The power of magic

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
"The imagination," wrote Keats, "may be compared to Adam's Dream: he awoke and found it truth." For every dreamy child who has stared out of a window and wished for something to happen, for every storytelling adult seeking to spice up a narrative, there is nothing so potent as the thrill of magic revealing itself in the workaday world.

But, for greatest effect, such magic has to have some relationship to the mundane world into which it appears, as Keats's remark suggests. It has to startle, but there must also be a satisfying coherence with everyday life.

We are not talking here about the fantasy worlds of Ursula le Guin or J R R Tolkien, the alternativ e universes of Terry Pratchett or Charles Ashton, or the sword-and-sorcery epics of which younger teenage boys are so fond, but about the kind of story in which someone, usually young, reaches some kind of crisis and magic sorts everything out.

The tradition begins, perhaps, with The Arabian Nights; with Aladdin, who is poor and despised until he gets the use of a genie even more at a disadvantage than himself. And here is a moral - that you should not break a bargain - for Aladdin is duty bound to release the genie after his three wishes. This element of wish-fulfilment with moral consequences is powerfully present in the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang; you don't have to be Bruno Bettelheim to see that teaching the dangers of wish-fulfilment is useful, especially in a peasant culture when dreams are unlikely to come true.

From crystallisat ions such as these, Freud drew his descriptions of dreams - and fairy tales - as wish-fulfilment pure and simple. With the development of children's literature in the "golden age" of late Victorian and Edwardian writers, the use of the magical device was freed from its folk-tale roots and soared on flights of fancy out of the utilitarian shackles of the pursuit of wealth and happiness.

Perhaps the archetype of this kind of magic is E Nesbit's The Magic City (1910), in which a small boy builds a city out of blocks by day and wanders its magical streets by night. There are obvious echoes of this in Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, written almost 50 years later. In each case the bored child, exiled from the company of his peers by illness,turns to his own imaginative resources, wanders through time or fancy and returns to integrate his dreams with his external reality.

In The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961) a child's toy offers a way out of everyday boredom into a world of playful, yet at times menacing, fantasy, this time in an American setting. There is more than a hint that this kind of magic is that of perception, that kind of transformative vision which Dickens experienced when, looking out of a steamed-up window, he read "Coffeeroom" as "Mooreeffoc" and conjured up an Eastern vision of warmth and mystery.

Sometimes, as in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising (1973), we are tormented by the contrast between our reality and the hidden powers of another. At other times, as in John Masefield's The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935), it is the magical events that hold all the beauty and excitement. In Alan Garner's books, mythic magic from bygone times hovers numinously over the modern landscape dumbly inhabited by unknowing adults.

Whereas in The Hobbit (1937), Tolkien decked out his Norse saga with a bit of cottage cosiness, in The Owl Service (1968) Garner pulls his brand of Celtic mysticism into a tawdry Britain of the 1960s and conjures a similar frisson to Dickens's "Mooreeffoc": while adults negotiate with a new stepfamily, a difficult servant and her insolent son, the teenagers become possessed by an ancient blood feud and learn some sharp lessons about forgiveness. And it all begins with a pile of old plates.

Is the pattern on the plates owls or flowers? If owls, with claws and beaks, then the old legend re-animates itself to deadly effect. If flowers,then the psychic charge of the myth is released in kindness. This kind of transformation, like a Rorschach psychological test using ink-blots - or, indeed, Julian Schnabel's plate paintings - depends on how the readerprot agonist looks at things.

More recently, in The Nature of the Beast (Walker #163;3.99), Janni Howker uses images of magical haunting by a wild beast on a moor to explore what is human and what is bestial, whether the cold charity of officialdom is better than the wild affections of the family, what it means to steal and to be bullied, if there is, to quote Shakespeare, "anything in nature which makes these hard hearts" (King Lear).

