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On Courtesy with Wizards and Harry Potter Fans

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Let me preface this entry by saying that I am a fan of the Harry Potter books myself. They have been years of fun and entertainment and I admire Ms Rowling a great deal. I have enjoyed a certain amount of inspiration that came from reading her books, and that, it seems to me is perhaps the highest compliment anyone can give an author.

However, having said that, I also must say that in my wandmaking business the young Harry Potter fans can be somewhat trying. Partly this is the fault of e-mail. In the days of typed letters and the post, it was hardly thinkable that a wizard would receive a letter from a young person still in his or her minority. Yet, today every ten year old can type on a computer keyboard and many have their own e-mail addresses so that they can visit adults on the Internet without the accompaniment of a parent and send off letters to them. These letters are usually brief, misspelled, and often inept in courtesy betraying the youth of their authors. Some are longer and more serious, but still marred by misunderstandings. I usually attempt to answer the latter sort.

The former sort, however, I sometimes merely delete and sometimes answer with brief rather brusque replies. One recently got my goat. Or I should say, two. The worst of this species of communication tend to come this way. The young writer will dash off a couple of sentences or a question and then some minutes later send another question in a separate message. Again, I may note, such behavior would have been almost ridiculous in the days of paper and typewriters, or even handwritten letters carried by post. I believe that having to consign one’s letters to a government official like the uniformed postman does help to make one think twice about dashing off letters to strangers, especially letters consisting of two sentences.

Well, this latest example of childish ignorance first demanded that I prove my magic was not a scam and then went on to demand that I guarantee the magic in my wands would work for the author of the letter. This bit of temper was followed by an equally short letter the same day which asked me if I knew any good spells — real spells like in Harry Potter, not a lot of silly nonsense with candles — and would I hand them over.

One can only suppose that the writer of this missive was very young indeed and very poorly raised by his parents. His complete lack of understanding about how to address an adult, much less how to compose a letter of inquiry, betrays what I consider to be a great fault in American culture today. Always a country half full of bumpkins and antisocial fugitives, America has not raised a generation of children who are given every opportunity to learn how to operate our most sophisticated telecommunications machinery and yet are given no instruction in common courtesy or letter-writing. Do not even get me started on deportment!

These two small letters in my overflowing mailbox struck me as speaking volumes about the person who wrote them and the problems that the Harry Potter books and movies have created. First, a common problem is that the children who read these novels seem to believe they are factual rather than fiction. Despite all the stylistic apparatus of fiction, fantasy, and parody, the books are seemingly taken at face value by a few fans who must want to believe them true so desperately that they delude themselves into some state of internal contradiction. This bespeaks individuals, if not a generation, who cannot grasp the difference between actuality and verisimilitude. Worse than that, they seem unable to grasp the humor of the books. I have a rather cynical grand-nephew who loves Harry Potter and many other fantasy novels and who plays video games constantly on his little machine-friend, but he doesn’t believe in them. He perhaps wishes they were real, as he sees so little of value in his actual life, but he is not foolish enough to get swept away with fantasies and start writing letters to wizards he doesn’t even know. He has the very great advantage, if he was curious about reality, to have a grand-uncle who is a wizard.

But this young man who wrote to me seemed a different sort of character (to judge by his writing alone). He seemed to be itching for a fight and though he also seemed to want to believe in magic, he made the serious mistake of supposing that fictional magic was real and real magic was bogus. I am still puzzling over that bit of logic. Apparently this young fellow judges the reality of things based upon whether they work instantaneously. This is consistent with a generation that has been raised on electronic gadgets. When I was a boy, I drew pictures, architectural and engineering drawings; I made model ships and planes and spaceships. I read books. All pastimes that take Time to accomplish, and Skill. They do not provide gratification at the push of a button. Today’s child (of a certain class anyway with money enough) is taught by all these electronic gadgets that things should happen instantly at the flick of a switch. Everything in video games happens fast, fast, fast. For the child with a Nintendo machine for his best friend and most faithful companion, the lighting of candles, meditation, or prayer must seem the height of nonsense — utterly imponderable.

So, this young writer writes to a wizard demanding proof that “his magic” is not a scam. This entirely misses the point of magic in so many ways. First of all, if the wizard is on the up and up and wants to give an annoying little git a sample of magic, it is not likely to be pretty. Second, it makes no difference to the student whether the magic of the master “works” because the master is not going to convey “his” magic to the student, but try to help him discover and train his own magic. Magic is not a commodity that can be sold, any more than musical talent or wisdom. In seeking a piano teacher, it is true, one might want proof that the fellow can actually play the piano himself, but we hardly ever question such things. Who would advertise himself as a piano teacher if he could not play the piano? Can he teach? That is another question altogether. Can the student learn from this particular teacher? That is a third, and separate, question.

Now, of course, I am pretty explicit on my websites that I am not a teacher of magic. I do not teach magic to others and I would be very reluctant to do so because I do not know if I have the wisdom to judge another person’s merits. At Avalon Center, it is true, I have outlines some possible courses in the study of the magical arts, but actually teaching someone to do magic is very, very difficult. Perhaps an analogy could be made to trying to teach someone to sing, or even more to teaching someone to play a musical instrument which is invisible and intangible. On the Internet.

Rowling and her Harry Potter stories have grossly misled her readers on that point. She has made magic much too easy and she has overemphasized the part that in-born talent plays. She represents children as “being wizards” much more than learning how to be wizards. And for an actual wizard, the notion that an eleven year old could do magic in any controlled way is either ridiculous or frightening. I could only imagine it happening in very rare cases of rebirth and it would be very dangerous. Doing magic accidentally is another matter altogether, but it seldom, if ever, takes such obvious forms as Rowling suggests — hair growing back overnight, the glass in python cages disappearing, human beings turning into hot-air balloons. All these this are just fun fantasies. They are not anything to do with magic.

