Magic, Good and Bad

[Image: excerpt from a 1941 adventure of Mandrake the Magician, “The Adventure of the Striped Orchid.” Click to enlarge; if you’d like to read the whole thing, find it at the ilovecomix archive (free registration required).]

You don’t have to be particularly old to know of the Mandrake the Magician character and comic strip — which is still being published daily, although it first appeared in 1934. (Mandrake himself is widely regarded as the first costumed superhero.)

Mandrake is indeed a “magician,” in a loose sense of the term. More precisely, he’s an illusionist. For instance, in the above series, he didn’t actually make the “Uncle” character swell up like that; as the caption for the fourth panel says, Uncle just seemed to inflate. A key element of Mandrake’s mythology can be found in the word “gesture,” often modified with a form of the word “hypnotic.” Mandrake gestures hypnotically. Mandrake’s hypnotic gesture. And so on. The hypnotic spell takes effect immediately, presumably just because Mandrake knows exactly how to waggle his fingers and flip his wrist. Furthermore, the spell strikes only his selected targets and does not, well, explode omnidirectionally, like an anti-personnel weapon. As you can see here, the strip’s art at such a key moment takes the point of view of Mandrake’s hapless victim.

Oddly, though, Mandrake’s spells sometimes affect inanimate objects as well as people. Over there on the right, we have a cover from one of the Mandrake comic books (click to enlarge it); clearly, he has just gestured hypnotically in the direction of the jewel thieves — as a result of which, the thieves imagine themselves disoriented, spinning in mid-air.

…but the bag containing the jewelry is itself in mid-air, and it has sprung open, and the jewels themselves are spilling out.

What’s going on here? Has he hypnotized the jewels? Or has he somehow included an illusion of the open sack and the spilling jewels as part of the overall illusion? Either way, you have to admit, that’s a hell of a gesture.

While researching this post, I noticed something else a little off — namely, that Mandrake himself either gets caught up in the illusion (in the way that a woman wearing cologne can actually get a whiff of herself) or, again, somehow includes himself in the illusion just to make it complete.

At right, for example, another of the comic book covers highlights a moment when Mandrake has hypnotized a cowboy (or has he?) to picture himself, mounted on a horse, galloping across the roof of a house. But Mandrake (and his faithful companion Lothar) is looking up into the air. If the cowboy has simply been hypnotized, and is not actually galloping overhead, then what is Mandrake (and Lothar) looking up at?

(The horse, too, seems awfully panicky.)

Finally, if you really want to get picky: in order to hypnotize someone, Mandrake must be looking into his or her eyes. (Earlier in the “Striped Orchid” series, he must fight off a drugged Lothar — who has attacked him from behind and caught him in a death grip. Until Lothar releases one hand for a moment, allowing Mandrake to turn and look back at him… and pierce the druggy fog with a hypnotic gaze.) How has he hypnotized the cowboy in this case? the horse? Lothar? himself?

Thinking about the holes in Mandrake’s universe has been one small result of my having read a post over at Froog’s place, way back in October. I’ve been pondering that post ever since.

I encourage you to read the whole thing yourself if you’re at all interested in the fantasy genre in general, or specifically the use of magical elements in fiction.

For that matter, I encourage you to visit Froog’s place sooner rather than later, even if you’re not at all interested in fantasy: he’s planning to pull up stakes and shutter his prolific blogs by the end of the year.

The gist of Froog’s piece: with few exceptions, fantasy elements add nothing to fiction, and in fact tend to detract from it. He singles out magical elements — transforming things or one’s self into other things, for instance — as especially egregious cop-outs: easy, deus ex machina solutions to difficult problems of plot, setting, and simple physics.

Now, no matter how well or thoroughly expressed, I know that’s pretty much just one man’s opinion. I’m not interested in arguing the point one way or the other. (I’ve written before here about fantasy, magic, and “magic realism” — notably in a recent review of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and a post from a couple of years ago. Be sure to read the comments at both of those posts, too!)

But Froog’s October musing got me thinking about something larger, to wit: What accounts for the continued popularity of fantasy — of magic — even in works of fiction not necessarily intended for children? And what makes the breezy liberties of fantasy (or science fiction, for that matter) different from — better or worse than — fictional “slackness” in general?

Let’s take the easy case first, though — the use of this stuff in kids’ books. (Even Froog left that door sorta-kinda open, albeit in discussing the arguably mainly-for-kids Once and Future King.)

On the one hand, from a kid’s perspective fantasy and magic are simply fun. When the world the child inhabits often, even consistently, fails to make sense, to fall back on nonsense simply feels like joining in the game. It’s liberating — the very definition of escapism.

It can also serve the kid’s own psychology in various ways. Revenge, for instance: representing evil adults (and other children) as ugly malevolent creatures who ultimately face an unambiguous comeuppance satisfies. Wish-fulfillment, for another: if you can’t reach the (actual or metaphorical) cookie jar, wouldn’t it be nice to wave your hands or a wand and bring the cookie jar to you?

