When Did Magic Become Hereditary?

The Twelfth Enchantment author David Liss on the portrayal of magic in popular story telling:

In the past, people generally believed they could acquire magic in two ways: through learning the craft, either from another practitioner or from books; or through obtaining magic from a powerful being-think Faust or the classic, demonized witch, both of whom get their mojo from Satan. Anyone could learn magic as long as he or she had access to the knowledge or could make a connection with the right supernatural entity. The important point is that in theory, the gates of magic were open to everyone, and what I find most interesting is how that has changed in popular culture. […]

Magic has gone from being an open system to a closed one. Their massive popularity make the Harry Potter novels and films the most glaring example, but it’s everywhere, and has been for decades now: TV shows like Charmed and Wizards of Waverly Place, books like those of Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris. More often than not, magical practitioners are born, not made. Magic is an exclusive club. You can watch and be envious, but you can’t join.

i09: When did magic become elitist?

Also, Alyssa Rosenberg writes: “I wonder if a sense of biological magic also correlates to a sense of unease about how much power we have to impact our lives and to change the world. Believing that you can put the evil eye on someone, or that you can summon the devil, means believing in your own capacity to learn, hold, and wield power. Biological conceptions of magic are a way of explaining your own powerlessness. We can’t change our lives — but we’re also not responsible for changing the world — because we’re not Harry Potter, or the Slayer, or the Halliwell sisters.”

(both links via David Forbes)

Not unrelated are Michael Moorcock’s essay on the fascist, conservative and/or reactionary strains running through sci-fi and fantasy fiction, and this essay by Stokes on the aesthetics of fascism and the TV series Game of Thrones.


  1. I’ve been ranting about this to anyone who’d listen for years now. Perhaps the highest (worst) form of this that I’ve encountered shows up in Kim Harrison’s work, where witches aren’t humans with power, but rather an entirely different species that evolved to hide among humans, but which are basically superior in every way. The author’s sneering arrogance towards non-magic people extends to such a point that she has the humans who surround her heroine act like fools and cowards, and the one human who does manage to get magic through his own hard work is instantly portrayed as a villain for doing so. Despite all this, we’re also expected to believe that witches are a persecuted minority.

    To say that the author’s work infuriates me is a bit of an understatement.

  2. I always knew there was something ‘off’ about HP, I just couldn’t put my finger on it… interesting!

    Clearly HP plays to the feeling that we all have that we’re born special. But it obviously has a dark side.

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