And that is what some children seem not to understand. That there are worlds created in fiction in which we can make anything happen, and there is the complex world of reality in which there is always a cost for everything. Terry Pratchett is one author of fantasy who seems to understand this and introduces it as an idea in his books. In Hat Full of Sky for example there is an incident where a man is turned into a frog. Newton’s law of the conservation of matter is not ignored and so in addition to the frog, appears a sort of disgusting balloon of protoplasm that consists of all the leftover matter from the man, which was not used when his size was reduced so dramatically. Well, Pratchett is poking fun at the usual sort of fairytale, fantasy magic. He is not representing real magic either, but at least he is pointing to one of the practicalities that makes some sorts of magic (transformations, or transfigurations as Rowling calls them) so difficult as to be impractical. Yes, perhaps you could squash a camel through an eye of a needle if you really wanted to, but what on earth would be the point? And neither camel or needle would presumably survive the operation, and probably not the interfering camel-threader either.

Of course, what these silly children want is for you to throw a fireball or turn a teacup into a hedgehog or fly on a broom or something out of some fairy tale. “Show me a phoenix feather,” they will demand. Good heavens! If it was easy to do such things on the sublunar plane, they wouldn’t make good reading at all. The whole fun of fantasy is that those sorts of things do not happen in ordinary waking life. There are very good reasons they don’t. Fantasy authors since Ur have tended to ignore the consequences of such interference in the natural structure of the universe, for the sake of a little fun. That is the very essence of fantasy. But often, if you look more closely at fairytale magic you find that it usually goes very wrong and has very bad consequences.

Sigh.

What on earth makes children imagine that any adult — much less a wizard — is going to share secrets with them? I do not share secrets even with the children that I know without careful consideration. And the secrets that are real in this universe consist of much more complicated ideas than appear in children’s literature. For Pete’s sake, people don’t even go to the bathroom in most juvenile novels. Or adult novels, for that matter. Fiction is not reality, no matter how realistic it may be. That is why we like realism, because we know that it isn’t really real but we can pretend it is.

Magic, on the other hand, is the power of imagination used for different purposes and in different ways — to transform the stream of causation and circumstance, to alter our consciousness, to alter the consciousness of another person, etc. etc. It is extremely poorly adapted to fighting battles and duels or getting revenge on people, though certainly that has been one of the staples of common witchcraft. And where such conflicts do occur they are not simply on the material plane of being. They are on higher planes. That is the bit that Rowling completely leaves out of her magic, and that’s fine because it makes it funny and entertaining.

I feel sorry for these kids who express a desire to be tutored in magical philosophy and have nowhere to turn but to strangers on the Internet. Our society provides no formal avenue of education for them. Instead they are forced to go to schools which will do their best to drum the imagination out of them, insisting that there are no such things as ghosts and spirits, not such things as magic, only science and technology. The vast majority of these children will simply give up and conform to this indoctrination. Only if they happen to become Freemasons and catch on to the esoteric teachings in the Craft, or if they happen upon older and more experienced practitioners of magic, will they have any opportunity to escape this indoctrination. We believe the faith we are taught to believe. And if we are taught to believe there is no spiritual world, only machines, scientists, and economics, we will believe that no matter what happens. Things will go inexplicably wrong in our lives, strange things will happen, maybe we’ll even see a ghost or have a vision, but it will all be dismissed, hidden away, or repressed by fear because it violates the faith of the dominant materialist culture of science, engineering, and capitalism.

At the same time that our secular schools teach this faith, our religious institutions teach a cosmology based in the ancient world and the Middle Ages. One where everyone did believe in ghosts, spirits, angels, elves, and magic, not to mention divine intervention and saints. A child who receives a religious education as well as a secular one gets two completely contradictory faiths. The result? Confusion, bewilderment, or double-think as a way of being. George Orwell coined the term double-think on the model of the expression double-talk. It means to hold two diametrically opposed ideas in your mind at the same time. And we wonder why there seems to be an increase in mental illness in our culture?

It is, I suppose this very cognitive dissonance embedded in American culture which leads to young people who have encountered genuine magical techniques (such as the use of candles) and suppose them to be phoney because they do not jibe with the fictional magical methods they have encountered in children’s novels. Someone really needs to help these kids, but I hardly think I am the one best suited to do it.

If you happen to know a child interested in Harry Potter or magic, please try to teach them about their own natural feelings of grandiosity and wish-fulfilment fantasies. Tell them that puberty and hormones make all of that worse, but they will get over it, if they pay attention to their emotions and do not let them overmaster their reason. Tell them that wizardry begins with the union of reason and feeling, intuition and sensation into a balanced whole.

Wizardry is the pursuit of wisdom, not the ability to turn people you dislike into ferrets or fly on a broom. You can do all that in your dreams anytime you want to. But adult behavior ought not include demonstrations of power or prowess, most especially in magic. It should never be done lightly or on a dare and the best magic is that which is centered on self-transformation, not on trying to get the outer world to do one’s bidding.

And, above all, teach them that if you correspond with adults, it is pointless to dare them to prove they are not fakes. If they reply positively, then they almost certainly are fakes. If they are sincere in their magical beliefs and practices, they are bound to be insulted by your lack of manners and then you have simply lost an opportunity to establish a relationship with a mentor, which presumably was the point. I make it a rule that if a prospective client asks me if she needs a wand to do magic, I say no. You don’t . And if you think you do, then you probably do not know enough about magic to pursue it effectively with or without a wand. If I sent off my wands to people who knew nothing about magic, I should expect to find a very peeved wand on the other end when it finds out. So, caveat emptor.

OWL

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