Magic in literature

Romance transformations

Authored by: Corinne Saunders

The Routledge History of Medieval Magic

Print publication date:  February  2019
Online publication date:  February  2019

Print ISBN: 9781472447302
eBook ISBN: 9781315613192
Adobe ISBN:


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An enduring cultural fascination with magic is reflected in its prominence in literature from the classical period onwards. Magic, often within the broader context of the supernatural, provides crucial plot mechanisms and defines legendary characters. Magical abilities offer agency and empowerment – and they present extraordinary challenges to power. While magic figures across a range of literary forms, it is most prominent in the genre of romance. Magic occurs in the earliest instances of the genre – the romances or novels of antiquity – and retains a strong hold on it, as is evinced by the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fever that has swept the world. Merlin, Morgan le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, Prospero: such figures, with their special powers, hold an enduring fascination. It is easy to dismiss magic as escapist, attractive in its exoticism, sometimes fearful, perhaps expressive of unspoken desires and fears. I have argued for a more realist approach to medieval writing, for looking beyond escapism and exoticism to the intellectual contexts of magic, and to the seriousness with which supernatural possibilities were taken in this period. 1

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