Magic, Elitism, And Power To Transform The World

David Liss, whose Benjamin Weaver novels are favorites of mine both as introductions to economics and stories about badass Jews in London, has a wonderful meditation up at io9 about how magic became elite and inaccessible, at least in fiction:

In the past, people generally believed they could acquire magic in two ways: through learning the craft, either from another practitioner or from books; or through obtaining magic from a powerful being-think Faust or the classic, demonized witch, both of whom get their mojo from Satan. Anyone could learn magic as long as he or she had access to the knowledge or could make a connection with the right supernatural entity. The important point is that in theory, the gates of magic were open to everyone, and what I find most interesting is how that has changed in popular culture. […]

Magic has gone from being an open system to a closed one. Their massive popularity make the Harry Potter novels and films the most glaring example, but it’s everywhere, and has been for decades now: TV shows like Charmed and Wizards of Waverly Place, books like those of Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris. More often than not, magical practitioners are born, not made. Magic is an exclusive club. You can watch and be envious, but you can’t join.

I wonder if a sense of biological magic also correlates to a sense of unease about how much power we have to impact our lives and to change the world. Believing that you can put the evil eye on someone, or that you can summon the devil, means believing in your own capacity to learn, hold, and wield power. Biological conceptions of magic are a way of explaining your own powerlessness. We can’t change our lives — but we’re also not responsible for changing the world — because we’re not Harry Potter, or the Slayer, or the Halliwell sisters. And as entrancing as our magical worlds are, we also tend to put our magical elites through a lot: both Harry and Buffy die and are resurrected, lose parents, and have to give up their first loves in the name of perfecting the world. The Halliwells die, marry the Source of All Evil and become Queen of the Underworld, give birth to demon babies, and experience various other misfortunes. Better to be ordinary — and safe. There’s something conservative in that acceptance of our own powerlessness, but I think it speaks to very real anxieties especially in an age defined by terrorism and recession.