Why Magic + Nostalgia?

I don’t usually care for fantasy, though I like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Rewatching the first Harry Potter movie, I was reminded of the puzzling correlation in fiction between magic and traditional social orders. Even though the wizards in Harry Potter live among modern folks, they still prefer Victorian era garb and interior decoration. More generally, stories with magic tend to be nostalgic – containing and accepting older social orders. Why?

I went looking for clues and found:

The core thing about fantasy tales is that, after the adventure is done and the bad guys are defeated… the social order stays the same. It may be the natural genre … but should we be proud of that? Science fiction, in sharp contrast, considers the possibility of learning and change. (more)

Rowling thus uses magic as a means to remove the reader from the modern technological world, through which she shows the [usual] dehumanized reality and entices the reader to reflection about the alternative possibilities to shape our world. … Magic in the world of Harry Potter is a connecting force among people, not something that makes them lonely; it presupposes the continuation and deepening of man’s connection with nature, the connection that appears to have been lost in our modern reality. (more)

Habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge. These habits have little to do with religious faith. … Magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day. … For people who are generally uncertain of their own abilities, or slow to act because of feelings of inadequacy, this kind of thinking can be an antidote, a needed activator. … Magical thinking is most evident precisely when people feel most helpless. [Researchers] … sent questionnaires to 174 Israelis after the Iraqi Scud missile attacks of the 1991 gulf war. Those who reported the highest level of stress were also the most likely to endorse magical beliefs. … “Persons who hold magical beliefs or engage in magical rituals are often aware that their thoughts, actions or both are unreasonable and irrational.” … “With most people, if you were to confront them about their magical beliefs, they would back down.” (more)

Nostalgia is a predominantly positive, self-relevant, and social emotion serving key psychological functions. Nostalgic narratives reflect more positive than negative affect, feature the self as the protagonist, and are embedded in a social context. Nostalgia is triggered by … negative mood and loneliness. Finally, nostalgia generates positive affect, increases self-esteem, fosters social connectedness, and alleviates existential threat. … Nostalgia is found cross-culturally, and among well-functioning adults, children. … Although homesickness refers to one’s place of origin, nostalgia can refer to a variety of objects (e.g., persons, events, places). … Participants in the negative-mood condition were more nostalgic. … Participants in the high-loneliness condition were more nostalgic than those in the low-loneliness condition. … [Researchers] proposed that nostalgia imbues life with meaning, which facilitates coping with existential threat. … According to terror management theory, one can mitigate existential anxiety through shared beliefs about the nature of reality that imbue life with meaning. … after reminders of mortality … participants who were more prone to nostalgia. (more)

Both magic and nostalgia are common, arise more when we feel threatened, and comfort us in such situations. If questioned, we admit these styles of thought are biased, but away from such criticism we’ll easily slip back. Both magic and nostalgia rely especially heavily on wishful thinking – magic presumes we are especially able to influence events important to us, while nostalgia presumes that our previous social orders were especially functional, moral, good to people like us, etc. The fact that fantasy tends to combine both magic and nostalgia suggests that some readers have an especially strong tolerance for wishful thinking, and/or demand for comfort, and fantasy targets that audience.

As science fiction is often lumped with fantasy, does that suggest science fiction fans also have an unusual tolerance for wishful thinking and demand for comfort? To some extent yes – relative to reality, science fiction tends to presume tech changes fast, that it is very influential on society, and that small tech teams are very influential on such tech. And science fiction usually presumes that good guys tend to win and society basically works out ok.

Is the main difference between fantasy and science fiction that fantasy orients more to the past, while science fiction orients more to the future? While we think more far about both the distant past and future, we think more far about the future:

Since the distant past is also further away in time, we also expect past folk to live further away and travel longer distances, but the many concrete details we know about the past reduces this effect. (more)

Do the many specific details we know about the past give us a clearer anchor for our wishful thinking – so we can wish that those particular social orders are functional, moral, etc.?

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  • Anonymous

    I’ve noticed that I tend to have one sort of quasi-magical thinking- attempting to deliberately trigger an autosuggestion effect when I need more willpower. I’m not 100% sure if this counts as irrational, but it probably does.

  • mjgeddes

    People tend to read ‘magic’ as metaphor for whatever their particular biases are.

    For instance, ‘Less Wrong’ folks, placing a high value on rationality, see magic as a metaphor for rationality. Brin, as a liberal democrat, saw it as nostagia for old social orders. I don’t think those ideas are anywhere near the mark.

    Both sci-fi and fantasy explore personal and social transformation, but I think the key diffference between fantasy and science fiction is that fantasy explores the internal world (mind, psychology), whereas science fiction explores the external world (technology). Since fantasy explores psychology, fantasy deals heavily in metaphor and archetypes. So the nostaglia element is purely incidental. Fantasy uses ancient images and concepts simply because they are strong archetypes.

