The Lure of Magical Worlds

Carol imageI have a thing for magical worlds. Every time Lucy opens that wardrobe, brushes past the musty fur coats, and walks into Narnia, I get a thrill. I like my escapes big. In psychology, I wrote about transcendent experiences. In fiction, it’s magical worlds.

For my money, the best kind of journey to a magical world is the one that begins right here—in the mundane everydayness of jobs and homework and dinners that need to be made. Nothing against Tolkien and Middle-earth, but I think starting here and ending up somewhere magical delivers the biggest punch. Alice chases a rabbit down a hole into Wonderland. Milo drives his car through a phantom tollbooth into the Kingdom of Wisdom. Hagrid taps a brick wall and leads Harry Potter into Diagon Alley. Starting here and going there tells us that magic is alive and well and even we can find it.

My mother complains about my fondness for magic. She thinks I should write about serious issues and real life. But what she doesn’t know is that lots of serious stuff happens in magical worlds. For one thing, kids get to do a lot of things no one in their right mind would ever let them do in the real world. Take the Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They’re sent to the country to protect them from the bombing of London during WWII. But they end up in a far more dire situation in Narnia battling the White Witch and her platoons of crazy dangerous monsters. Over the course of this battle and their visit to Narnia, they, and we, learn about things like sacrifice, forgiveness, redemption, and courage.

Magical worlds can also be an excellent medium for psychological work. Think about Max in Where The Wild Things Are. Max gets angry and does bad things like chasing his dog with a fork, so his mother sends him to bed. But luckily Max’s room turns into a forest and an ocean arrives with a private boat just for him, and he sails away to an island full of angry, wild things. Over time Max tames these wild monsters and becomes their ruler. When he’s ready, he returns home, the ruler of his own emotions, to his cozy room where a hot supper is waiting—able to skip the anger management sessions.

Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, argues that in magical worlds we get to meet our own fears, joys, and needs transformed into solid things. “We touch symbols and do battle with them. Because of this, imagined worlds often feel more complete than this one. There’s that strange feeling of recognition: yes, this is how the world is meant to be. How many children have felt that in their hearts they were more Narnian than Scottish or English or Californian?”*

I have felt more Narnian than Bostonian at times. And sometimes I’ve felt bereft at the end of a book when I’ve had to leave a magical world. The end of Harry Potter VII was the worst. I couldn’t bear to think that I’d never go back to Hogwarts.

But more often than not, I think magical worlds prime us to see the magic and possibilities hidden right here in the everyday world. Before reading the book, we’d swear there was no magic anywhere. Afterward, we leave work and are transfixed by the sight of a golden sunset. We hear a song and our hearts are suddenly cracked wide open. A stranger on the subway smiles and lights up the whole car.

*Susanna Clarke, “Imagined Worlds,” The Guardian, Books section, January 21, 2009 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jan/22/o-novels-science-fiction-fantasy-books

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