Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Death of Magic

Let’s talk about the Death of Magic.

This is a topic I’ve long resisted writing about because it’s tough to get into without concrete examples and I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone; however, it’s also something I’m keen to discuss because I fucking loathe it. The Death of Magic is by far my least favourite fantasy trope, even above Chosen Ones and contraction-free dialogue, and it had a major presence in my youthful reading life.

It messed me up. To this day, I live in fear that the exciting new series I've plucked off the shelf could end with the Death of Magic1.

But let’s back up a sec. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who’s never encountered this trope and you have no idea what I’m talking about.

Say you’re a fictional character with a major role in a fantasy novel. You’re either a longtime resident of a magical land or you’ve fallen through a portal and ended up in one. You’re obliged to go on all sorts of adventures, fiction being what it is, and magic is an abiding force throughout. Maybe you’re a magic user your own self, or maybe you face off against an Evil Wizard, or maybe your Wise Old Mentor is also a Good Wizard With Selfish Goals. (Pro tip: Wise Old Mentors always have selfish goals, and they're liable to fake their own deaths.) However your story plays out, magic is a big part of it.

Until the very end, when you’ve defeated the Dark One/Evil Wizard/Pretender King and put the world back on track. Now magic must depart forever to make room for progress.

Because it ain’t like we could progress with magic still in the mix, now is it?

The Death of Magic isn’t limited to a particular marketing category, but it does crop up most often in fiction for children. It’s easy to see why. The literary tradition assumes children will look at the magical books on their shelves, many of which involve historically-inspired settings, and wonder why we don’t have magic now. The Death of Magic explains the lack. You can’t shoot fiery bolts out of your fingers because fiery bolt-shooting abilities were keeping people from developing efficient farming techniques and propulsion engines. Okay?

On a more subtle (and disturbing) level, the Death of Magic also tells children they’re eventually going to have to grow up and forget all about magic because the Real World doesn’t have room for any of that dreamy-weamy shit. Their favourite characters weathered the transition, and they can too.

To be fair, there’s a lot to be said for instilling practicality in young people, but my own child-self never read it as a reassurance. Every single time, I saw it as the downfall of some strong, vital part of a world I’d come to love. Every single time, I felt like the author was telling me not to bother dreaming because all dreams crumble and die in the face of everyday life.

I might’ve felt differently about it if I’d ever read post-Death of Magic sequel where the characters do just fine and dandy, thanks. A sequel where they maybe can’t shoot fiery bolts out of their fingers anymore, but they can still create art and tell stories and sing songs about the beautiful world around them.

I can think of one fairly contemporary adult/YA crossover comic series that does this; no word on the title because of the spoilers thing. This particular series eventually works its way around to the Rebirth of Magic, too, which is also the (much less spoilery) case with Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman’s Riverside series. In the first two books in the chronology, SWORDSPOINT and THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD, magic is dead and gone and mostly unmissed; in the third book in the timeline, THE FALL OF THE KINGS, magic slowly (and perhaps tragically) comes back.

I had nothing like either the unnamed comic or Riverside in my childhood.

On a somewhat different tack, I can also point to one adult epic fantasy series that presents the Death of Magic as not only irreversible but also necessary and unequivocally good, since the only possible magic in this world is predicated on slavery. Again, it’s a contemporary release I encountered when I was well into my twenties, and I won’t tell you what it is because spoilers.

It’s only within the last ten years that I’ve discovered the kind of fantasy I longed for from the start: fantasies where magic and progress work in concert.