    So, what do I think real magic is? Personally, I think its creativity and imagination.

    P.S Real magic (creativity) beats fake magic (rationality) any day of the week. In a real ‘magicial duel’ between me and ‘Less Wrong’ top posters, those guys are gonna get their butts kicked from here to Saturn 😉

    • James

      Do you think being creative is necessarily irrational? Just what do you think rationality is, anyway?

      • some thoughts on this:

        I think there is an outdated romantic bias against rationality. But I also think standard ideas about how irrationality, logic, rationality, and creativity relate to one another are wrong.

        Truly great ideas require strong logic, and creativity.

        Creativity seems to me talent for making unusual and fruitful associations. It seems to be based on an automatic interior process of remixing. It may not useful to talk about whether this is rational or irrational. Pragmatically, it works. But it is not a process that runs on strong rational logic, unless my understanding of those terms is flawed.

        Magical thinking, and bad dangerous ideas are based on rational-style thinking based on flawed logic (but logic nonetheless).

        I think all this thinking is basically the same kind of stuff. The difference is how rigorous you are about seeing if you are in fact correct.

        (I’m not trying make a definitive statement here. this is just in the spirit of talking these ideas out.)

      • mjgeddes

        Creativity supersedes rationality (it includes rationality but extends beyond it). I think it’s the ability to categorize and generate fruitful analogies, and no, IQ does not correlate with this skill.

        ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’ – Einstein

        “Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence’ -H. L. Mencken

        To use rationality, you need the correct Bayesian priors. Rationality can’t supply them (at least, not in a computable sense).

        The secret to magic is all in the priors baby.

      • please explain re: baysian priors. my googling is proving unhelpful to understand what you mean in this context.

      • What would you propose as a modern-day duel? That is already an interest of Eliezer’s using an analogy to untested martial arts.

      • please explain: duels.

        this section is getting very cryptic. I get the sense there are ideas here, but it’s hard to engage with them when they are so minimally proposed.

  • UserGoogol

    It seems quite silly to psychoanalyze it like this. Magic just is nostalgic to begin with.

    If you want to tell a story about people violating the ordinary order of the world, you have some options. You might go with magic, or you might go with advanced technology. Both get the job done. What differentiates magic from sufficiently advanced technology IS nostalgia: magic follows the style of ancient legends, whereas futuristic technology goes in the opposite direction for its influence. This is different from the story merely taking place in the past or the future. And a writer who has chosen an old-timey way of having their characters bend reality is likely to also be inclined towards old-timey in other ways.

    • Konkvistador

      This explanation seems more convincing than the one in the OP.

    • I don’t think it’s silly to psychoanalyze anything of human creation. Human’s have minds that are complex and particular things. Anything thought of by humans is a function of that weird machinery encountering the world. So look at the idea, look at the world, and also look at the psyche.

  • mjgeddes, I don’t see Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings doing more exploring of mental worlds than science fiction.

    UserGoogol, magic was never an actual way that real people bent reality, and it is just as popular a way today for characters to bend reality than it ever was.

    • The Harry Potter series deals with personal growth and morality. The main character learns to shoulder his responsibility towards his community, discover how much strength he really has, and needs to make tough choices along the way. There are also a number of moral lessons about tolerance and against racism. There’s not really anything new there, but it deals with change on a personal level.

      Tolkien is, I believe, more or less pure escapism. His stories exist to entertain and distract, not to teach.

  • ad

    More generally, stories with magic tend to be nostalgic – containing and accepting older social orders. Why?

    Well, LOTR contains and accepts the social orders of the past because it is set in the past. Tolkien was interested in, and built his mythology on, pre-Christian northern european legends. Those legends contain what we would call magic, so Tolkien’s invented world does.

    Stories set in the future call magic “psychic powers” instead of magic. Or “the Force”. Calling it “magic” would not sound future-y enough.

  • some thoughts:

    I feel like good vs. evil as a conflict fits in neatly as a part of this axis. When you let ambiguity and complexity effect your thoughts on an old social order, that’s a reduction of nostalgia. And you can see this in plenty of good fantasy that takes seriously the eras to which it refers.

    And I think nostalgia can be projected into the future via good vs evil. All of our good vs. evil examples are simplified versions of the past, or based on old stories and myths, while the present is distressingly ambiguous. The past has heroes, but not so much with the present. Because the would be heroes of the present are still alive and visibly human.

    When you project a sense of good vs. evil into future, rather than a sense of ambiguity, you are projecting the past and childhood into the future rather than the present and maturity.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    I think the attraction of magic in movies and what not is that it allows you to get what you want without having to do much work.

  • Pratchett’s Diskworld is a notable example of extremely popular fantasy where there’s a lot of magic, and the world doesn’t keep hitting the reset button.

