Magic: Empowering or Addictive?

Why has the addiction to magic become a theme in books and television?

The obvious example is Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In season six, magic becomes a clear metaphor for drugs, and Willow is the down-and-out addict. With episode titles like “Smashed,” “Wrecked,” and “Gone,” I don’t think you could argue that the show isn’t drawing a comparison between the high gained from using magic and the high achieved from drugs.

You see it elsewhere, too. I’m in the middle of The Fires of Heaven, book 5 of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and several characters are exhibiting signs of magical addiction. Jordan builds it right into the world: the more of the One Power you draw, the more you want to draw, until you still or kill yourself. That’s pretty grim. And if you ask me, at this point in the series, Egwene is exhibiting all the early signs of addition. She can’t get enough of using the power, she constantly wants to learn more, she’s abusing the little authority she has, and she’s reckless in using her power and her authority. (And if you give me any spoilers from the rest of the series, I’ll thump you, because I’m actually quite enjoying this series this go-round.)

Look at the Harry Potter series, too. At some point in one of the books—and I’m kicking myself because I can’t find the quote—someone says that Dumbledore could have done the things Voldemort did, but wouldn’t. Voldemort and Dumbledore perhaps have equally strong abilities, but Voldemort became addicted to his own power. Dumbledore drifted that way a bit in his youth, but he never actually let the magic overwhelm his humanity.

So why does this happen? Why has addiction to magic become a trope?

1. Magic is your basic mind-altering substance. Magic is the ability to use your will to alter the world around you. It’s the ultimate trip—one minute you’re in a club full of goofy guys hitting on you, the next you’re in a room full of dancing sheep and soap bubbles that won’t pop. The world around you is foreign, beautiful, and titillating… and under your control.

2. Magic gives formerly “weak” characters power. Characters like Willow Rosenberg, Egwene al’Vere, and Tom Riddle typically come from middling or even weak backgrounds. Magic gives the no-name character a name, a gift that makes her special and even better than other characters. It’s a cheap trick, though, giving a character a gift that makes him suddenly better than all the rest, with no consequences. It probably follows that…

3. Magic is power, so addiction to magic is addiction to power. That formerly weak character finds herself in an authority position, able to do things that no other character can. It goes to her head. Suddenly Tom Riddle, insignificant orphan, finds himself able to scare those around him, and the next thing you know, he’s Moldy-Voldy, able to make other wizards tremble with a mere look. Willow finds herself the most powerful witch in the world, so powerful she could destroy it just to end its pain. That has to feel good, rather like waking up and discovering you’re a god.

DeviantArt image by Forbis

4. Magic is somehow tied to sexual liberation. Okay, I know we talk about Freud quite a bit around here, but before you run screaming, hear me out. Willow only becomes extremely powerful after meeting her fellow-witch girlfriend Tara. The relaxation of her sexual inhibitions is almost directly related to the increase of her powers. Egwene thought she would grow up and marry Rand, but as she sees the world and realizes her powers, she also realizes that she doesn’t love him “that” way. She gets progressively more powerful as she severs ties to her old self and allows herself to develop new, womanly loves.

5. More accurately, though, magic is tied to self-actualization. As a character discovers herself, she discovers her power. Magic is a metaphor for our own internal strength, and just as we can run away with vanity or self-loathing, we can be overcome by the allure of our own magical power.

I think this last bit is true. Magic is part of a person, not a drug—and perhaps the idea of magic as a mind-altering, negative substance is why you can find Neo-Pagans upset at Whedon’s metaphor. And it’s disturbing to think about: our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.

So what do you think, readers? Why do writers love the magic addiction trope? What are some other reasons characters might get addicted to magic?

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19 thoughts on “Magic: Empowering or Addictive?

  1. Seriously AWESOME post!!! HUGE Buffy freak as well as RJ freak, although I admit to having NOT read the last couple books *waits for the rotten eggs to fly*

    I think the possibility of addiction to magic can lead some great internal as well as external conflicts. And it makes sense to the reader too have some people lose control, just like they do with other things (power, money, sex, drugs, etc). They can relate to the characters because they can see how having that kind of power COULD lead to bad things 😉

    1. Thanks! I actually gave up on the WoT series a couple of times, but this time I’m going to make it through. (I am, I am! I love Brandon Sanderson, so I’m actually looking forward to the more recent books.)

      It’s a very good point that it makes the character more ‘relatable.’ Magic, like any other new-found talent or hobby could lead to obsessive behavior and addiction.

  2. Wow, that WAS a fabulous post! Honestly, I’m not sure because I’m not a huge fan of magic. I’m really not. I have a few I love – House of Night series comes to mind. But…I’m just not a huge fan of the genre. That being said, it seems like you have it all covered. My first thought was power, but you already mentioned that. And self-actualization does seem to be a biggie. Out of the fantasy books involving magic I’ve read, including Practical Magic that I just finished, that’s one theme prevelant in all of them; whereas, the others aren’t necessarily there at all.

