I recently heard that magic is madness. According to one of the supporters of this literary theory, Freedomain Radio host Stefan Molyneux, the manifestation of magic whether it be in fiction or in reality exists only in the mind. Because “magic” in reality is described by mentally unstable people, “Magic in stories is always and forever a metaphor for madness.” Magic in fiction is the delusion of some character and “visible” to us because we are told the story from her perspective, but we, like other non-magical characters that may appear in the story, can distinguish it for what it is, insanity. The character is deluding herself into thinking that magic is occurring when in reality, she is screaming verbal abuse, babbling to herself, or performing some other destructive or crazy behavior as a result of trauma or boredom.
Stefan’s review of Frozen is what introduced me to this theory. Interpreted using the “magic is madness” theory, Frozen tells the story of Elsa, who out of boredom developed the insane belief that she could do ice magic. One day, in a fit of madness, Elsa hurts her sister Anna. Her parents hide her away and tell her to hide her insanity. Then, she kills them. Years later, Elsa finally gives in to her madness, screaming about ice magic and running into the mountains with her entire kingdom as witness. Because she is the queen and the town is hopelessly in love with her, they also believe in her ice magic powers and so must retrieve her before life can go on.
This theory is thought provoking and points out problems and ideas that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, but the profoundness of it is overstated and even distracting. Yes, you can interpret any work of fiction that contains magic as being about insanity, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to or should interpret the story in that way and doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all.
There are two ways to find meaning in a story. First, we can draw upon the story’s elements and themes and our own personal experience and knowledge to piece together a theory of what the story means. Our brains are very good at finding patterns in random data and images. Matrixing is the phenomenon where we see human faces where there shouldn’t be any, in complex patterns such as wood grain or carpeting. A collection of government documents, movies, and news articles has no meaning as a whole until someone concocts a conspiracy theory with them.
The process of finding meaning in a work of fiction can be similar to finding meaning in random patterns, data, and personal experiences. When we realize this, it isn’t surprising that Stefan should find that Frozen is about exactly the things he frequently talks about on his show: female privilege, PTSD, and child abuse. Frozen takes place in a non-sense world featuring a snowman who dreams of summer, a princess who pines after a man she just met, and a city that easily accepts that their queen has horrible ice magic. “Magic is madness” is only one of thousands of ways to interpret this chaos. A person who has experienced depression or anxiety is more likely to interpret Frozen as being about Elsa’s metaphorical battle with these problems and the affects they have on those around her.
Just because a work of fiction means something in particular to someone doesn’t mean that it will mean the same thing to everyone else automatically. If I am unaware of the “magic is madness” theory or that female privilege exists, then why would I consciously or unconsciously interpret Frozen as being about these things? Okay… The first time I saw Frozen was long before I was aware of the “magic is madness” theory, but I can’t prove I wasn’t unconsciously thinking about how insane Elsa was for believing that she had magical powers, how the stereotypical Jewish trolls signified the Jews who invented psychoanalysis, or what a self-centered bitch Anna was. …What a bitch.
The second way that meaning can be found in a story is to interpret it using a theory such as magic is madness. In doing this, however, the theorist risks ignoring whatever the author intended the story to mean and the artistic choices that were consequently made while advancing his own theory or agenda. A feminist can take popular video games and argue that they are sexist. A conspiracy theorist can take popular films and argue that they are propaganda. Anyone can take a film that has magic in it and interpret it as madness.
“Now that I know Orson Scott Card is anti-gay, I’m going to interpret all of his books as if they were anti-gay propaganda!”
If you try hard enough, any work of fiction can be about anything. Stefan argues that Frozen teaches young girls that they don’t have to work hard to be skilled in something. Elsa was born magical. Anna left her castle with little knowledge of the outdoors and survived. Both of them were born into royalty.
There are no guarantees that a child, or even an adult, watching Frozen would pick up on any of this though. From a completely different perspective, Frozen is about the importance of being open about who you are and of talking to those close to you about your problems. Elsa’s magic symbolizes absolutely anything anyone would want to hide about themselves out of fear of rejection or of hurting someone. This could include being gay or transgendered; feeling depressed, anxious, angry, or suicidal for any number of reasons; or admitting a lie or wrong doing. The filmmaker’s choices may have been to emphasize this message. For example, it isn’t important that we know whether Elsa or Anna know how to rule a kingdom because the focus of the story is Elsa opening up to her sister. From a writer’s perspective, Anna being able to perfectly throw a pickaxe, or neither of the sisters showing any interest in politics, could be seen as lazy writing, not a meaningful plot point.
The argument that all fiction that contains magic is about insanity is distracting at least in terms of Stefan’s goals. I think that the “magic is madness” theory is a valuable way to interpret fiction, but it doesn’t describe what Frozen is about to me. The most impressive interpretation I’ve heard using this theory was of Harry Potter because it was so well supported by both evidence in the books and in J. K. Rowling’s life. Stefan’s interpretation of Frozen pleads for stronger, more thoughtful writing more than anything. Because his interpretation was so distant from the surface story the film told, I wasn’t as convinced that the movie was about insanity. Stefan’s effort to argue that all fiction in this category can be interpreted in this way distracts from what I think he’s really trying to say. If indeed we are subconsciously being affected by these works of fiction, the authors who are creating these thoughtlessly written and clichéd stories are enforcing the illogical idea that irrational thoughts and actions will somehow make the world a better place.
[“What rules over us is bad ideas. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Bad, irrational, illogical, subjective objectivity…. The idea that we must learn kung fu to fight killer robots is a great way of distracting people with delusions of violence rather than getting them to think critically and oppose the bad ideas…. If you can get people to think that it’s a physical fight, then they go in unarmed to the real fight which is intellectual.”]
“Magic is madness” has its place among other theories and tools used for interpreting works of fiction. It can be valuable for finding hidden messages in a work of fiction and identifying illogical and lazy ideas both in the work and in life. What a work of fiction ultimately means, however, is unique to each individual as it is subjective and often determined by personal experiences. Pokemon can be a story about a boy with an absent father who was kicked out of his house when he was ten and consequently went insane. Or it can be a story about the comatose hallucinations of a boy who went adventuring into the cruel world of Pokemon training, fell off a bike, and hit his head. Or it can be a simple story about a boy growing up… and selling merchandise. It and other works of fantastical fiction are all of these things and more.
Talk at you next time.