And of course, some kids’ stories also serve the didactic purposes of adults.

In college, I took a course in the literature of fantasy and science fiction. In one lesson, the professor talked about fairy tales — particularly, the way that fairy tales are often built on a structure of human institutions; he called this the body politic. Notice, he said, how easily and often the body politic of fairy tales maps onto the body psychic of humans, children included. By way of example, he pointed to the tale of the Frog Prince: the princess must go to a place supremely unappealing, even disgusting, even obscenely disgusting, simply in order to find that which is beautiful and of lasting value to her…

I was never sure if that message was the message of the fairy tale, or the message of the professor. Either way, it seemed a message meant for children — a discomfiting lesson of life, which had to be learned if one hoped to find happiness later on.

But what about fantasy and magic realism for “thinking” people — adults, and older children who “know better” than to believe in the literal possibility or plausibility of such strange events?

Obviously — I think it’s obvious, anyhow — many (if not all) adults hang onto some of the motivations of their child-selves. Call it fun or escapism or whatever: if anything, getting away can feel even more attractive and more important to a denizen of the everyday adult world than to a kid. Some fantasy is made in the telling as much as or more than in the tale — hence a principal appeal of Terry Pratchett’s hilarious Discworld novels, for instance, or of Jasper Fforde’s various alternate universes.

And, oh, the psychological: psychological hunger is real hunger, whether in a kid or an adult. Reading about a world in which one party (say) uses dragons to overcome its enemies can relax, vicariously, some of the tensions of dealing with idiots and villains of the workplace and society. Froog himself grants gentle, indirect obeisance to this need in his sorta-but-not-100%-kidding “My Fantasy Girlfriend” series of posts, about (mostly) actresses and other female celebrities who’ve captured his imagination at one point or another.

But there’s something else going on here, which is: why fiction at all?

Of the non-fiction I read, a good portion has to do with astrophysics and cosmology: how the universe at large apparently came to be what it is, and how it continues to stay that way while also changing (and in what ways). One of the more striking assertions I’ve picked up on is in fact the sheer unlikelihood of it all. Consider:

In the instant (however defined) after the Big Bang (ditto), every bit of what would eventually be all the matter and energy of the entire universe was flying away from every other bit. Let’s hop aboard an electron — call it E — and ride it for a little while. Of course E is surrounded by lots of other Es, also lots of everything else, and it’s not quite being jostled but it is being influenced by it all. Now, if E doesn’t eventually match up in exactly the right way with one P-for-proton, the universe eventually will contain no hydrogen at all. It probably won’t contain much of anything, in fact, and certainly no water at all.

Little insignificant E — and its tiny, tiny trajectory — seems awfully important, doesn’t it?

Okay now: scroll the calendar forward four-plus billion years, or six thousand years if you prefer. Pick any work of fiction off the bookshelf, any one at all — realistic and contemporary, or fantasy, or historical, “literary” or “genre” in nature, even just plain old casual memoir. What makes it “plausible”? What makes us willing to suspend our disbelief about the existence of a person who never existed and never COULD exist, exactly because little E once zigged one way instead of zagged another, at just one specific split-instant? And what is it about such a suspension of disbelief which makes it different — quantitatively or qualitatively — from one about a creature with fur of pure gold, or about a magical gesture, or about flowers bursting forth spontaneously from the surface of a chest of drawers?

In short: what makes one sort of implausibility acceptable, and another not?

Again, I’m not taking an advocate’s position here (least of all relative to Froog). I really have no opinion about better/worse types of implausibility.

But a real Huck Finn simply could not exist in the actual “real world” — we know this — because Huck Finn’s parents never did, nor his grandparents, and so on (all the way back to little tremulous E). Furthermore, if Huck did exist, he’d probably never grow up in a world with a fictional character named “Huck Finn.” (Just like no character in a James Bond film ever does a double-take and says to the hero: Did anybody ever tell you, you look just like Sean Connery? — or, for that matter, goes to a James Bond film.) But why do we accept the impossibility of a Huck Finn, a Holden Caulfield, or a Jane Eyre… while putting Harry Potter and Gandalf in a separate box? It’s all a matter of physics, you say? But physics is what makes Huck, Holden, and Jane ultimately impossible, too.

Right? Are our brains just wired to accept some implausibilities and dismiss others — maybe thanks to another little twitch in E’s flight?

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  1. First, I have to say I’ve never heard of Mandrake. At least, I don’t remember ever hearing of him, but he seems oddly entertaining. Or maybe just odd.

    Anyway, the magic in fiction discussion is a huge one for me! Obviously, I love that kind of thing. I can’t even begin to discuss it here. But yes, why fiction at all? This really needs a long evening with bookish friends and bottles of wine.

