But if magical power is inherited, you have no social mobility at all: in that case, only wizards can become wizards (tautology intended)--and this is the scenario that Liss fears is dominant today (the elite mage). This is the radically undemocratic elitist model.

But if power is innate--but not inherited--then you've got a wide degree of generational social mobility: the smith can't become a wizard, but his son can become a wizard. (Cf. Ged in Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea.)

The perfect example of this is the most popular contemporary wizarding world, Harry Potter: one's parental magic ability is not an absolute predictor of your magical ability. Magical parents have unmagical children and vice versa; for example, Hermione Granger may face social stigma for her unmagical family, but she could still be the most powerful wizard in the world.

That model is undemocratic and elitist--but not radically so (which is kind of the scenario that Liss paints).

(3) Liss ends his post with this impassioned and rather touching comment:
From Aladdin to the Golden Ass to Faust, in the past we told stories about people who acquire the ability to do magic--and sometimes benefit and sometimes suffer. That could be us. Now we tell ourselves stories about magical people who struggle to deal with their special gifts. Those people are not us...
And yet, we used to tell stories about Greek gods and demi-gods and mythic heroes--figures who were innately what they were, who were categorically different from us. We could all aspire to be heroic, but we didn't need to identify ourselves completely with these figures to do so. It seems crazy to claim that we used to tell stories only about people we could identify with. This is a touching comment, and I think Liss might not be totally wrong (see my above comment on the transition from everyman Reagan to inhuman Schwarzenegger as political model).

But the brush he paints with is too broad. This is a bubble that practically pops itself.

So, Liss's essay is thought-provoking, but doesn't work since (1) it lacks evidence of the shift he posits; (2) slips between two forms of elite notions that aren't the same; and (3) misrepresents our narrative legacy of caring about--identifying with--characters who are different from us.

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