There's a passage in the Lord of the Rings where Galadriel, "the greatest of elven women," addresses the question of magic.
'And you?'," she said, turning to Sam. 'For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?'
In The Chronicles of Prydain, which I'm reading to my kids these days, the same idea comes up. The Princess Eilonwy has a "bauble," a golden sphere which lights up "magically"--but only when used by certain people, under certain conditions.
Eilonwy gains its "cooperation" so easily that the reader might imagine that the magic resides in the object itself, regardless of what kind of person is using it, or for what kind of purpose. But Taran finds it only lights up for him when he is thinking of her, and the hapless but goodhearted Prince Rhun finds it only works when he stops thinking of himself and uses it to rescue his friends from a pit.
* * * * *
When Harry Potter first came out, it was the target of much criticism--some reasonable, some just plain silly. I'm not opining here on the merits of the books, which I've only read fragments of. But the various arguments against them are illuminating. Here they are, from weaker to stronger:
The weakest argument, I thought, was the objection against ever depicting magic in literature. This would rule out both Narnia and Middle Earth, an idea most of us would find hard to take seriously. These are people who reject fantasy, altogether, putting it in the category of falsehood. I don't think these fundamentalists are the ones who want to transform children's literature curricula to include fewer stories and more dishwasher assembly manuals, but they have more in common than either party might guess. (If anyone feels I've misrepresented this objection, we can talk.)
Then there was the idea that magic in a storyline, though not in itself a bad thing, can awaken an unhealthy interest in the occult. The objectors pointed out that kids whose interest in reading has been awakened by Harry Potter (and only Harry Potter) would often go online to search for similar things and end up at sites promoting the occult. There's certainly something to this, though it doesn't touch the question of the merits of magic in literature at all. Vigilance of children online is a good thing. You'll get no argument from me. And taking the occult seriously--even going to apparently excessive lengths to make sure you're not unwittingly opening yourself up to it--I'm all for that, too. But again, we're talking about a possible side effect, not the thing itself.
A stronger objection was, I believe, put forth by Michael O'Brien, author of Father Elijah and other books in the series Children of the Last Days. Magic in Harry Potter, the argument goes, is presented as a property of things--a neutral, generic, impersonal property of certain material objects, that can be called up, or, as it were, "turned on," by saying certain words or performing certain actions. It's not a force to be cautious about, except maybe as a technical matter. It doesn't interact with the soul of the one who practices it. It doesn't have a "mind of its own," the way Tolkein's Ring does. If it's dangerous, it's the kind of danger an amateur runs into when tinkering with something he haven't yet mastered. This can lead not to corrupton of the soul, but at worst to unexpected or inconvenient consequences, as when the peasant wife wastes her three wishes on possessing a sausage, wishing it stuck to her husband's nose, and then wishing it unstuck. (Though maybe that's a bad example: you sense there's something more at play than bad luck and lack of forethought!)*
People today, I think, tend to look at magic either as a forbidden means of getting dark forces on your side, or else as a neutral problem-solving tool--not something that could alter or corrupt the soul of the practitioner. What they miss is the personalist angle: the way such powers interact with the one who wields them.
I'm not saying personalist magic is more realistic, exactly--but it certainly makes for better literature.
What do you think?
*I'm not saying this is indeed the way magic is portrayed in Harry Potter--just that if the shoe fits, it's a more respectable objection.