Under my byline

Zeitgeist magic

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 19 July 2007

J K Rowling has brought globalisation to magic, and is thereby killing it

Albus Dumbledore is the first denizen of the magical world that J K Rowling properly describes, down to his “high-heeled, buckled boots”, at the beginning of book one of the Harry Potter series.

Nothing unusual about this fellow, a reader in 1997, when it was published, might have said. He sounds like the standard wizard of Western literature, Merlin perhaps. The appearance of Minerva McGonagall in the form of a cat, a few lines later, is no great surprise either. The only novelty so far, in 1997, would have been the matter-of-fact treatment.

The first real surprise is Rubeus Hagrid, a very large man on a flying motorbike. He’s not quite a giant, and he’s not a familiar figure from the existing cultural cast of magical figures. Cue the sights and sensations of Harry’s first visit to Diagon Alley, and very soon Rowling’s magic has become fundamentally incongruent with the familiar tropes of Western magic.

Superficially, there are beards and pointy hats, broomsticks, owls, goblins, trolls, wands, cats, snakes, dragons, elves. Virtually every ingredient of the post-medieval picture of magic is thrown into the mix. Yet nothing seems quite familiar — which is one reason why Rowling was initially so exciting. She made magic everyday.

Her magical world is similar to our “real” world; a lightly medievalised modern society that also put one in mind of the England of Dickens, teetering on the threshold between conservatism and egalitarianism, and on the point of rupture of tough old categories. It’s positively bourgeois, and her work is brilliantly suited, as fiction, to our modern global, middle-class zeitgeist.

In good prophetic tradition, Rowling breaks the old categories. The concept of a witch in Europe, before Rowling, had great historical depth and variety, and was also highly localised: think of Shakespeare’s blasted heaths and Baba Yaga in her one-legged hut.

For more on what makes a witch, please read the 15th-century Malleus Maleficarum or read Roald Dahl’s The Witches. All these ideas swam up in the mind of a literate reader whenever the word “witch” was encountered, making a nuanced and flexible picture.

And what is Rowling’s witch? An ordinary woman, equipped with a wand with which she can do stuff.

Concept after concept follows this pattern. Complexity, depth and local flavour are shed, and all because Rowling’s magic is largely a matter of point-and-shoot. Because she is read by great numbers of people, and especially those early in the construction of their internal imaginative universes, her work has great defining power. Her simple and kiddified creations are robbing a generation (and perhaps more) of that variety and incomprehensibility that once gave magic its real-world power.

The truth is that magic, in the ancient understanding, is not neutral; its nature is not in the hands of the doer, so that evil makes evil and good, good. Magic is indifferent to moral value, which is why it is fundamentally not-human. Magic is truly pagan, even malevolent, in its own separate logic.

Contrasts have already been drawn between J K Rowling and Philip Pullman, Ursula Le Guin, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, by reviewers like A S Byatt and Nicholas Lezard. In each of these other fiction worlds, magic retains its primeval potency. Such authors don’t toy with it; they enhance it, partly with a more powerful and visceral use of the quest motif.

Harry Potter is just a kid, and basically remains one no matter how many dead people he sees. Where are the inner dark spaces that abound in Le Guin’s protagonist Ged, and the inward darkness outwardly manifested in Pullman’s books? Ged, and Pullman’s Lyra and Will, are more truly alone in their destinies than Harry.

But the magical world too is inherently incomplete. Consider Grendel in Beowulf, or indeed the Golem, both of which exude an agonising loneliness, a desire for union and completion manifested as destructive, consuming hunger. Theirs is the loneliness of the powers of the natural world without the balancing presence of reason-driven humankind. It feels like the power of human depression.

The role of magic, perhaps, is also to keep humans from final knowledge. With magic, humans have guarded the mysteries of the physical universe from human approach, and kept the hunger for knowledge, for resolution, eternally alive. Humans, like the Golem, must remain unsatisfied, or they lose their raison d’etre.

This is why I think Rowling’s books are dangerous: like globalisation, they vanquish and push underground older, local and more atavistic alternatives. They provide false comfort, imposing sanitised versions of magical characters and properties that leave no channel for the expression of the deep alienation of the rational human from the natural world. They narrow and emasculate the imagination.


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