    I think one of the reasons fantasy harks back to simpler social structures is that world-building is hard. Adding magic, and then adding changes from magic is harder. I suspect Pratchett is smarter than the average fantasy author.

    Most fiction isn’t about societal change, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that fantasy isn’t either.

    These days, there’s quite a bit of fantasy (see urban fantasy and paranormal romance) set in the contemporary world.

    Some of it (I believe the trend started with Laurel Hamilton) takes a crack at how the world would change if it became known that magic was feasible.

    If fantasy has become less pastward-looking (and I think it has), it might be worth looking for an explanation. I wouldn’t exactly call GRRMartin’s fantasy nostalgic.

    • I like your last idea. Maybe we should also be looking at the origins of the fantasy genre and thinking about why they were looking to the past.

      • Aren’t the origins in traditional myths? Even Homer was reciting stories about a long-gone golden age.

        Speaking of which, I’ve never heard of a Greek analogue to the Venerable Bede/Gildas giving an account of the onset of dark ages. I would have thought there would be at least a mythical version of that (such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s).

    • ad

      I think one of the reasons fantasy harks back to simpler social structures is that world-building is hard.

      IIRC, Pratchett gave this as one reason for writing the diskworld as fantasy. If he used magic to achieve some things, he did not have to worry about how plausible they were, given the technologies already in the diskworld.

  • maybe it’s the world-building impulse that pushes things towards realism. To make a fantasy world feel real, you have to look at the real world. And history. (escapsim and realism have a complex relationship I think. escapism is actually strengthened by strong doses of realism)

    Also, maybe our histories are less romantic than the histories of Tolkein’s era?

    Maybe people in general are just more cynical about order and power than the used to be. I wonder if there’s a change in American-penned Fantasy that tracks in time with the Vietnam war and Watergate?

    • Evan

      maybe it’s the world-building impulse that pushes things towards realism. To make a fantasy world feel real, you have to look at the real world. And history. (escapsim and realism have a complex relationship I think. escapism is actually strengthened by strong doses of realism)

      Also, maybe our histories are less romantic than the histories of Tolkein’s era?

      Maybe people in general are just more cynical about order and power than the used to be. I wonder if there’s a change in American-penned Fantasy that tracks in time with the Vietnam war and Watergate?

      I definitely think fantasy and history are less romantic, and that that is a change for the better. Certainly part of it is our increasingly anti-authoritarian society. I think another factor is simply that fantasy has existed for a long enough time that people have been able to spend more time thinking about the themes and what they imply. In earlier times people wrote stuff just because it felt cool, and then a legion of fans analyzed it. New writers grew up with those analyses and incorporated them.

    • I don’t know much about the genres, but here’s a list of Hugo awards for best novel from 1953 to the present:

  • Buck Farmer


    “Magical thinking” combats our bias towards recent events–specifically, if we suffer misfortune or failure, we are more likely to ascribe it to our own limited capabilities or develop an external locus of control. Magical thinking is an opposing bias which offers an actionable method to alter the situation (even if an ineffective one), thus pulling our locus of control inward and switching our mind from “self-evaluation” to “problem solving.” Magical rituals are about taking external action to change one’s situation.

    “Nostalgia” counters our bias towards change (as a member of the local underclass). In a time of stress or turmoil, low status individuals /should/ see this as an individual opportunity for advancement. Nostalgia reigns in their desire for change or to upset the social order. Not sure I can come up with a plausible non-group-evolution argument for this. Maybe confusion of local versus general stress to the environment?

  • Lord

    I think they are just much longer lived or have memories of past lives so what you find nostalgic they find moderne.

  • SoWhere

    I find it interesting that the initial premise of this article starts off talking about social orders and how magic tends to recreate standing social orders but instead of delving into THAT more and how technology (logistically? oppositely?) could create a different/better/whatever social order, the article spins off to pine about nostalgia etc. I like what Neal Soldofsky had to say and some of what mjgeddes said about creativity. I think the article’s view of magic is simplistic to say the least. In general I tend to believe that a lot of what magic explains in one way, science is trying to explain in another but they are a lot closer (talking about unseen forces) than either might like to admit. The way they are studied definitely differs. In terms of whether magic recreates the same OLD social order hmmm. “Magic” can be traced back in and through as threads of many different cultures. of whom their social orders radically differed. So if “Magic” is trying to recreate a social order, maybe it isn’t just of one type. But if many people relate to the idea of magic maybe it is because at one point in our long and varied histories, our own cultures had some sort of association with such an idea and it wasn’t like it was a bad word all the time to be spit out of the side of your mouth with complete disregard. I am using that word “Magic” since that is the word tossed out in the article. But there could be other words to substituted in its place: a way of describing unseen forces, a way of describing an occurrence that seems to be operating under laws more unpredictable than those usually visible, etc.

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