I was listening to Robert McCammon’s novel Boy’s Life the other day. In the long introduction he talks about childhood and magic, and how the world is a magical place when we are children and we gradually lose our ability to see the magic as we grow older.
It’s a common sentiment, and the basis for a great many works of magical realism, Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, Lewis’ Narnia series, Barker’s The Thief Of Always, Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
But as I was listening I realized–and this has taken me a long time to understand, and longer still to admit–that I don’t buy it. In fact, after taking a good hard look at my life experience, I realized that, for me, it was exactly wrong.
That is to say, when I was a child I did not see the world as magic, I saw the world as a magic trick, which is the opposite thing. I didn’t understand how things worked, but I was confident that they did work by mechanical and logical processes. I knew–it was an article of faith for me–that there were wires and trap doors lurking behind anything that seemed magical. I lived in a Scooby Doo universe, and I would always be able to rip the mask off the fantastic to reveal the grumpy old man. No one was going to get away with haunting my cosmos, not so long as this pesky kid was around to stop it.
For me growing up was a process of losing, not my childlike sense of wonder, but my childlike faith in mechanical determinism. Things that are not understood are pedestrian and boring. You accept the things that happen because you assume that’s what is supposed to happen, and that there is a perfectly logical explanation for them happening that way and not some other way.
It’s only when you start looking for false bottom in the trick top hat and fail to find it does your faith in the ordinariness of things begin to crack. Mathematics is dull when you don’t know anything about math. But once you begin to study number theory and see the miraculous nature of integers you begin to realize that magic is loose in the world.
To a child, electricity is sane and reasonable, a willing butler who lives inside the walls and comes when called. Working with electricity, though, you come face to face with the barely chained god of lightning and destruction.
Driving is magical. At sixteen a driver’s license is a scroll imbued with words of power to shrink the world to the size of a model train set. A checkbook is a tome of endless things, guarded by a curse that lurks to bedevil those who fail to cast its runes with sufficient skill. Having a job is a gate to undreamt authority, an identity among the elect. One’s own apartment? A demesne worthy of any necromancer.
Buying alcohol with one’s own money, using one’s own lawful identification? Faust weeps with envy. And sex? Eldritch wizardry. If the gods made anything better they kept if for themselves.
And this is the fantasy I write (I might as well call it “fantasy”, the word fits as well as any and better than most). Not the magic of a child, which is an open-mouthed gaping at stars that could be spangles hanging on strings for all that they are understood, but the magic of a young man who is learning to intone the secret incantations that drive the clockwork of the world.