February 15, 2005

Books about magic

Posted by Matt

Once again I find our page empty, and so I'll ramble a bit. I know, this is what all my posts end up as, but for some reason the more carefully planned things I start are always abandoned or just don't seem very interesting once I come back to them. Better to get something up here, and then it can start looking uninteresting once it's posted.

I still haven't finished reading Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though I'm most of the way through it now. Mostly, I haven't finished it because I took a break to read the most recent three Harry Potter books for the first time. (I also read Procopius's Secret History for another fun little diversion, but that's less magical. Unless one takes seriously his claim that Justinian was a demon and that his reign caused earthquakes, or his accusations about Antonina.)

Anyhow, reading Harry Potter and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (I'll shorten it to "Strange" for the remainder of this post) within short succession is interesting, as they take a very different approach toward the subject of magic in England. Both of them construct vivid and believable worlds. I don't think I spoil too many plot details, but I'll put the rest of the post under the link below. (Also, since I still have about a quarter of Strange left to read and I might not get to it until the weekend, please don't disclose the ending to me.)

One thing that interests me about these books is the role of magic in the world. In the Harry Potter books, the world of wizards and witches exists in parallel to the Muggle world. They have minimal interaction, but they're remarkably similar. Wizards and witches have families and jobs and go to school much like the rest of us. What we accomplish through technological means, they accomplish through magic. And of course magic makes their lives different in a variety of other ways, but the parallel world of magic is comfortingly close to what we're used to. The wizards and witches know about the Muggle world, of course; some of them grew up in it. Very few Muggles seem to know about the existence of magic, though, and the Ministry of Magic even goes as far as altering the memories of those who find out. One wonders why this situation persists, and whether it is stable. (Of course, once Voldemort's power grows again, the Ministry will have a tougher time keeping his existence secret, but the Muggle world seems to have no lasting scars from his previous ascendancy.) Ultimately the answer for why Rowling chooses to set up this parallel secret world is simple: she wants us as readers to entertain the fun notion that such a parallel magical world could really exist. But as a story element, it's odd: do the wizards try to keep their existence secret to protect the Muggles, or to protect themselves? If the former, is it really worthwhile? Surely the psychology of us normal folks is not so fragile that knowing of the existence of wizards would be incredibly damaging. (Or would it? Maybe so. See my later thought below.) On the other hand, if it's to protect themselves, it suggests a curious fragility to the world of magic, if Muggles could pose such a terrible threat to it with their clumsy technology. Maybe it's just that the wizards and witches don't want to be bothered.

Not wanting to be bothered, of course, is the reason Mr. Norrell at the beginning of Strange has kept his practice of magic secret. He's a quiet recluse. All that changes early in the book, though, and the practice of magic becomes of enormous popular interest. The ordinary people in Clarke's world are delighted by magic, and the magicians conversely are fairly ordinary people. Of course, Clarke's world is very different from Rowling's: Rowling takes our own world as a backdrop, while Clarke proposes an alternate history in which the existence of magic is well-known, but in which it has faded into the past. For Clarke, magicians are closer to the rest of society than for Rowling, but on the other hand, the magical world is more sinister. We gradually become aware throughout the book that Norrell and Strange are delving into something they barely understand. Only one human ever truly did, John Uskglass, the Raven King, a character who grows in importance throughout the story. The realm of Faerie is fantastic and disturbing, but there are other lands beyond even that; Uskglass was said to lease land on the other side of Hell from Lucifer. Clarke's vision of magic is in many ways less mundane than Rowling's. It is less gimmicky, more mysterious. (Granted, Rowling has let us see magic mostly through Hogwarts, where it is made more safe, and the fight between Dumbledore and Voldemort at the end of Book Five suggests that what we have seen is only a fraction of what is possible.)