These are much easier to name, since spoilers aren’t really an issue. I love how the wizards in Sarah Monette’s CORAMBIS use magic to power their railways and do forensic anthropology, among other things2. (The madness-inducing magical clocks are less appealing from a real world perspective, though they do make for good stories.) Similarly, I bounce up and down over the criminal forensic sorcery in Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam novellas. I get ridiculously excited about the medical devices and automata the mages in Karen Kincy’s SHADOWS OF ASPHODEL craft by incorporating magic into their mechanics. The benders in AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER and its sequels delight me with their thousands of practical uses for magic, from mining to bender-powered factories to maglev trains3. I geek out over how science is magic and magic is science in the Thor movies. (I can't comment on whether it's the same in the comics as I’ve barely scratched the surface there.) And most recently, I squeed my arse off when Ling used science to understand her magic throughout Libba Bray’s LAIR OF DREAMS4.

I want to see more books, movies, and TV shows like this; stories where magic is progress, not an outdated fix-all that’s actively hampering the world.

And then, perhaps most exciting of all, we’ve got Lev Grossman’s Magicians books. Grossman knows every children’s fantasy trope ever penned, from the portal to the magic school to the True Meaning of Heroism, and he actively engages them throughout his trilogy. He acknowledges the "magic as useless force" model without ignoring magic's appeal or its beauty. And when the Death of Magic crops up, as it pretty well has to, he charges headlong at it and screams, "Fuck you!" over and over while he punches it in the gut.

Because those books, they’re on my level. They posit you don’t have to abandon magic to be a proper adult. You don’t have to stop casting spells so you can start inventing cannon and cars and machines that pick blueberries for you. It’s like the good gif says:

Gif of two animated, pale-skinned men, one blond and one brunette, saying, 'Both? Both? Both. Both is good.'

The nicest thing about fantasy is, it can be anything. And I’m always gonna choose the paradigm where magic has practical value over the one where magic is holding everyone back.

  1. This is not an unfounded fear. A series I love and adore and rave about to everyone tossed the Death of Magic into the mix. I’m so bummed out that I’m pretending it didn’t happen.

    You really can’t let your guard down around the Death of Magic. It’ll sneak up and thwack you one at the most alarming times, and Lev Grossman isn’t always around to pummel it back.

  2. There’s some indication, though, that magical engineering and suchlike has been rediscovered and may have originally been lost on purpose. That adds a darker air to it all, but at least it’s in line with the Rebranding of Magic rather than the Death of Magic. I’m fine with the Rebranding of Magic.

  3. It seems to me like the earthbenders have the practical advantage here since there are so many ways to bend earth in mechanical ways, though the Fire Nation has certainly done a lot with propulsion technology that non-benders can also operate. Witness Asami and her father, building off the old-timey Fire Nation steam ships to produce cars and airplanes.

    I really, really hope Sokka lived long enough to see cars and airplanes.

  4. This is another series with strong hints that the sort of magic Ling and her friends use was lost on purpose. It’s entirely possible the fourth book will not only end with the Death of Magic but also convince me it’s not such a bad thing (though, knowing me, I’ll likely be happier if people just start using magic more responsibly instead of abandoning it altogether. Rebranding over Death, remember?).


  1. Ack! I have never encountered this! Is this a thing? How have I missed it? What!

    1. Jenny, you are blessed. It must be because you read so much Diana Wynne Jones in your youth and DWJ doesn't seem to acknowledge the Death of Magic as a possibility.

  2. Ha! When I first started reading this, I was thinking, "This is probably why she likes those Lev Grossman books so much." ;) I probably encountered this when I was a young'un, but I don't remember being traumatized by it. What really annoyed me was when there were supernatural happenings they explained them all away through SCIENCE. Like if I wanted science, would I be reading this book? No.

    1. Ugh, I always hated that too. Like, just once I wanted the Scooby Doo monster to be a REAL monster.

  3. I get this same feeling with the "it was all a dream" trope and that definitely crops up more in children's fiction. We present something fantastic and lovely to a child and then snatch it away for no real reason. Kids will be sad that magic isn't here but they aren't going to honestly believe that it used to be before magic died/they woke up. So, instead, a lovely magical world is ruined simply because an author lacks the imagination to leave their wonderful world out there. Poop on them.