The Weekly Pop: A Moment in Pop Culture Episode #3
Episode 3: Magic Always Comes With a Price: Magic & TechnologySo I've made it to Episode 3 in my web-series--woohoo! You can watch here, on YouTube or just read all about it in the post below. Enjoy and let me know what you think! Also, don't forget to check out
All right, so today, I start with a few short clips from The Chronicles of Shannara which I talked about in Episode 1 (that’s right--we’re on episode 3 and we’re already doing call backs...this could get ugly) and the other is from Once Upon a Time, so let’s check them out:
As I’ve established in the last 2 episodes, we’re gonna talk about those scenes, but probably not yet because like always--3 episodes being “always”--I want to foreground and contextualize some ideas that may not entirely have to do with the clip but are certainly part of the discussion.
First off, Once Upon A Time is currently on its last season (of seven). For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s premised on all the characters from the different fairy tale worlds ultimately ending up in Earth and how they interact with the real world. There’s more to it than that, but you can look it up on Wikipedia
And that brings me to today’s Public Service Announcement: Do you use Wikipedia? Do you find yourself double checking one fact or another? If you use it, half as much as your pretend you don’t, then you should consider donating to it or contributing to it. Wikipedia is an amazing project of the 21st century to pool together our collective knowledge. If you use, do your fair share of supporting it.
Back to Once Upon a Time: As a premise of the folks of fairy tales finding their way inexplicably into our world, this is not entirely new idea in the last 30 years. The series, has several predecessors that have gotten reasonable and widespread attention and I think has some interesting implications. So let’s talk about a few of those predecessors.
There was The Charmings in 1987--a 2 season show that did not make much of an impact but had Snow White and Prince Charming awaken in the 20th century to make sense of what life was like in the 80s--those poor poor fools. One of the earliest and one of my personal favorites is The 10th Kingdom, which aired on NBC back in 2000. The story focused on a plot by the Evil Queen that eventually led characters of the 9 fairy-tale kingdoms to end up in the 10th kingdom; Earth and sure enough characters go back and forth as the plot needs.
Another example is Enchanted which came out in 2007. I’m not as versed in that film but it is that premise of the fairy tale folks coming to the “real world” but I can’t really talk too much about that. However, I can talk about Bill Willingham’s award-winning comic-book series, Fables.
Now if you like fantasy, literature, and fairy tales or the works of people like Neil Gaiman, Jasper Fforde, or Gregory Maguire--then YOU NEED TO READ FABLES! Seriously! It’s 24 or so volumes of amazing and powerful storytelling.
The premise of Fables is that the fairy tale homelands have been invaded by the Adversary and thus they all fled to this world, where they set up life in downtown New York for human fables and a farm in upstate New York for nonhuman fables. The series is about them existing in the real world, and eventually trying to find a way back to their homes and what that might cost them.
So if you’re a fan of Once Upon a Time, that sounds strikingly familiar and you feel like Fables is ripping off Once--just keep in mind that Fables started out in 2002 as a comic book series and was alive and well for over 8 years before Once Upon A Time and telling amazing stories! So be sure to check it out--in fact, check your local library!
Now, I’m fascinated by this idea of the fairy-tale world coming to the real world and I’d be curious if you have other examples where--particularly, fairy-tale characters turn out to be real and end up on earth. I’m not as interested in fantastical characters coming to our world--that’s a pretty common theme in fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. And I’m not interested in humans who travel to fantasy worlds such as Alice in Wonderland, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Wizard of Oz, or The Chronicles of Narnia--those are equally interesting but as the examples, I point out--go back hundreds of years.
But when the fairy-tale characters turn out to be real and come over to Earth, I feel like that’s a fairly new exploration within the genre--something of the last 20-30 years and it has me thinking about why or how we might explore it.
Now, here’s what I love about pop culture--I’m going to offer up several different ways of making sense of this--and they’re not mutually exclusive; they can all be accurate means of interpreting these texts---by the way, texts is the name that we give something we’re studying in cultural studies--often, regardless of whether it is in textual, visual, or aural form.
