Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Logic of Magic - C.J. Busby

I have always loved the idea of magic, ever since I was read my first fairy tales. It didn't matter whether they were twinkly ones with fairy godmothers and wonderful pink ball-gown confections, Ladybird books with powdered Regency princes, or the dark, tangled, thrilling tales in Andrew Lang's collections, illustrated, preferably, by Arthur Rackham.  All of them had magic, and so all of them had something that fed my strong desire for the unknown, the extraordinary.

As I got older, I graduated to C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones - wonderful, glorious books that made it seem entirely plausible that there was magic in the real world, or at least held out the chance of slipping into other worlds where magic existed. As an adult, I veered away from fantasy (mainly because most adult fantasy conforms too closely to the model lampooned so hilariously by Diana Wynne Jones in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland) but I never really lost the sense that magic was out there, just out of reach, visible in the corner of your eye.

So, when I started write my own books for children, I knew they'd have magic in them. The question was, what kind? What would be the logic of the magic I wrote? Fairy-tale magic is mostly based on cauldrons, spells, witches and waving wands, although there are some strange and wonderful ways that magic works, too - feather cloaks that turn their wearers into swans; geese that lay golden eggs; combs that, thrown behind you, turn into mountain ranges. My first and best guide to magic in older fiction, though, was Diana Wynne Jones.  

In Jones's Chrestomanci series, there are witches, warlocks and potions, ingredients like newt's eyes, snake's tongues and dragon's blood, and spells that are made by grinding, heating and muttering, as in all the best fairy tales. But she also has more powerful and exciting magic, magic that happens when someone with the right sort of power simply tells the world to be different - and it is. This is the magic that belongs specifically to enchanters, and when you realise that someone in a Diana Wynne Jones book has it (and you nearly always find at least one) you know you are in for some seriously delightful mayhem.
There's another, very different, magical logic at work in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus books. Here, magicians lord it over the non-magical commoners, but their dark secret is that none of their magic is really done by themselves. Wizards' only power is the ability to raise afrits, imps, djinni and demons from the 'other place', and all their apparently wonderful spells are carried out by the sweat and toil of these enslaved and invisible beings. It allows Stroud to have a lot of fun with the quarrelsome, vain and power-hungry magicians of his alternative London, while also giving us possibly the best fictional depiction of a djinni ever - Bartimaeus himself.

Perhaps the most technically minded inventor of magic for children is J.K. Rowling. I thoroughly enjoyed the Harry Potter books (despite being slightly bemused at how much attention they received) but I find magic in her books to be very 'National Curriculum': once spotted at 11, you just have to learn how to do it the right way, and pass exams, and then you are a proper witch or wizard. Despite the constant reiteration that some wizards are more powerful than others, we never really see much evidence of this. Hermione Granger is said to be 'the best witch of her generation', but we get no sense of any raw power that is simply part of her very being - instead, we get the impression that she's just very precise and has a good memory. The witch as swot, rather than enchanter.

 So when I wrote 'Frogspell', which is set in the mythical time of King Arthur, I decided to go with the cauldrons, spells and potions of fairy-tale and legend, but I also wanted a sense that magic was something not just anyone could do - there had to be a special part of you, a power you had that others didn't. As the stories progress, my novice wizard, Max Pendragon, discovers more and more about the logic of magic, learns to tell one person's magic apart from another's, and finally realises that he doesn't need potions or spells, he can (like his hero, Merlin) do spells with his mind. Max, in fact, is an enchanter, of sorts - and it's a power that is crucial, in the end, to his defeat of the icy sorceress, Morgana le Fay.

In the process of writing the whole series, I found myself discovering and exploring more and more about how magic in this world worked, and I realised something else that gave me a huge thrill. Writing is a little like doing magic. Finally, I am a kind of enchanter!

C.J. Busby is the author of the Spell Series (


Catherine Butler said...

A very interesting post.

I think you put your finger on something with the Harry Potter series, there. There's a fundamental elitism (wizards/muggles), but vying with that is a sense that success is an index of hard work. I know I'm not the first to note that there's something very New Labour about HP - or the Blair Wizard project (publication of the first and last books coincide almost to the month with the beginning and end of Blair's premiership) - and that may be part of it.

Penny Dolan said...

A wonderful analysis of the many varieties of magic - including all thoughts and comments on the HP version.

Sue Purkiss said...

That feeling that magic might just be there, seen out of the corner of your eye - and the observation that the real excitement is when there's a sense that the most powerful magic is innate - absolutely! the illustrations to your books look great, by the way...

Emma Barnes said...

An interesting post! I love DWJ too, and it seems to me that one of the appealing things about the magic in her books is that is can bestow power on the otherwise relatively powerful - ie children. This might be because they are an enchanter, but also might be because they are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be given a magic chemistry set.

The magic in Harry Potter doesn't seem that different - in that it still means that an apparently powerless child like Harry can turn out to be far more powerful and "special" than the apparently stronger adults who are oppressing him...

C.J.Busby said...

Thanks, all, for comments - I know what you mean, Emma, that JKR is similar to DWJ in that it gives children the possibility of being special/powerful - and I do really enjoy Harry Potter, for lots of reasons - extreme inventiveness with little details of the magical world, and humour, being just two. Still, the idea that spells can miss, so that wands are reduced to being a bit like guns, always went against my idea of how magic worked.