Often in fiction, magic exists as a plot device, and alternative to science and a means to get things done. Sometimes, the mechanics are laid bare. Fictional magic often lacks mystery. Spell casting wizards whose magic is reliable if they say and do the right things are commonplace in fantasy. Psychic powers and magical attributes are usually well defined, predictable, reliable, and (to borrow from Red Dwarf) other words ending in ‘ible’.
As a pagan, my whole idea of magic is completely at odds with this. For me, the very essence of magic is mystery and wonder. I don’t perceive magic as an alternative to science either. I see them in far more complex relationship. That which we do not understand, is magic. That which we have an explanation for, is science, in terms of how humans deal with things. But science can engender wonder and a sense of the miraculous.
Brendan Myers defines magic as that which inspires awe (my books are in storage, I can’t do references!) I think this is a great place to start. The fireworks and thunderclaps of fantasy magic are no different from any other pyrotechnics. They inspire excitement perhaps, but not any sense of wonder.
In fiction, magic just isn’t magical very often.
The desire to explain, to pin down and regulate seems to be on the increase. We confuse understanding, with pinning a thing to a board. To understand a butterfly is to see it in flight, watch how it sits on a flower, to marvel at its colour. Pinning it to a board will help you define and quantify it, but destroys the butterfly. All the mechanical explanations in the world cannot really give you understanding of any complex thing. There is a world of difference between theory and practice, between figures and insight, between taking a thing apart and understanding how it works.
There are some authors who offer wonderful expressions of magic – Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Charles De Lint, Robert Holdstock, Jonathan Carroll, Terry Pratchett with his witches. There’s the whole genre of magical realism, inspired by pre-colonial ways of knowing the world – I’m not a huge fan of Salaman Rushdie, but he’s a fine example. Isabelle Allende is a personal favourite.
These are authors who write experiential magic, and who embrace the numinous. Magic is not, for them, a tidy and coherent system that works like a science or a technology. Magic is wild and wonderful, unruly and full of mystery. It does not explain itself. It will not sit down and tell you where it came from, how it works, and what you can and can’t do with it. Instead, it is the magic that transforms lives and brings inspiration.
There are a lot of people out there who perceive stage magic, fantasy magic, as the aspiration of actual pagans. They imagine that we want to be Harry Potter. They watch impossible, crazy things and understand that magic is impossible and unreal and not available to them. So much magic in fiction is actually taking away from people the idea that magic exists, by turning it into high fantasy. I’ve yet to meet anyone who does Harry Potter style magic (I assume no one would admit it if they could), but if this vision of what magic means defines it in the public conscious, most people will understand it is not for them, and that only crazy people would seek for it.
Remystifying magic, re-enchanting it and bringing it back into a spiritual and meaningful context, would be an epic task. But not impossible. It’s just such a nuisance that Hollywood pyrotechnic pseudo-science goes round calling itself magic, when it’s about as unmagical as you can get.