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?