Magic, Good and Bad (2)

[Video: the first 2-1/2 minutes of the 2006 Hogfather mini-series]

A few weeks ago, a post here shared this one’s title. (At the time, I didn’t intend to do a follow-up, so the earlier one wasn’t numbered.) That post considered… well, the point of the fiction in fiction. If the underpinning of what happens in a story is “real” — the laws of physics and so on — then why make up any important details? (Other than special cases like keeping the material non-libelous, of course.) Writers invent not just names but entire casts of characters, family histories, geographies, historical events (both the core facts and the marginalia), languages…

And when you get into the fantasy and science-fiction genres — “speculative fiction,” as they say despite the tautology — well, even the laws of physics go out the window.* History gets re-written. Facts we know now are replaced by other facts we will know only in some particular version of the future. Things turn into other things (or seem to) just because someone waves in their direction with a hand, a wand of miraculous construction, or an infernal machine…

As I said in that first post, I didn’t intend to debate whether the use of impossibilities presented as commonplace was good or bad. I wasn’t 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, in both cases). I continued to think about the topic myself, too, since I hadn’t really drawn any conclusions.

And then the Christmas holiday drew near…

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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.

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Paying Attention to the Magical

“Ambivalence” doesn’t even come close to capturing my schizoid views about magic (or magical) realism.

The term has been around since the early part of the twentieth century, and for most of its life has been associated especially with the work of certain Latin American authors. Here’s part of the definition from A Glossary of Literary Terms (6th edition, 1993), which I found here:

The term magic realism, originally applied in the 1920s to a school of painters, is used to describe the prose fiction of Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina, as well as the work of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez in Colombia, Gunter Grass in Germany, and John Fowles in England.  These writers interweave, in an ever-shifting pattern, a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details together with fantastic and dreamlike elements…  These novels violate, in various ways, standard novelistic expectations by drastic — and sometimes highly effective — experiments with subject matter, form, style, temporal sequence, and fusions of the everyday, the fantastic, the mythical, and the nightmarish, in renderings that blur traditional distinctions between what is serious or trivial, horrible or ludicrous, tragic or comic.

Nicely placed editorial “sometimes” there, huh? But in the hands of, well, a true magician, magic realism just slays me: beneath the gray, mundane surfaces of everyday life writhe fantastically colored creatures of plot, setting, and character — a reality behind the reality — and I find it difficult not to be hypnotized when I discover good examples of it. (I linked to one such story in yesterday’s whiskey river-inspired Friday post.)

(Note, by the way, that “magic realism” isn’t synonymous with “fantasy.” Fantasy takes place in unreal worlds, unrecognizable worlds, while the action in works of magic realism is grounded on good old terra firma. Soil is soil. There’s only one sun in the sky, and only one moon. Country roads are paved with asphalt or gravel, not with yellow bricks.)

But wow, is the technique subject to abuse, or what? A lazy author can find it all too tempting to reach for the supernatural to explain something otherwise inexplicable; if anyone challenges a sudden rainfall of fiery goldfish in the used-car lot (or whatever), the writer can just stare, goggle-eyed, at the the ignorant questioner before replying, “It’s magic realism, you jerk!”

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