A Little More Magic

11Feb10

cover image from Amazon.com

Yesterday I quoted Alison Lurie. I love her book Don’t Tell The Grownups. She’s right. Good kidlit is always subversive.

Anyway, she answered her own question about “why magic” by starting with the “usual explanation . . . magic provides an escape from reality or expresses fears and wishes.” And it makes those fears and wishes concrete: “Desire shows itself as a pot that is always full of porridge,” and “children confront and defeat threatening adults in the form of giants . . . .” But Matilda defeats an undisguised threatening adult, so there must be more here than meets the eye.

Lurie suggests that magic is sometimes a metaphor for imagination, and that it may also become a metaphor for the actual state of things. In contemporary Magical Realism the magical elements are often objective correlatives (the outer world reflection) for the emotional realities of the character or the narrative, or of some greater reality for which the narrative itself is a metaphor.

In Matilda, as in all good fantasy, the fantastic elements are rendered carefully and grounded in the ordinary. It is an extreme emotional situation which drives Matilda to first realize her power. The power itself is rooted in her eyes. The use of the power renders her exhausted, even when what she does is small. She must learn and practice (with a cigar . . . and sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar) in order to improve and develop control.

Let’s look at what the magic does and doesn’t do in the story. It serves to get Trunchbull off Matilda’s back in the newt incident, bests her, and incites Miss Honey to ask Matilda home to tea. Finally, it gets rid of Trunchbull and regains Miss Honey’s inheritance. It does not get rid of Matilda’s parents, nor does it have any involvement in Miss Honey finally becoming Matilda’s mother.

I think magic here is a metaphor for power and desire, but it also seems to make Matilda’s victory over Trunchbull more “of imagination” than “of reality.” Maybe, that’s less threatening (c.f. the defeated stepmother not being punished in Cinderella). Yes the evil side of mother was banished: Trunchbull abdicated and the neglectful, belittling parents went off to Spain. But the fact that this was accomplished through magic made it an act of imagination—unlike the superglue or the peroxide in dad’s hair gel—so it didn’t threaten to banish my mother, the person reading this to me.

And just a question for my daughter: why did Charlotte love Wilbur?

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One Response to “A Little More Magic”

  1. 1 Karen

    Because he was awesome, loving, kind, and generally not threatening. This is based on memories almost two decades old, so don’t quote me.

    Have you read anything by Maria Tartar? She was mentioned today in my Fairy Tale class (sometimes I love grad school) and she sounded like something you would be interested in. Her earlier book is “The Hard Facts of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and her new book “Enchanted Hunter”. The latter is about how children encounter fairy tales. Seems interesting.

    You mentioned that Matilda’s eyes are the seat of her power. It’s been a while, but aren’t presentation (or false presentation) and showmanship major themes in the work? What does this say about the power of the gaze?


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