An essay on the power of belief, and how it pertains to shape-shifting magic.
Imagine seeing a newspaper headline:
MAN TURNS HIMSELF INTO A HORSE.
Even though it might be something you desire (as you're kindly visiting this site), would you react by thinking, "Wow, lucky guy!" or "Yeah, right!"?
We don't see modern Circes or Merlins. Anyone of even moderate cynicism will tell you promptly, "Well, that's because they don't exist."
Itís a possibility. Consider it. Magic depends on Visualisation (seeing in our minds what we want to achieve), Will (the desire to achieve it), and Faith: the belief that it can and will occur if we ask it to.
There are many aids to visualisation, and the desire to succeed is unquestioned - it varies, but I've met people literally desperate to succeed. Faith is the stumbling block, because we're conditioned from birth Not To Believe In Magic.
Odd, when you think about it. Many of us are raised into a formal religion, based around an omnipotent deity. This is well accepted. Magical ability requires no greater leap of faith, so why do we accept one premise and not the other?
Let's go back two or three thousand years. Science was very much in its infancy. People didn't understand why things happen (Actually, they often don't today either but they think they do, and that makes all the difference. But this is about then). With no preconceived notions about why things happen, and countless theories all as likely or as unlikely as the next, magic thrives. No one thinks that changing into an animal is impossible. On the contrary, there is a very strong belief in the existence of individuals holding immense magical power.
The underlying theory of magic is that the universe is affected by belief. Those working at the very forefront of science have discovered concepts very similar (the act of observing an event can actually alter an event for example). If this is so, then at that time, the very age from which most of the greatest magicians seem to hail from, faith in magic would have been much, much easier.
But time marches on, and science begins to advance. Laws are postulated to explain observed facts. Okay, so far so good, but then suddenly, science takes flight: further laws are postulated, not on observed facts, but on previous laws. An awful lot of accepted science isn't based on empirical evidence: it's still theory. I studied Astrophysics at London University. Have you ever watched an astronomy documentary where the narrator confidently tells you how far away a certain star or galaxy is? We don't actually know that! It's a "best guess" and involves a lot of assumptions. I've even sat in on lessons where the lecturer makes statements like, "Okay, the temperature is about four thousand Centigrade, but that's close enough to zero for our purposes." It makes the maths a lot easier! Ever heard that the Speed of Light can never be exceeded? We believe this because the maths says so. We've never tried it! And only a few decades ago, the sound barrier was believed unbreakable too...
We're conditioned to accept science as fact, and taught comprehensively that magic is for child's stories, fantasy films and video games. Computer graphics have evolved to the point where anything can be portrayed with complete plausibility on our screens. Video games allow us to live fantasy roles. The result, sadly, is not a generation where we gape in awe at the miracles surrounding us: we're blasť about them. We take it for granted.
So if this is a universe where belief ultimately rules, then we live in a society where the only reason magic has such a hard time is because most of us spend all our time convinced that magic doesn't exist. Even if we want it to.
That does not make magic impossible. Faith is not an absolute, On-Off quantity. Most of us believe in the intangible quality of luck (as opposed to mathematical probability) - look how many people are superstitious to some degree. Prop a ladder against a building and see how many people walk around it even if they have to step out into a busy road! Many of us also believe in alternative medicines, many of which have no rational scientific explanation (to the extent where many are available on the British National Health Service). Our level of faith in magic can be leveraged so far: many of us share the nagging feeling that science isn't the whole answer. Religion sometimes plugs the gap, but sometimes that still leaves things unaccounted for, as if something intrinsic in our psyches knows there is a third factor.
The practical upshot of all this is that magic is possible but very difficult. Generating belief is a large part of it. In Wicca, one of the prevailing magical philosophies of today, the final part of any work of magic is "Acting In Accord": after the casting of an actual spell, you behave in a way that helps the probabilities of success. For example, you cast a spell invoking instantaneous wealth, then you play the National Lottery. The benefit is two-fold: you've side-tracked the cynics because they can dismiss any subsequent winnings as "mere chance" and don't destroy your efforts by concentrating on "That's Impossible!": also, you're reinforcing your own faith by behaving in a sympathetic manner. Perhaps you need a job (or a better one), so you work a spell to invite employment, then you act in accord by sending off applications.
