Magic is awesome, except when it just makes everything worse. It happens rarely, but sometimes magic as a whole is a net evil thing in a story. In order to bring, well, order, back to the world in question, magic has to go. Although it’s sad for both the characters losing their magic and the audience by proxy, by casting fantastical power as something that’s fun or useful but ultimately damaging, these stories can teach us something worthwhile about the importance of self-sacrifice.
Spoilers for the entire Young Elites and His Dark Materials series below the jump.
I’ve talked about The Young Elites series before, but it’s a perfect example of this. It features a group of people (the titular Elites) who, after surviving a terrible blood fever, discovered that they had developed mysterious powers ranging from a healing factor to necromancy, with no two the same. In the second book of the series, the group of teens around whom the story is centered realize that their powers are starting to bounce back on them in unpleasant ways. The girl who can fly, for example, realizes that her bones are becoming brittle and hollow like a bird’s. The illusionist begins to have trouble discerning what’s real and what isn’t. In The Midnight Star, the finale of the Young Elites trilogy, the superpowered teens finally track down the reason that their powers have been turning on them. The group’s empath, Raffaele, discovers a parallel between the advent of the fever and a fable about an angel falling from the immortal realm to the human realm.
Raffaele realizes the angel’s descent was real, and while the angel eventually returned to the immortal realm, the rift he left was never sealed. Each of the Elites’ powers is tied in some way to the power of one of the angels in this universe’s pantheon, and their powers are the result of the angels’ essence seeping through the rift. And not only are these powers unnatural and unhealthy for humans to have, but the rift as a whole is poisoning the world and was the cause of the blood fever in the first place. The Elites have to deduce the actual place the fallen angel broke through into the mortal world, enter the immortal realm, and offer their powers back to the angels, sacrificing them in order to close the rift and stop the magical seepage that’s destroying the mortal realm. They are able to return home unscathed otherwise, but they will never again be able to manipulate reality in the way they once did. And our protagonist Adelina, the illusionist, ends up making the ultimate self-sacrifice: in addition to relinquishing her powers, she decides that, after three books of cruelty and conquest, she wants to do something good. She trades her own life to the angel of Death in exchange for that of her sister, who died of the side effects of her powers during the journey to close the rift.
This idea also appears in the His Dark Materials books, beginning with The Subtle Knife. In this book, protagonist Will Parry discovers a magical knife that can cut through dimensions (among other intangible things). His adventures lead him to be recognized as its intended and true bearer, and he eventually uses it to travel to the universe where our other protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, lives. It becomes a crucial tool in their adventures—guaranteeing victory in an otherwise hopeless battle, threatening the most powerful beings in their universe—and is coveted by their enemies. In the end, however, it’s discovered that the knife’s powers come with a cost: each time Will uses it to cut through to other worlds, the whole fabric of reality is threatened. In order for balance to be restored, the rifts must be sealed and anything that is out of its universe must be returned to its original home—including Will. Will and Lyra experience the first brushes of adulthood in their budding romance, which is (somewhat problematically) coded as a sexual awakening. Their next lesson in adulthood is a more bitter one: they must learn to put aside their own desires, which, though subjectively understandable and pure, are objectively selfish given the stakes.
The impetus for self-sacrifice in both of these stories is different. In one, the protagonist is motivated by her love for her sister, the only relationship left to her that was truly untarnished by any of her more sinister motivations. In the other, Will is forced to realize that the only way to guarantee the continued existence of the multiverse, including the life of his closest friend, is to guarantee that they can never see each other again. But in both cases, what they’re really giving up is the power that led them to that point and made all those things possible to begin with. The magic powers they held so dear, that set them apart from the rest of the world and made them special, are what they have to give up to protect something greater. Because magic is something that we in the audience have been conditioned to recognize as nearly invaluable in terms of worth, it gives their sacrifice an unmatchable narrative weight. We can understand, and could potentially encounter through more mundane means (a necessary organ donation, a hostage crisis, etc.) a situation where we could have to sacrifice something important to us to help or protect someone else. Giving up something of such enormity therefore becomes astonishing but not unrelatable.
By framing magic as something worthy of being laid on the sacrificial altar, it becomes something we can understand and which brings us together with an experience we otherwise could not fathom. Unlike stories like Harry Potter, where magic is something that sets you apart from the rest of the world, these stories turn it into something we can all relate to. It’s by no means easy to watch these characters give it up, but in understanding why they do so, we learn why self-sacrifice is important, even when it leads to an ending that feels bittersweet at best.
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