    Also…I think the alure of…magic turning dark. So many other things in life can turn dark also, but magic is more fun! To move magic powers, originally used for good, and turn them down a dark, twisty path to create something evil…it’s always fun, if somewhat scary, to explore the evil side of humanity, and magic is more fun than no magic at all. 🙂

    1. Magic is always more fun. And you’re right about its potential for darkness. Perhaps that’s what makes magic so sexy — at any moment, it could turn on you, it could corrupt you, or you could lose control. The element of danger makes it more alluring.

  3. very interesting post! I my self am a spiritual person (muslim) and in the quran as well as other books such the bible etc magic has always been something frowned upon and that can lead to very dark paths, and these books are ancient so it makes sense to see the same themes being portrayed in stories of a fictional nature being as they have been represented like that throughout history!

    1. That a point I hadn’t thought of, so thanks for bringing it up!

      Many authors and genres seem to have a dual fascination with magic, with its exciting and dangerous elements. In so many cultures, it’s taboo, and that adds another element of corruption to the addiction that so many characters face.

      1. I have to point out that it’s taboo because the power of magic is so closely related to the power of any god. If humans have godlike power, than what would be the point of believing in a supreme being?

        Take for example, the Christian sacrament of communion in which the bread and wine are transformed in to the body and blood of Jesus. If an observer didn’t know anything of the background, then the priest would appear to be have magical powers. In reality, the priest is merely a channel and calls upon God to make the transformation.

        1. That’s a great point, and it reminds me of a post of been meaning to write about religion in fantasy novels/shows.

          I think that magic-as-godliness comes back to the magic-as-power metaphor. It again makes the character so powerful, so in love with her own abilities, that she becomes a danger to those around her… she becomes godlike, and if she runs amok, it could turn the whole world upside down. I can see how that might be especially threatening in a monotheistic worldview.

          Thanks for commenting!

  4. Beautifully thought out! Made me stop and think, especially towards the end. “Magic is a metaphor for our own internal strength, and just as we can run away with vanity or self-loathing, we can be overcome by the allure of our own magical power.” I can see this — as we become more confident within ourselves, we ‘need’ others less, we become more self-focused and therefore become more vulnerable to attack/defeat. Great post … even for a non-magic genre person like me!

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! You’ve stated it really well–we become vulnerable in new ways as we get stronger. That does add a new, deeper layer to character development. The weak character becomes strong, but as she develops her strength she develops new, more painful weaknesses. I’ll be thinking about that when I write a new magic-user character. 🙂

  5. Fascinating topic! I agree with all of the reasons you gave on why writers use magic in their writing. And, frankly, it’s fun to create magic and have our characters do things we could never do. 🙂

  6. Fabulous post! I think the only thing I could add would be a corollary: Freedom. Similar to the self-actualization and power, but slightly different. With magic, the character has at least the illusion of being free of whatever was binding them to an otherwise humdrum world.

    You’ve given me lots to think about for the WIP….thanks!

  7. I read this yesterday and didn’t have time to comment.

    I. LOVED. THIS. POST.

    Excellently written, and you make some great points. I was always a wee bit irked at the straight magic = drugs correlation Joss made as well, but I love in Season Seven how Willow finds the essence of magic — the one that comes from within the earth and herself, grounded in a place of light.

    I also really do like the approach of the Wheel of Time — and lemme just say that it gets better. 😉

    Thank you for a phenomenal post, Kristin. 🙂

  8. Ah, Magic. Reality altering, tastes like pennies… wait, is that Magic? I’m sure it is…

    Power. Power corrupts. Not just magic, but most of the most noble heroes turn down true power when it’s handed to them. Galadriel and Gandalf turn away from the ring because the power would be too much temptation, though they are already powerful with magic. In the second Mistborn book, Elend is worried that giving himself too much power as a king so he limits himself (and that bites him in the ass). So Magic is an expression of the corrupting nature of Power.

    In my time with The Old Republic (that new Star Wars MMO thing), I started off as a Bounty Hunter. My character acted honorably and was recognized by their own talents and abilities, not relying mainly on being strapped head-to-foot in dangerous technology capable of setting a small orphanage on fire with a wrong button push.

    But my Sith? Shoots lightning. ALL. THE. TIME. I revel in it. I cackle maniacally while screaming “UNLIMITED…. POWAHHH!!” almost every hour (much to the chagrin of the people who can hear me on voice chat). Then I started to notice something: I started questioning “Why is my character paying this guy for gear? Why am I paying to rent this hovercraft when I could easily just fry them and drive off wherever I want (F* the police!)?” The opposite of my character who struggles to compete in a world full of people who can throw boulders at each other using a wave of their hands. I, myself, became frustrated at how limited my lightning skills were. And then I realized that I’m Sith. I WANT more power. NOBODY can tell me what’s right if I can fry them with lightning.

    So if magic existed, i would probably be evil. Because $4.50 for a latte? I DON’T THINK SO! *ZAP ZAP ZAP EVIL LAUGH ZAP COPS SHOOTOUT PRISON DEAD*

    So yeah. Magic.

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