The Personalist Project

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Accessed on August 19, 2018 - 10:27:04

A Personalist Theory of Magic

Devra Torres, Feb 19, 2018

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:

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?

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*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.

Image credits:

Galadriel: Flickr