    • If you ever have that long discussion — even if the only bookish friend on hand is yourself — please do let me know what you end up concluding!

      I heard of a science fiction story from someone — maybe I even read it myself? not sure — in which we have our first alien contact. After the initial excitement, maybe in some sort of cultural-exchange program, one of the aliens stays on Earth for awhile to study our ways. One of the things which completely baffles him is the idea of fiction — stories, books, plays, movies… The aliens are of course used to “making up” things, in the sense of inventing things which didn’t previously exist, but they just don’t get what we’re doing when we tell stories about people who never existed (or — holy cow — about people who don’t exist YET). It’s very hard for them to make the leap of knowing “it’s just a story,” and thus they don’t have to seriously freak out at stories of madness, mayhem, murder, heartbreak.

      (Kind of like the aliens in the movie Galaxy Quest, who’ve been watching from their home planet the broadcasts of a show like Star Trek… and concluded that we must have an incredibly advanced world.)

    • Oh, and about Mandrake: because it appeared first as a daily comic strip, just a few panels long, they couldn’t really spend a lot of time + space describing how the magic happened. You’d go from one panel where Mandrake’s got a hand in the air (always frustratingly immobile, of course, so you could never learn how to do it yourself) to the next in which the hypnotic effect is at full strength.

      Hard not to be jealous of artists and writers working in a medium like that. Readers just had to be take for granted that something reasonably plausible, however dull, had happened in those teeny, narrow little strips of white space between the panels.

  2. Thank you, John, for giving a little boost to my ‘closing down sale’ here. I only just caught this because (as you may have heard) I have suffered a horrible computer experience over the last several days. But now I’m back online again, and as curmudgeonly and antagonistic as ever.

    What I like about the best science fiction (and the best fantasy too, though I’m inclined to think there’s much less of that) is the way it can raise interesting philosophical questions like… why do we tell stories, what is a story?

    However, I don’t think it’s such a surprise, and I think it’s unlikely that any intelligent alien race would be unfamiliar with the concept. We’re telling stories all the time, every day, in every snatch of conversation. OK, most of this is generated from real experience, but we know that real experience isn’t quite interesting enough. It’s a basic human impulse – and probably a basic alien impulse, I would think – to embellish. And so, bare recounting of facts about ourselves becomes – if we’re potentially embarrassed about the details – something that “happened to someone I know”. And if we need an extra layer of insulation, it becomes about somebody that no-one we know knows. And if it’s not quite funny enough or well structured enough, we throw in a few additional little bits and pieces that should have happened. I think this has been happening since caveman days, it’s a very basic function of social interaction and communication.

    So, our tolerance for fictionalizing is high. But our tolerance for magic is limited by our circumstance and expectations. Magic is, as you say, powerfully appealing to children, and hence its prominence in all the classic fairytales. It probably continues to be appealing to adults because of a kind of nostalgia, an emotional connection to that way it affected us as children.

    But I find magic/fantasy is only engaging for us as adults if it succeeds in creating a separate space for itself, where it is not bound by our usual expectations of plausibility. Horror is an interesting intersection, I think, between fantastical and more regular fiction, an area where the stories tend to be grounded in real world settings, but their fantastical premises – vampires, zombies, werewolves, and so on – have become so familiar that we accept them as potentially real even though we know that they’re not. Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde’s works gain easy acceptance because they’re obviously not meant to be taken seriously, they are essentially parodies of the fantasy genre. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked was an example where I found the writing good and the concept interesting, but my engagement waned as the book dragged on. I started off with that being willing to entertain the fantasy genre, but… well, it failed to maintain my suspension of cynicism, I suppose.

    Don’t even get me started on ‘magic realism’. That really bugs the crap out of me.

  3. John, I keep going back over this discussion. I sometimes label my writing as magical realism because that’s a label that’s out there and I don’t know what else to use. Fantasy doesn’t seem right either. I’m very bad with labels. But I realize that some readers (quite possibly a lot of readers) like Froog won’t like my work. That’s okay in the grand scheme of things. The world is big and there are room for all kinds of stories. I’ll just never make any money at it.

    Anyway, talking about why we read fantasy or magic or whatever makes me consider why we write such stories. Maybe I’d need psychoanalyst to know, but I don’t think I read or write what I do for nostalgia. I know I can’t seem to write any other way. Stories come the way they do, and I could go through and cut out the parts that are magic, and maybe I’m supposed to so that I can be taken seriously but that feels wrong to me.

    I think I’m rambling far off topic here.

    By the way, have you seen the new “book” Building Stories? Mandrake and this theme of reading reminded me of it. It looks interesting, and I hope to check it out soon.


  1. […] trying to make a case for or against fantasy and/or science fiction. And the post drew substantial thoughtful comments from Froog and Marta (which I thought might happen). I continued to think about the topic […]

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