This searing edge to the magic spectrum also flashes in Maeve Henry's A Gift for a Gift (Mammoth #163;3.50). Fran

runs away from her depressed mother and demanding siblings to doss in a strange house. Here she finds a dying old lady, Hilary, and her servant, Michael. Michael offers Fran all her wishes, no more dirty dishes and demands, if she will stay with him. But Hilary warns that Michael's love has a price. For what shall it profit someone if they gain the whole world and lose their soul or all human affection? By the grace of God (literally,there is talk of doves descending) Fran escapes the clutches of the prince of darkness and goes back to the dirty dishes and the all too fleshly embrace of her needy little brother. A glance in the mirror of magic has transformed the way she sees life.

Jay Ashton's Killing the Demons (Oxford #163;5.99) runs magic through the modern idiom of computer games. Sam, disabled by a car accident, channels her aggression through computer games devised by her father. Slowly, however, she gets sucked into real life, becomes valued for herself and reaches out to others. The need for magical solutions diminishes as reality becomes more enticing.

Sometimes, of course, magical intervention saves the day. Chandra, Frances Mary Hendry's award-winning novel about the travails of an Indian child bride (Oxford #163;3.99), uses a deus ex machina to embody a turning point in the story. Chandra, sold into marriage, is reviled and abused when her husband dies a few days after the wedding. She is kept as a slave until a vision of the goddess Durga - a projection of her own courage - gives her the strength to escape.

In different idiom, Hurricane Summer by Robert Swindells (Mammoth #163;3.50) tells a Hemingwayesque story of redemption through sacrifice. Jim has a fantastic new friend, a fighter pilot. When Cocky is around, Clive daren't bully Jim or slander his dead father. Cocky is a hero, but, as he tells Jim, he is also scared. So when Cocky is killed, and Clive's dad is killed rescuing a baby from a bombed house, Jim and Clive have a fight but end up as friends; they both have fathers who were heroes. Memory becomes magical, talismanic.

Heavy stuff. What about just having fun? Nesbit's families of genteel but impoverished children are far more simply playful in their encounters with grumpy magical beings. Nesbit herself had an unhappy marriage to a thriftless philanderer, but you'd never guess it from her books. Deservedly classics, The Phoenix and the Carpet - BBC TV's latest Sunday teatime serial - and Five Children and It (Puffin #163;3.99 each) are about as far from "issue" novels as you can get. Anthea, Jane, Robert and Cyril are a normally affectionat e set of siblings whose adventures with a Psammead, a Phoenix and a magic carpet transport them away from the banalities of sago pudding and what to do on a rainy day when you've no dosh.

Similar notes of innocent delight resonate in Mrs Molesworth's The Cuckoo Clock (1877) or The Carved Lions (1895), in which household furniture assumes the guardian angel role, or Mary Norton's Magic Bedknob (1945, later Bedknob and Broomstick). P L Travers, in the ever-fresh Mary Poppins series, starting with Mary Poppins (1934), twines together the guardian angel theme, social comedy and a wistful reworking of popular metaphors - remember the Topsy-Turvy Twins and the Man in the Moon? Not to mention the family who cut out stars. (Now published by HarperCollins Lions.)

Helen Cresswell is one of the chief contemporary successors to E Nesbit and P L Travers. Her latest, Bag of Bones (Hodder #163;10.99), despite having a baddy to be routed, is a transformation tale about a bag of bones which turns into a magical cat. At the end, in time-honoure d fashion, the bag disappears in time for breakfast. Again, rather in the tradition of Raymond Briggs's The Snowman, Garry Kilworth's The Gargoyle (Mammoth #163;3.99) makes a lonely boy and a stone gargoyle travelling companions. It ends with the words, "And the wonderful stories about everyday life began." Wasn't that where we came in?

If everyday life was always so wonderful, would we need magic? The kingdom of magic has many mansions, but they must be full of surprises. For without surprises, how can we recognise ourselves? Magic, in children's literature as in myth, ought to be a process, not an end in itself. Otherwise it is not Adam's Dream, but mere conjuring, party tricks. Like gold, it must ring true.

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