Interpreting these texts is a matter of where we place emphasis, how we contextualize them, and how we are able to deconstruct scenes, characters, themes, and motifs of the show. So what are some of the ways we could read this concept of established fairy tale characters being real, from a different “world” and traveling to Earth?
In a world of Disney, the 20th-century manufacturers of magical entertainment, this concept can tell us that in a very real way, fantasy is merging with the real world. Consider the theme park--Disney, the mecca of all theme parks, operates to make it seem like everything is a perfect and magical experience--including jeopardizing the health and care of their employees.
A great book to read (and there are many on this subject) is Inside The Mouse by The Disney Project. Here, we find that Disney subjects workers and people to questionable and concerning situations all in the hopes of preserving the “magic.” So when we think about Disney and its emphasis to “wish upon a star” and “Where Dreams Come True”--this concept--especially given that Once Upon A Time is a Disney product--is showing us how much fantasy is merging with the real world. Thus, the concept may be capturing this idea of fairy tales invading our lives to the point that it’s hard to tell if people are characters or actual people.
Which leads me to my second thought on this. Given the time period of the last 20 years, we also have found that “reality” is becoming more fictionalized with the rise of a reality TV, wherein supposed “real people” are crafted into a fictional story--often wrapped up in a fairy tale such as a partner of one’s dreams, winning a fortune, or acquiring the job of one’s dream. The happy-ever-afters that so many of us are reaching for. The abundance of reality TV and its impact has certainly contributed to the rise of a Reality TV star becoming president and challenging our conceptions of fact and fiction. Thus, such the concept of fairy-tales coming to Earth could just be a way of having the discussion of how far from reality we have traveled.
Another way of looking at this concept is the rise of false news, misinformation, and fake news have grown in the last 20 years and thus, exploring the world becomes a “choose your own adventure” and we get to engage in the fairy-tales that we find most rewarding. If fairy tales are often tales about morality, justice, and appropriate endings, then selecting news that confirms your own biases is an easy extension of reinforcing what you think is right in the world--even if it is a fantasy of sorts; you don’t have to listen to things that don’t fit your own fairy-tales--you can find your own type of news, you can silence friends by de-friending them, and you can label news that you don’t like as fake news.
One extension of this point is also to think about how we are and have been a very nostalgic culture--regularly pretending the past was this pastoral and wondrous place. Thus, we have people claiming that they will “Make America Great Again” or that Millennials are not as good as previous generations or the usual chestnut of how youth are so much more horrible than the past or that there’s more crime today than in the past (fact check: there’s less crime for more on that, check out Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature--massive book!!).
We constantly pretend that the past was a better place, even though in many ways, the past was more violent and less humane. But that doesn’t prevent us from yearning for the fairy tales of yesterday to the point that they become “real” figments of our imagination. It’s partly why we have remarks or retelling of stories or why we engage in story-franchises such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and the Harry Potter.
Another way of understanding this is, of course, as I’ve mentioned before, is that we are just more enthralled in stories as we have ever been and therefore, wish to make them as real as possible. Of course, this extends beyond the concept that I’m talking about and extends to nearly all fiction.
But fantasy seems to have been gaining more “steam” if you will. See what I did there--I made a pun because steam is a reference to a steam engine and that’s a reference to the Industrial Age” which is largely the opposite of what we talk about when we talk about fantasy--that is the age of machines. I know, puns lose their “magic” if you have to explain them, but I did it anyways.
Fantasy has become a huge storytelling genre in the last 30 years, not just within books, but also in movies and TV series. In the 1970s and 1980s, fantasy was largely a genre for children and youth (such as Never-Ending Story, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal) or a low-budget or dubious genre for “fans” (Conan the Barbarian, Beastmaster, and Clash of the Titans). All of those later ones have, of course, been remade since then to no surprise. Even the original Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were initially cartoons--which tells you the audience it was geared for (FYI: prior to the Simpsons, cartoons were largely designated as children’s fare).
