Magic seems so real when you’re a child. The world is a miraculous place where caterpillars turn into butterflies and you’re taught to wish on stars. When the world is so full of possibility, the idea of magic doesn’t seem out of place. Magic explains the world.
I can’t remember when I stopped truly believing in magic. Maybe it was when i figured out that Santa wasn’t really real, or that the wishes I made on stars actually didn’t get heard. Of course, it might have been when that picture of the witch that I saw so vividly in my head looked like a green painted mess on the paper in my art class. Whenever it was that I figured out magic had no place in our world, I definitely remember my sadness and disappointment that I could never be a magic user, or visit magic realms where I would (naturally) suddenly discover that I was a long lost saviour bursting with magic. Like I said: disappointing. My desire to see magic actually exist was, for the most part, equally satisfied and fuelled by falling into enchantments in books.
Enchantments give our world some hope that things can not just be better, easier, more fabulous, but that there is some meaning behind the meaningless. Some sparkle to be added to the banality of existence.
At first I wasn’t fussy as a reader – any kind of magic would do and the idea that it needed to seem realistic by adhering to a set of rules appeared foolish to me. I mean – magic itself is pretty unrealistic right?
But the more I thought, and read, and learned, I saw the point. If magic isn’t bound by some kind of structure or limited in some way, then it can be used to explain anything and to do anything. This can lead to sloppy and unsatisfying stories.
Many limits on magic seem to be based on the idea of energy out needs to be balanced by energy in. It taxes the mage to use power which in turn restricts what they do and how powerful they can become.
Others have complex systems that I find fascinating. Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Mist Born’ series has a system of magic based on metals and how the body reacts to them. One of my favourite books, ‘The Golden Key’ by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott, had magic infused into artworks. For me, these ideas of magic add to the sense of possibility that enchantment could be a part of our every day life.
Magic bound by knowledge still leaves a path open for an all powerful mage, but at least you know they’ve earned it! Harry Potter worked hard to get those Ordinary Wizarding Levels.
In the BBC series of Merlin, his extraordinary gift of magic is bound by the need to keep it hidden on pain of death. This does, of course, lead to the question of why powerful magic users in Camelot didn’t just blast their way out of the dungeons and to freedom, but I love the show so I ignored that.
In my Merlin fanfic, ‘The Return of Arthur’, I try to address this issue of his supreme power, especially given his strong moral character and the frequent mess the world gets into. This extract is from towards the end of the book:
Merlin’s fingers clenched so hard on the rotten windowsill that it came away under his nails, crumbling on to the ground below.
“Children” he whispered. “They’re speaking of killing children”
A hand came round his ankle like a shot but it wasn’t enough. Pushing off Gwaine’s back, causing the other man to collapse with a grunt, he flung himself through the window, blowing the glass inwards before him with a word.
The men stumbled back, cursing. One man whipped out a gun and fired but he cast the bullets away and with a flick of his eyes the man went flying. The other two men cursed and split, he turned to face one, knowing that the other was behind him.
Gwaine clambered in the window after him, landing heavily and rising with a roll only to have a gun at his neck before he could get his own weapon out.
“You better stop with the magic mate, or your pal here gets it”.
The magic was curling around his fingers and the smoke of the fire seemed to be blurring his vision. The vein pulsing in his temple slowed as he took a breath. Control.
A noise in the hall and Arthur was dragged in between two men, a gash in his side leaving blood on the carpet. Gwen’s hair was half out of the bun she’d had it in and a side of her face was red and her eyes were bright with unshed tears. Howling rage filled him. “Did they strike you, Guinevere?”
The man holding her arm gripped it tighter making her wince and scowl. “We’ll do it again if she doesn’t behave”
His gaze went to his king. “Arthur? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. I’ve had worse”
He met his eyes and wanted to smile at the attempt at a joke but instead all he saw was the battle of Camlan and Arthur felled by a mortal blow. The man holding Gwaine dragged him around to the others and moved his gun to Arthur’s head.
A red tide of heat and anger pulsed through him and both arms rose at his sides, palms outwards. He turned his gaze on the mercenaries and knew satisfaction when they flinched.
“Come on now buddy, stand down or we’ll hurt your mate further. He’s for it anyway, but it can be your choice whether he goes slow or fast”
He ignored the man and raised his eyes to the roof. He felt his eyes flash gold and he released the magic. The wind came in the smashed window and down the chimney, it funnelled around the men, knocking them to the ground. Furniture began to shift with the force of the gale and it was only Gwen’s cry as something hit her head that snapped him out of it. With a word the wind died as quickly as it had begun.
He walked slowly towards the men. They were still alive. He could change that. His head on one side he reached out and began closing his fist. The men began convulsing.
“Merlin, stop! Think of what you’re doing!”
He knew what he was doing. So much death, so much betrayal and hurt. It could all be wiped out – he had the power itching to escape from his fingertips.
Arthur’s voice was low, urgent, and it pushed at the anger manifesting itself in dark ribbons of smoke around him.
“Merlin, all those years you taught me to do what was right. So many times you convinced me to rethink, to make a different choice. The one time I didn’t listen to you I nearly brought doom upon Camelot. Don’t do this. Don’t give in to your anger, to your pain.”
“You didn’t see it Arthur, you didn’t see the children lying dead.”
Arthur frowned. “What children?”
His view turned inside his memories “So many women and children. It keeps happening. All these long, long years and the world never learns”
“This is not the way to change that, Merlin.”
He shook his head slowly, looking around the room, noting the broken furniture and the burning manuscripts.
“All these centuries, Arthur, waiting for you I watched the world. The world is full of pain and despair and I never did anything, never stopped it. I could have; there has never been a power like mine. I could have stopped everything. These men here – I hold their lives in the balance. One twist of my wrist and they will trouble the world no more”
Arthur pulled himself up from where Gwen lay, holding his wound. The blood was welling from beneath his fingers and dripping onto the carpet, bright against the pale cream. And then Merlin didn’t see creamy wool, he saw stone, grass, and Arthur lying in his arms as the breath left him. He turned back to the enemy and tightened his fist, they were clutching at their necks, eyes rolling back in their heads.
“Merlin, No. This is not who you are!”
His voice felt like gravel and his eyes were dry. “I am who I am. There’s no-one else to be.”
Writing about the return of Arthur also got me thinking about how we would react if magic suddenly appeared to be real in our world. This is something I wrote about in one of my first works (still in progress!) ‘Light Breaks’, the premise of which is that an ordinary woman in her 30s discovers she has magic. I loved the question of how we would deal with that? Imagine voices in your head, sudden powers. At first Phoebe is frightened she’s going mad and then, once she’s accepted it’s real, she struggles to match her ideas of what magic is to what she’s experiencing:
I admit that when I first saw the circle drawn out on the floor and the candles placed at the compass points my first thoughts were not as serious as they should have been, given how insane this whole thing was. My first thought was “seriously? A magic circle? Are we expecting Harry Potter sometime soon?” quickly followed by “that’s going to be a bitch to clean up off the floor, no wonder he suggested we move off the carpet” I then felt very inappropriate to the occasion and tried to look solemn and profound.
How about you?
What powers would you most like to have?
What would you do if you woke up tomorrow with magic? Who would you tell?
Let me know in the comments!