I have to admit that I've never been much of a reader of either fantasy or science fiction. Like every other nerdy child I read Tolkien, but only once or twice. I went through a science fiction phase, but not so much of one, and I haven't even read some of the 'canonical' books. I was a devoted fan of Star Wars until around the time the prequels started coming out (coincidence? hmm) and read all the literature of questionable quality that had sprung up by then. The usual notion that "genre fiction" is rarely good literature seems to me to be often true, at least to the extent that great literature is rarely pigeonholable. Rowling is certainly not "great literature" by any stretch, and while Clarke's book is probably more literary, I think it's worth pointing out that literariness is not the sole metric by which a book should be judged. What's interesting about these books is the same sort of thing that used to draw me to Star Wars years ago. It's an art, but a different one from that of good writing. It's the art of sculpting detailed and interesting worlds. That alone is, for my taste at least, insufficient, though. These interesting worlds have to be peopled with good characters. And in both cases this is true. Rowling has constructed very compelling characters, and they mature in interesting ways over the course of the books. Seeing how Harry, Ron, and Hermione progress toward adulthood is one of the more interesting parts of the series, and keeps me reading at least as much as finding out what happens to the magical world in the wake of Voldemort's return. Clarke's characters are also compelling, if rarely likable. Like Rowling, she has some memorable minor characters. Clarke's technique of writing in the style of the period in which she places her book, and also filling it with witty footnotes, add to the depth of the world she imagines.

One can build detailed and interesting worlds in all sorts of completely realistic ways, of course, and so it's not as if many works of literature don't do this or try to. But there's something distinctly interesting about literary worlds with magical elements. Why are books about magic so appealing? I think the notion that in the world around us there are all sorts of fantastic events bubbling beneath the surface reality is a compelling one. [1] But would you really want to live in such a world? In Clarke's book, at times it seems to me that living with the 19th century British social structure would be more difficult than living with the world of Faerie waiting beyond every tolling bell. And in Rowling's books, at times Hogwarts seems like it would be a wonderful place to have gone to school. At the same time, though, I think that to actually live in a world with magic would be quite frightening. There's a vertiginous sense that nothing is certain. All the logical rules about how the world works have been turned upside down. Two ideas come to mind that would be interesting to read. The first would be the story of a person or persons from a world like ours (a "scientific" world, let's call it) who find themselves in a magical world. How do they react? Putting aside the conventions of the genre, in which such things tend to be accepted surprisingly readily: they react with fright, I would think, no matter how amusing and appealing the world they find themselves in might seem, because of this magical vertigo. This isn't necessarily a shock one would get over, either, but more of a lasting malaise, maybe a sense that one can't be real in such a world. [2] The second idea: suppose the world were magical. How could it get to the point of Rowling's or Clarke's stories? Why would people have evolved as we have? I would expect being magical would be highly advantageous in evolution, so why would non-magical creatures still exist? (Yes, I'm caricaturing evolution, I know. Maybe a better formulation is, in a world where the laws of science can be subverted so readily, is it at all reasonable to posit that life is so recognizable?) How do the laws of science operate in a world of magic? (Conservation laws seem to have been thrown out the window, but maybe there's just some sort of horrible nonlocality. "The Physics of Harry Potter." I could do what Lawrence Krauss did with Star Trek and make some money, maybe.) It would be amusing to construct some stories along these lines, but I'm not feeling particularly creative. Maybe I could just write about what such a story would be like. It could be all Borgesian and stuff.

Ah well. Enough rambling for now.

Concluding unrelated postscript: the New Pornographers' song "The Body Says No" is really catchy. And the line "Am I repeating myself to tell you that dreaming is what's left of psychedelia" keeps getting stuck in my head.

Update: I wish I could say that I am surprised to find that a Google search for "physics of Harry Potter" already turns up a number of results.

[1] Of course, there are, and you can ask your favorite physicist or chemist or biologist to point some of them out to you. Arguably some of the things I spend my time studying are less mundane, more fantastic, and less superficially plausible than the worlds Rowling and Clarke have painted. But I digress.

[2] On further reading, I find the publisher Mr. Murray expresses a milder form of this sentiment in Strange: "I have never experienced magic at first hand before. I do not think that I shall be in any great hurry to do so again. It is most eerie and unpleasant. How in the world is a man to know what to do when nothing behaves as it should?"

Posted by Matt at February 15, 2005 09:12 PM
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