Fantasy Rant: “Hidden Magic”

If the world knew about people with magic, they would want them to solve all their problems. And therefore magic only can exist in a beautiful, hidden world.

I’ve heard this excuse so many times I can’t even remember which book I first read it in. Did I think it was a good reason then, before it became dull?

Maybe. Maybe not.

But this time, muddling my way through Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, I can’t quite let it slide.

It feels cheap. Not just because everyone says it–everyone says the sky is blue, and that’s still as true as it ever was. No, I dislike this because it feels like cheating.

First off, if you have magic, why wouldn’t you want to solve all the world’s problems? The idea that the hidden wizard world exists just because of this means that all wizards are selfish cowards.

Ouch. Clearly not my favorite option.

So perhaps before we paint all magically-inclined individuals in such dark colors, we should pursue other options.

Suppose you want to keep the “hidden world” theme in your story. Sure. Great. We don’t see fairies flitting around our heads every day, so it’s fine if you want to explain that.

So why the split? Is it that magic can’t exist with the normal world? Or is it that it just doesn’t want to? Or does it, and we simply don’t notice? Endless options, right there.

In Rudyard Kipling’s opinion (Puck of Pook’s Hill, if you were wondering), fairies literally couldn’t survive in the presence of people with “ill-will” toward each other, and a great gathering of them created plague and drought so humans couldn’t survive with them. Brilliant, yes? Mutual impossibility.

Then of course there are all the books that take the “solve your problems” solution to the next level. Namely, magically-inclined individuals and ordinary peoples fight each other to the death over their differences. This one is a personal favorite as it has the potential for so much tension. If wizards really can solve everyone’s problems, they’re destined to be taken advantage of eventually, even if they lash out to protect themselves. Prejudice, forbidden arts, war, slavery–conflict. Stories that can come spilling out of themselves, all just because you refused to accept the simple “solve all their problems” solution.

This one is closely related to a third solution, best example I can think of being The Marvelwood Magicians (Diane Zahler). If we don’t have magic now, wouldn’t we want to know how it works? Wouldn’t we do everything in our scientific power to understand it, and if we can’t, to root it out? It makes an increasingly awkward situation for those few gifted people in an ordinary world. Pretend to be ordinary, or risk complete disruption of lifestyle and danger to survival? Voila. Hidden magic world, right under your nose.

And these are just a few of the obvious solutions that come without thinking hard! Think how many more fabulous stories are out there, waiting just beyond the realm of cliche!

Do I have a point to all this?

Other than screaming incoherently into the void? Maybe.

Don’t just say what everyone else says. Figure out what’s true in your world. Make it hurt. Make it sing. Make it worth the journey.


That’s what good writing is.

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