A cynic at this point will say, "That's daft: that's the same as achieving something through conventional means, with some mumbo-jumbo tagged on the beginning. There's no magic involved." Well, perhaps. Undoubtedly you might win the lottery by pure random chance, or get that job because your application was superior. But who can tell if the winds of fate might not have veered a little in response to a little magic?
Intangibles are a good way to start in magic, but we're after the least intangible magic of all: shape-shifting. We want to change a human being into a horse: a profound transformation that contravenes the laws of science on several levels. It's going to be very visible, so it can't be slipped into reality like a luck-spell can. Forget the cynics here: if I started to change into a horse at my keyboard here, the first instinctive thought I'd have would be, "This can't be happening!" Such doubt would undoubtedly make me instantly correct: I'd stop the process myself!
So to return to our original question, why don't we see any modern Circes? Possibly there are none. It is entirely possible that no one possesses that level of faith any more. It would definitely make such individuals extremely rare. Let's assume that there are such people in the world though, quite possibly living a double life to hide what they truly are. Why not come out and demonstrate their powers? Because they very likely couldn't. Suppose for a moment that faith can be quantised and you need to achieve a level of 1000 points to change into a horse. The average person here can perhaps manage fifty points of unsubstantiated faith on a good day (you need about forty-nine to believe an election pledge). But an exceptional person comes along, who actually has the faith to achieve 1000 points. He manages to turn himself into a horse in the privacy of his own home, and back again. He thinks, "This is good. I bet the media would like this." So he sets up a press conference and announces what he is going to achieve. Two hundred journalists with cameras and cynical expressions turn up, each with a disbelief quotient of minus one hundred. Collectively, their cynicism swamps his own conviction and he is unable to change. Not only are the journalists confirmed in the view that this is a another sad deluded fake, but the man's own faith has just taken severe damage.
A modern practitioner would subsequently be much better off working secretly. If he did choose to show such magic to a cynic, it would be best done behind closed doors in a situation controlled by the mage. He also wouldn't risk revealing himself to more than one cynic at a time. His confidence in such a situation might give him the edge.
Having achieved such a transformation, it would be completely stable (no pun intended). There would be no "elastic band" of faith waiting to yank the transformee back to humanity as soon as someone doubted the transformation. This is because the transformation itself is the unbelievable part. Once someone actually achieved a transformation, they would be a horse. If a person vanishes and a new horse appears, people just don't jump to the conclusion that one must have turned into the other: they say, "Hey, we've got a missing person! Oh, and does anyone know who owns this horse?" A good example of this is seen in the short film, The Transfiguration of Howard Maine. It's a fairly good bet that even if things were made fairly obvious (you were to be discovered in equine form in your living room, standing amidst a pile of torn clothing and possibly wearing the torn remnants of some), people would assume it was some elaborate practical joke.
All is not lost, even if direct physical transformation is unobtainable for the majority. There are other solutions, such as sending your consciousness beyond your body. This is an intangible again: much easier to achieve.
Believing in magic isn't easy, but you can convince yourself. Cynicism is an ugly, destructive thing. The world opens up if you can learn to put it aside. Adopt the attitude "I will not disbelieve anything unless it is proven not to be." This obviously does not mean "Trust everyone implicitly", but allow for the idea that, as Einstein discovered, everyone has their own unique outlook on the universe, and that we have a bad habit of dismissing miracles when they become commonplace.
Here's a thought to leave you with:
There is very little in this world that can be truly, comprehensively and exhaustively explained. The best scientist in the world will have to shrug at some level and admit that ultimately, we don't have a clue what makes stuff tick. It's very easy to dismiss the technological marvel that is your computer as "just another technological gadget", but what is it really? I can see "one level beneath the box": I know about motherboards and CPUs. Beyond that though, itís a thing of magic. Maybe someone clever down at Intel could go a lot further and tell me about processor architecture and the energy thresholds of electrons and how this allows us to make a billion calculations a second, but that person isn't likely to know about the internal composition of an electron. Delving yet deeper, we hit the mysterious level of quarks and subatomics. Now we're delving into a world where matter and energy are interchangeable, and the bizarre behaviours of Quantum Mechanics hold sway - where one particle can change into another or move through a solid wall. Sounds a bit like magic...
So at my level, I have a miraculous machine where I push a button and miraculously get a response on my screen. That's magic to me. And at the breakthrough levels of theoretical science, we have particles so small that their behaviour can only be deduced rather than observed that do impossible things. That seems to be magic too. So start believing in it, because it's real.
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