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Magic and the real world

Posted By Richard Grenier On 07/15/2000 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Oliver Cromwell, may his tribe increase, awoke one night from a deep
dream of peace among the godly people of this earth. He enumerated:
Scots, English, Jews, Gentiles, Presbyterians, Anabaptists, and all
other denominations whose names did not come as easily to his lips. Far
from his lips, one might imagine from his history, were Hindus,
Buddhists, Muslims and — most of all — Roman Catholics, with whom the
Protestants of Britain were at swords’ points during the Thirty Years
War.

Cromwell was jailed, then released, and seriously considered
emigration to America (to New England). After a conversion to Calvinism,
Cromwell became deeply depressed, but a single thought tormented him:
Had he the divine grace that certifies faith and opens the way to
salvation?

With a sense of grace bestowed, Cromwell decided that God had willed
that the King and his lords be overthrown, and also that King Charles I
be beheaded. Cromwell did nothing but obey the will of God. It was God
who decided that Charles I be beheaded. The Catholic nations (Spain,
France, Austria, Ireland) kept plotting against England, and Cromwell
put down the Irish rebellion with particular ferocity.

Now Cromwell’s policies, following God’s guidance step by step, led
to the founding of the British Empire — a development analyzed quite
brilliantly by Jacques Barzun, formerly longtime professor at Columbia,
in his new “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life,
1500 to the Present.” The union of British peoples — England, Scotland,
Wales, and Ireland — came apart with Cromwell’s death in 1658. But
despite Cromwell’s religious prejudices, his naval and administrative
skills, the successes of the British navy, and the lawfulness of his
government, altogether invoked something new, a notion of British
greatness.

Another principle of Puritanism, now almost forgotten, was the
general belief in witches throughout Europe. Such intellectually
distinguished New Englanders as both Joseph Glanvill, a major
astronomer, and Sir Thomas Browne, an experimental biologist and
physician, were faithful believers. Browne considered the witch question
carefully and concluded that to disbelieve in witches would violate the
cosmic hierarchy of beings — God at the summit, then angels of various
grades, man, and at the bottom evil spirits, the minions of Satan, who
by their doings also carry out the divine plan. This accounts for man’s
temptations as well as for a host of otherwise unexplained mishaps in
daily life.

To remove temptations from the orderly scheme of things would make
God responsible for evil and bring man down to the lowest level of
spirits. The earth would no longer be the battlefield on which souls are
tested with continual assaults by the Devil. Witches, in short, were
necessary to the hierarchy of living things, the Great Chain of Being.
As for Glanvill, a productive scientist and member of the Royal Society,
the mysterious power of certain women (and fewer men) seemed no more
unlikely to him than the equally mysterious facts and powers that
natural science was discovering.

In short, there were centuries in British and American history (and
European history in general), when men believed unquestioningly in what
today we would call magic. And if today, in the educated classes, such
beliefs have declined, in the general population they are still potent
– witness the relentless popularity of gambling. And if today, in the
field of sport, one were to ask of a football coach his favorite quality
in a quarterback he is likely to answer “luck.” If there is a
distinction between “luck” and “good magic,” I have yet to discover it.

But in the public’s reaction to movies the relationship is even more
clear. We have been bombarded in recent years by straight cinema
adaptations of mythological works, of both ancient and modern vintage.
The current cycle of mythic films begins in 1977 with “Star Wars,” whose
phenomenal success had been anticipated (if to a lesser degree). Last
year’s “The Matrix” with Keanu Reeves was also rich in magical
incidents. The latest entry in the magical sweepstakes is “The X-Men,”
which just opened this week, based on the enormously successful comic
book.

All of which brings us to the most extraordinary event in modern
publishing history, the appearance of the fourth volume of the Harry
Potter saga: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” whose three earlier
books have sold 35 million copies in 35 languages. The new volume had an
initial printing of 5.3 million, which went on sale this week with
tremendous fanfare. Whether Harry is magic as ordinarily defined
or a simple children’s book, adults and children alike are turning its
pages at a prodigious rate.


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