What We Talk About When We Talk About Magic

Francesco Dimitri is considered a master of fantasy in his native Italy. His first novel in English, The Book of Hidden Things, was just published last week. It’s the story of the bond between four friends, and about the doorway one of them has found into another world, a doorway that looks a lot like a book. Today, Dimitri joins us for a consideration of how magic works—in books that is—and the difference between a story with magic and a story about magic.

Surprisingly few fantasy books are about magic. I do not mean to say that fantasy has become boring or disenchanted (for new kicks, you should certainly read my stuff). The genre is as exciting as ever, discovering brave new worlds as quickly as we speak. If you want to spend the night talking Joe Hills’ Horns with me, I’ve got good wine to share, and when dawn comes, we can move on to the masterwork that is Jo Walton’s Among Others.

I mean that in the vast (vast, vast) majority of cases, magic is a feature of the story. It is rarely a theme.

Take the most magical saga of them all, one I love from the depths of my heart, Harry Potter. I read it, I loved it, I fancied myself a Gryffindor even though, let’s face it, I am more of a Ravenclaw. It’s a nuanced story on friendship, growing up, on the importance of standing your ground, to the point of revolution if needs be. J. K. Rowling explores a lot of great stuff—not magic. There is no “but: here: these are not stories about magic, these are stories with magic in them, and they were never meant to be otherwise. Swap the wands for science-fictional tech, and not much would change.

In most fantasy books we see magic used as a metaphor, or as a flavoring. The occultist seeking dominion over lesser human beings, the lovers longing to be reunited, the secret feud between contemporary wizards—magic stands in for power, love, pride. Or it is there for the sheer fun of it, because, let’s face it, magic is awesome.

And yet magic is awesome—literally so. It is the oldest articulation of our awe in front of the vast, strange, universe we happen to live in. It has been our companion since our early days, when our distant ancestors would travel for hours through an underground darkness just to get to the heart of the Lascaux caves, and weave forgotten charms on its walls. Homo Sapiens has a longing for transcendence, for a contact with a reality bigger than you and me, bigger than the social and physical walls we made. It might be a doomed longing, or not—it is not for me to say. But it is bloody beautiful.

What I mean by “magic” here is a way of seeing the world based on beauty rather than measure, in which echoes and resonances matter more than causes and effects. This worldview has been reflected in different forms throughout the ages, in drumming, ritual, intellectual doctrines. It did not go away in reality, but it has been, I think, neglected in our stories.

Off the top of my head, only a few books give magic pride of place, and by and large they are not billed as “fantasy.” Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a favorite of mine. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is another: the book is full of magical events, and they do not stand for anything else, they just offer an estranged view on history and what passes for reality.

We can also put in the cauldron many stories by Dino Buzzati (which, as far as I know, have never been translated in English, and you guys are missing out). One, called Una Goccia, A Drop, is about a drop of water climbing a staircase. The drop is not an allegory, the narrator explains, or a poetic device: it is a drop of water climbing a staircase. “And therefore one is afraid,” are the unforgettable last words.

There are some passages in Tana French’s The Secret Place, in which, within a perfectly straight (and wonderfully done) crime story, a group of teenage girls develops mental powers. They just do, and they use them in a dreamy state that is very much not a dream. These passages are made even stranger by the mundane background they are set against.

Within the genre, and always pushing the boundaries, Neil Gaiman has been exploring magic, and Erin Morgenstern’s taste for beauty and sensuousness in The Night Circus would be the joy of any real-world Renaissance magician. Susanna Clarke, in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, went in-depth in the way a magical worldview can shape the way you act and behave. There are other examples, but they are sparse. In the rare cases in which magic-as-a-theme becomes central to a story, we tend to stop considering that story fantasy, and we throw it in with the mainstream. Why is that? That is a splendid question. Sorry, I won’t try to answer it here.

Of course the difference is never clear-cut: Neil Gaiman has used magic to bring plot forward, and there are moments of transcendence in Harry Potter. As most things in life, “magic as a feature” and “magic as a theme” are on a spectrum—and neither end of the spectrum is better, deeper, smarter than the other.

All I am saying is that almost all fantasy is at the ‘magic as a feature’ end of it. I also treasure the books sliding towards the other end. Books which revel in magic itself, with all its wonder and ambiguity, as a fundamental component of the odd condition which is being alive.

Let’s have more of them.

The Book of Hidden Things is available now.

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