In honor of Earth Day, which was just this past Saturday, let’s talk about Earth magic! Many fantasy stories are filled with the idea that the Earth is a magical thing, and it certainly seems that way in real life. After all, this beautiful planet is where we live and grow, and where we get to see gorgeous sights or amazing animals. After watching just one episode of Planet Earth, you can understand why so many fantasy authors see the Earth and magic as one and the same.
But despite the fact that our world is so beautiful and amazing, fantasy authors have also recognized that humans, for whatever reason, seem intent on destroying it. Because of this, fantasy authors tend to incorporate nature spirits that fight on behalf of nature and call us to take up the fight as well. Even when fantasy authors write about other worlds that are different from ours, they still address issues of environmentalism that are relevant to our society.
Not long ago, Ace and I were discussing how the wizards in the Harry Potter universe never seem to grow as a society. They are still stuck with very basic technology, and while many tasks are certainly made easier with magic, no one can deny that Muggles seem leaps ahead of wizards in a lot of ways. From being able to explore space, to using computers, to even having pens, Muggles have it better—seriously, why would I ever use a quill? But this got me thinking: this isn’t just in the Harry Potter world. A lot of magical societies in fiction seem to be stuck in a more medieval era. This led me to considerhow we evolve as a society. It is just a fact that human beings are more likely to grow and change to fulfill a need. It’s easier to wash clothes with a machine than by hand, and having a computer makes it easier for us to access information, keep in touch with friends, or learn new things. But for magic users, when you can wave a wand to conjure fully prepared food or teleport yourself somewhere in an instant, is there ever really a need or desire to grow and change?
Harry Potter has indisputably become an important part of our modern mythos about witches, wizards, and magical know-how. We’ve discussed the series a lot on this blog, but as I was randomly thinking the other day, what exactly prompted Rowling’s choice in animal companions for her young magic users? Creatures like toads and cats have long since been staples of witchiness in the current pop media consciousness (although as far as cats go, Hermione’s fluffy ball of grump Crookshanks isn’t exactly the stereotype), and rats kind of fit in by virtue of so many people having an aversion to them. But owls? From where I stood, owls seemed like a random choice. Rowling has stated that she chose the creatures because they’re “traditionally associated with magic” and just because she likes them—both valid points—but in my pop culture experience, owls aren’t the go-to bird for shorthand magical implication. No, that honor goes to ravens. Still, this got me thinking further: what are the symbolic differences between owls and ravens when it comes to magic? Surprisingly, their purpose in folklore and their general symbolism are quite similar.
Anime magical girls and witches seem to fill a similar niche in their respective media. Both are centered around the inherent powers of women—whether they are feared or not because of it–and the idea of gathering power from what one wants is vital in the use of their powers. Though a witch may be more apt to use a love potion or other more unsavory methods in popular media, and magical girls typically want peace and love, the similarities aren’t difficult to see. Moreover, while these character types are stereotypically feminine, their real strength comes from how the magic they’re given only serves to build up the inner strength of the character in a way more easily understood by younger audiences. Sailor Moon doesn’t start caring about her loved ones extra hard because of her magic, it just helps her defend her friends and family in a way she wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Similarly, Marnie in Halloweentown doesn’t seek new challenges just because she found out she’s a witch, but being a witch offers her a whole new set of obstacles she’s excited to test her mettle against. In both cases, the girls are allowed to try and fail and embrace all the feelings that come with that.
Expanding on the overlap between witches and anime magical girls at some point really only makes sense; however, I will always be disappointed that the most prominent example of this to date is in Madoka. I watched the series a while ago, and while I liked some parts of it, the series as a whole never sat right with me. While, yes, part of it was because of the torture porn-y aspect of all of it, my main problem with it was how eager the series was to deny the safety of this power fantasyand how that tried to enforce a narrative where powerful women and girls are punished for wanting things.
Recently I was bored and decided to try something new on Netflix. Since Netflix is awesome, it suggested several things I might like, and to my delight, I soon found a fairytale with a female protagonist and Tim Curry as a supporting male character. That alone was enough to get me to watch, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much the movie subverted some typical sexist fairytale storytelling.
It looks like a Chronicles of Narnia ripoff, but it’s not.
The Secret of Moonacre is the story of Maria Merryweather, a young girl whose mother died when she was young and whose father recently passed away. She discovers that her father lost all of his assets to gambling and she is being sent to live with her uncle in Moonacre Valley. The only thing her father was able to leave her was a book called The Ancient Chronicles of Moonacre Valley. Maria begins to read a story about a woman so pure and good that nature loved her and the moon blessed her with magical moon pearls, which is why people began to call her the moon princess. But when she reveals their powers to her father and fiance, they become greedy and each attempt to steal the pearls for themselves. The princess then places a curse on the valley using the power the moon gave her, declaring that the pearls must be returned to the sea or the valley would be cursed forever. When Maria goes to live with her uncle, she discovers that not only is this story true, but that she is the new moon princess and must break the curse on the valley.
This was a surprisingly feminist story featuring a young girl entering a dangerous and magical world who is able to take control of her own life and help others. Her magic comes from being good and pure, like the first moon princess, but this does not translate into the same sexist storytelling that many fairytales do when a woman’s strength is said to come from her goodness and purity. Nor is Maria a boring character with no faults: she is never put up on a pedestal, but rather her strength comes from the fact that she is able to use her virtues to overcome her faults.
In fiction, characters don’t just die. Death always serves a greater purpose to the narrative. Even in total bloodbath stories like Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games, the myriad deaths are there to underscore the cruelty or randomness of life or the meaninglessness of war. Death informs our storytelling because it’s inescapable, and therefore holds a cultural fascination for us in a way that other life landmarks do not.
In stories where magic plays a role, death can still provide this commentary while also having tangible side effects for the living. One of these that I’ve noticed is that being party to death in some way can open a character’s eyes. Literally—death-adjacency can give people magical “true” sight that they had previously lacked. This ability, like anything involving death in fiction, is used to underscore the message of the narrative by providing some kind of insight to the characters and readers.
At its core, No Man’s Sky is a game about exploration and, yes, colonization to some extent. Hello Games gives their players essentially no guide on how to traverse the systems of planets surrounding them, and this becomes especially apparent when interacting with the few intelligent species you come across on the way. You can choose to ignore these fellow travelers entirely, putting your mark on everything by renaming landmarks and entire planets with seemingly no consequence outside of other players being able to see what you named it if they arrive there themselves. Or, you could simply button mash though the dialogue options you’re given during a conversation with one of the other races, and hope you choose the right answer (or just one that doesn’t spark some sort of galatic hostilities between you and that race). Yet doing either of these would mean that you’d miss out on one of the most compelling parts of the game. Every space traveler starts out knowing nothing about these other cultures, but with a little effort—and a little magic—No Man’s Sky gives a highly accurate analogy to what it’s like to learn and use another language.