But today, fantasy is huge in terms of film between Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, live-action versions of Cinderella, Maleficent, Harry Potter, and many others. Fantasy is also huge on TV now too with Game of Thrones, Chronicles of Shannara, and The Magicians, among many other series.
And a cornerstone of fantasy is this idea of magic. Magic comes in numerous forms in fantasy--it is not just a power, but it also is often imbued into creatures as well--such as dragons, fairies, and other beings that can do things beyond what we consider life in the natural world capable of doing.
Magic is such a curious thing in fantasy as it is never straightforward and almost always comes with different rules or challenges to acquiring it. It can be all-consuming or be capable of mere parlor tricks. In most fantasy worlds though, it allows humans to do more than is possible than what is possible within the physical limits of their world. And often, fantasy is set on worlds that mirror medieval times or are clearly pre-Industrial societies as we know it. Thus magic comes in forms that allow people to fundamentally change what they look like, travel great distances shortly, execute destruction on a massive scale, make people do things they don’t want, and many other abilities.
So Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and one of the fathers of science-fiction, has a set of laws--all of which are interesting but for this discussion, it’s his 3rd law that’s most intriguing. It states that: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
The inverse of that is that magic can often be understood as “any sufficiently advanced technology.” So when look at today’s fantasy with all the magic that it wields, it raises some fascinating questions about fantasy’s commentary on technology in our society today.
After all, many of us are walking through the world exposed to technologies that most of us cannot explain and can create what can best be described as “magic.” Consider Star Wars: Rogue One wherein the technology of CGI recreated Grand Moff Tarkin, originally played by Peter Cushing--a man that had been dead for over 2 decades. Those that did not know they were watching a CGI replica, largely did not notice. You’re inevitably watching this on YouTube, possibly with a device that is not connected to an energy outlet or an internet outlet (or a device that has that capacity) and you’re still able to watch this; in fact, 1000 of you could be watching it at the same time.
The technology of today continues to border on the magical and that has been increasingly true over the last 30 years. We went from computers that were big, clunky, and immovable to computers that are watches and the capability to voice-activate devices and homes. We speak and machines listen--just like the magician who uses spells, right?
And so finally, right, FINALLY, we come back to the quote we started with--”magic always comes with a price.” In both fantasy series, this seems to be a warning to the characters but just as much to the audience. “Technology always comes with a price.”
Doesn’t it though? Now, don’t get me wrong--I’m not a technophobe; that should be obvious just by the fact that I’ve used innumerable magic spells--I’M SORRY--I’ve used innumerable technologies to make this video available to viewers around the world. But there are trade offs to the technologies, make no mistake.
When we choose certain technologies, we open some doors and close others and in many ways, that can have consequences. In fact, that is the price of technology. It does change how we do things, how we move through the world, who we interact with and how we interact. So much of fantasy in the modern world, tells us that. Now, what’s interesting with fantasy is the kind of lesson it tells us with magic. Here are some questions to explore the next time you’re watching some fantasy that includes magic:
- When you watch fantasy, ask yourself--does the story tell us not to use magic at all?
- Does it tell us to be careful or mindful with our magic?
- Does it tell us to limit the price of magic to the user?
- Does it seek to destroy magic or those who use it?
- Do the beings who can use the magic look to control others or do they run the world?
- Can anyone learn magic or only special people? Is it inheritable or random?
- Do the magic users serve the elite or do they operate outside of the ruling class or are they scattered throughout all parts of society?
Go out and explore and let me know what you discover.
So what are your thoughts on today’s episode? I’d love to hear them so post them in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter-- @leaton01
Before ending today’s episode, I’ve got shout-outs to give for today’s video for those that helped me find a few more examples of fairy tales coming to the real world--thank you Jen, Carolyn, David, Kate, Chris, Cathy, Kelsey, Shoshana, Jesse, Tricia, Rob, Bill, Sara-Rae, Cari, Lindsey, Andi--you are the bestest!
See you next week! Keep watching; keep thinking!
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