Magic by Sandra Horn

How do we define magic? The dictionary isn’t much help: the supposed art of influencing course of events by occult control of nature or of spirits…inexplicable or remarkable influence producing surprising results (I like that one).

Is it too fanciful to think that it applies to the creative process?

Over and above the work – research, editing, re-writing, re-re-writing, sweat, blood, toil and tears, there seems to be something inexplicable, sometimes. Characters do something you didn’t plan or expect, or your careful plotting suddenly lurches into something else. Is this universal among writers, though? JK Rowling seems to plan her plots and people down to the last degree, she says, so are only some of us inflicted by inexplicable or remarkable influences?
I probably believed in fairies for much too long – or at least, in the possibility of fairies. I remember a meadow of wildflowers and long grass and butterflies where I almost thought I saw something. How old was I? Twelve, maybe.

Many years later, I read Tolkien’s claim that he found out about Hobbits from a book he’d come across: The Red Book of Westmarch – written by the Hobbits themselves. How exciting! I told my (relatively) new husband about it. He gave me a sideways look and muttered something about a literary device. What? Oh yes, of course…silly me. I expect I blushed at my naivete, but just for a moment, there, the possibility beckoned. We’re still married 40+ years on, by the way, in case you’re wondering – and I have (eventually) grown into a profound sceptic. I think.
But the possibility of other kinds of magic did remain with me for years: we had a ferociously grumpy German teacher (ie teacher of German) at school. She bawled several of us out of handed out detentions regularly, often with little or no cause. She frightened us, so we made a wax model, stuck pins in it, threw it on the fire. When she didn’t appear at the next lesson, we went from frightened to totally petrified. Had it worked? Was she dead? We hardly dared look at each other. It was just a sore throat, as it happens, but who knows what such concentrated ill-will can do? We didn’t repeat the experiment.
In the first pangs of adolescent love, I have willed someone to appear, to turn round and look at me, to respond to the heat of my desire. It never worked.  However, there is some evidence that ‘magical thinking’ – the belief that something – action, object, thought, circumstance, etc. not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome, can work for some people (Piercarlo Valdesolo, Scientific American October 19th, 2010). Valdesolo reports on a Danish study in which participants given a ‘lucky ball’ increased their scores on a putting task. They also scored higher on self-efficacy and concentration when they were allowed to bring in a ‘lucky charm’ from home.  So the ‘magic’ or ‘luck’ was simply about self-belief. In the presence of a lucky symbol, people set themselves higher goals and persevered for longer – so rabbits’ feet, lucky knickers, etc. are not perhaps such a joke after all. I only wish it could work for me. The two beautiful little bronze hares on my desk are stroked regularly but have yet to ‘speak’ for me and conjure my stories into print or electronics. Could it be the wrong phase of the moon? I wish…
Still, one can enjoy all kinds of magic vicariously through books. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since reading Valerie Bird’s Angel Child, a book in which thwarted and twisted desires work in the lives of otherwise unremarkable people – or rather, people who would otherwise be unremarkable, but for wearing a rainbow or breathing scorching breath – that kind of thing. Magical realism. What a delight to find that it isn’t confined to children’s literature! For me, that was discovering The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende, in my adult life.

I have since gobbled my way through magical-realist works by other authors: Nights at the Circus, Midnight on the Avenue of Faith, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and the Chocolat trilogy.  Joanne Harris dips her toe in magic with the first book, and it really blossoms in the latest, The Lollipop Shoes. Scrumptious stuff.

And of course, there’s no reason why the characters and situations we invent should obey the usual rules of life, physics, space/time or whatever – it’s just making any deviation into the magical believable, even when it is in fact impossible, that’s the trick. I’ve dabbled in it with some of my children’s books – Piker’s sinister stone in Goose Anna, Hob in The Hob and Miss Minkin, Zeke’s mystical wood in The Stormteller – and for years now my silent child *Kai, who can feel himself inside the skin of animals, has haunted my thoughts in a book I don’t seem to be able to finish…but one day, maybe, one day. If I can only capture that elusive something that hovers just below the threshold of my consciousness. Anyone got a guaranteed lucky charm I can borrow?
*Afterthought: Kai is silent because his mother died borning him and she passed on her gift  and the silence of her death to him. It’s all but impossible, I find, to have a major character who doesn’t speak, but I’ve tried to make him talk and he won’t. MY character, made up by me, has a life I can’t influence. Is that some kind of magic?


Great post, Sandra. I've never quite lost my belief in magic. I've been in too many magical places where I've felt something odd and numinous to be able to deny it. And I even wrote a play about the Minister of Aberfoyle who was reputedly taken away by the fairies he had spent so much of his working life researching and writing about. And I love it in fiction as well. Maybe it's that writers get used to believing in lots of impossible things, even before breakfast!
Dennis Hamley said…
I too love Magic Realism. I mistakenly typed 'live' just then and now I've corrected it, I realise that's right too. Looking back, I can think of several times when I've willed something unlikely to happen and it duly has. At least once, such willing against likelihood has led to significant change for me. I've used - no, that's not quite right, I've found myself using - magic realism in four books in particular: the Hare Trilogy and Spirit of the Place (its limited edition, which looks MARVELLOUS, is being printed at this moment). From the very second of their first conception I knew they would be magic realist because that was the only way what I wanted to say could be expressed. I don't think simple ghost stories are magic realism, though some people say they are. MR, though by its nature is numinous and enigmatic, nevertheless has some rules of its own, which only make it more magical.
glitter noir said…
Speaking of magic...A wonderful and very provocative post, Sandra.
Leverett Butts said…
I really enjoyed this post. I wanted to add something, but you about summed it up.

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