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When did magic become elitist?

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It used to be that anybody could learn magic, in pop culture as well as folklore. But in recent decades, magical powers have become an inherited trait, which only a few people are born with. What changed? David Liss, author of The Twelfth Enchantment, explores the trend towards elitism in our fantasy stories.

My mother recently learned a trick from one of her co-workers, and she swears by it. If she's lost something around the house, she takes an empty coffee cup and turns it upside down on the kitchen counter. The lost item will always appear within a couple of hours. She swears it works and passes the tip on to everyone she knows. Because my mother is neither particularly religious nor superstitious, she would probably be surprised to learn that by manipulating one object in order to affect another object by invisible means, she is practicing magic.


For the record, I am not calling my mother a witch. I am saying that while popular culture usually portrays practitioners of magic as separate from ordinary people, often biologically different, many people have habits or customs or superstitions that show magic was once a whole lot more democratic. In San Antonio, where I live, it is very common to see a person, after admiring a baby, to touch the child lightly. Apparently it's very easy to accidentally put the evil eye on a baby, and so you touch it to remove the curse – just in case. People who do this often don't think much of it, but at some level they believe they have both the power to convey, and remove, curses simply by force of will. It's commonplace magic for ordinary people, yet when you look at novels, television and movies, we get very different kinds of stories.


I first became interested in this subject when working on my new novel, The Twelfth Enchantment, which is about people who practice magic and believe it to be effectual-and in my book, it really is. Set in England in the early 19th century when magic is both in decline and enjoying a resurgence because of its opposition to the industrial revolution, the book is a fantasy that tries to recapture how people in the past understood the magic they themselves practiced or believed in. The spells they cast are the kinds of spells real people actually cast. It's not dynamic magic with magic missiles shooting out of fingertips. It is the kind of subtle magic that once made a great deal of sense to ordinary men and women.

It was the logic of magic that struck me most. 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.

First, a bit of background. Magic has been around forever and it's also been in trouble forever. I'm not suggesting that there was ever a time when the practice of magic was celebrated by those in power. Actually, such practices were routinely demonized by monarchs and organized religions precisely because magic is inherently democratic. The ancient Greeks and Romans forbade magic in part because it was too easy for the lowborn to curse their leaders, though Plato allowed that certain kinds of magic-especially healing and midwifery-had their place in the Republic. The campaigns against alleged witches in medieval and early modern Europe are well known, but the witch hunts are generally acknowledged to be an assault upon the powerless by the powerful. The victims of persecution were very infrequently self-identified witches. Meanwhile, whether permitted or not, ordinary people often practiced ordinary magic over the course of their lives-be it in using herbs for healing or engaging in practices we would describe as "superstitious" to bring luck or ensure success in various ventures. The distinction between magic and healing and superstition is a modern one that would have been lost on all Europeans before the 17th century and most before the mid 19th.


In England, where my novel is set, magic that people could not perform themselves was farmed out to the local cunning woman (or, less frequently, cunning man) who often had some measure of book learning, even if it was only second hand. On the more sophisticated level were well-positioned scholars who studied magic and alchemy and who wrote about their studies, theorizing extensively about how and why it worked. Magic for them wasn't chaos, it was a kind of science. The influential 16th century magician, Henry Cornelius Agrippa, theorized how magic worked in part with his law of resonance, which explained how inherent connections between all things could be exploited by magical practice. When children play at making potions, eye of newt is an inevitable ingredient, and there's a reason why newts and frogs and toads have always been popular components in spells – as amphibians, their nature is inherently metamorphic. A magician could tap into their transformative nature and connect that energy to something else, since everything is already connected anyhow. It's like a late medieval version of quantum entanglement.

The universe is therefore inherently magical, or magic is simply part of the universe-and therefore nature. It is open and available to everyone because it is hardwired into reality. That is why the practice of ordinary magic was so common, and why the ancients feared curses and the Church feared witches. Magic was everywhere and it was accessible.


All of which raises the question of why we no longer imagine magic to work this way in our fictions. 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. Along with its cultural companion, I Dream of Jeanie, Bewitched was most obviously a comment on the women's movement, a parody of the contemporary anxieties about the powerlessness of men in the face of the growing, mysterious, and ultimately chaotic power of women. But Bewitched had its own mythology, one which included male "wizards" in addition to female witches, and that mythology stuck. Biological witchcraft became the dominant mode in popular tales of magical practitioners.


I'm not suggesting that acquired magic has vanished entirely from popular culture. Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer certainly learns magic rather than discovering her true witchy nature, and Jim Butcher's Dresden novels portray a world in which magic is learned rather than inherited. However, in those examples the ability to practice magic takes the practitioner out of the ordinary world. It doesn't rewrite his or her DNA, but it does rewrite the practitioner's environment. The acquisition of magical skills and knowledge provide an entry into a magical world, not a way to get ahead in an ordinary world.

So why did the idea of magic change so drastically over the course of the late 20th century? Honestly, I don't have a satisfying answer, but I do have some suspicions:

(1) Least satisfying, but most compelling, is the "that's-the-way-it-is" argument. Audiences see magic portrayed in a particular way, and so writers recreate what they've seen. I speak with some authority when I say reading Agrippa and Paracelsus is not fun, and certainly more work than watching reruns of Sabrina the Teenage Witch.


(2) There's some kind of racial or ethnic concern being played out. The fact that Bewitched ran during a time of white anxiety about declining white dominance suggests there might be something to this. Are white people the witches, who have the real power, or are they the muggles, who fear the mysterious ethnics? Maybe both.

(3) The family romance. We all want to discover our parents aren't really our parents, or they are much more interesting than what we suspect. That way we, by extension, are just as awesome as we had always hoped we were. Plus now we can now prove it by shooting lightning out of our fingers.


(4) Our culture is inherently anti-intellectual. We respect hard work and diligence when it comes to the pursuit of money or physical accomplishments, but not when it comes to knowledge. Remember in Good Will Hunting when we're asked to love Matt Damon because he knows everything without making any effort and condemn the graduate students who labor diligently to acquire knowledge? We celebrate inherent greatness over intellectual achievements. We admire Harry Potter because his magical skill is organic. He's great without meaning or wanting to be. We laugh at Hermione who is always hitting the books. What a wonk!

Like many people who spend a fair amount of time doing research, I have a tendency to look at big cultural shifts with both curiosity and suspicion. The kinds of stories we tell ourselves, and maybe especially the kinds of fantasy stories, speak volumes about what we want and what we fear. 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 I do think there's something sad about a culture that writes itself out of its own fantasies. But we're still practicing magic ourselves, so I suppose that's something.