Sorcery, wizardry, magic . . . call it what you will, but such powers are rarely subtle in the realm of fiction, unlike the realm of reality where almost everything is hidden and obscured by misdirection. A powerful wizard with bristling beard and tall staff will rain fire from the sky. A street performer in a top hat will conjure flames from his fingertips. These are the polar ends from a gradient of effects of course. Nothing prevents a stage act from being bombastic or a wizard’s staff emitting a quiet glow in lieu of crackling flames. The result is the same among the gathered mob: awe and the persistent question, what just happened?
This awe is in part sparked by the unnatural quickness of the street performer’s nimble fingers or the wizard’s vicious attack. Much of the shock during and after magic is from the illusion of speed. People tend to fear what their eyes cannot follow, what their mind cannot perceive. One of the most fearsome creatures on the planet, but hardly the most deadly, is the viper. The coiled animal strikes with astonishing ferocity. Blink and you’re dead.
With their capes flaring like the hood of a cobra and poison magic dripping from their fingertips, wizards are the human vipers of their world. Such is the perception. But just like you can strike the head off a viper with astonishing ease, magic often has tremendous liabilities and disadvantages that lead to the ‘squishy wizard syndrome.’ A wizard caught unawares or temporarily bereft of magic is like an uncoiled viper: a weak and pitiable being.
To the weak, defenseless mob, ruled by their emotions rather than logic, the perception of danger is more powerful than reality. In the real world, this draws respectful crowds. The illusion of danger is titillating. In the realm of fiction, this draws fearful crowds. Let us examine a case study: magic—thunderous flames from the sky magic—is real and disturbingly close to home.
What if you suspected that your neighbor was a mage: a powerful being, a snake hiding in the grass? To an individual, this may be cause for reasoned response: empathy or introspection or caution. You question yourself. Surely this friend across the street whom you’ve known for years whose children frolic with your own could not pose any danger? But the fear gnaws on your mind. Suppose you tell your other friends. Whispers spread. The mob gathers.
To the mob, the accusation of magic is enough to stir fear. The perception of danger is enough to stir a response, and there is no reasoned response. Reactions are primal and instinctual and vicious. A mass of human snakes whose minds are more venomous than their fangs descend upon the nest of vipers. The mage is killed. The mage’s mate and brood are slaughtered, whether they share his powers or not. The mob is in a frenzy. The mage’s house is likely destroyed with torches. The raging flames are no less destructive for all that they do not rain down from the sky.
The mob is safe. It disbands. Only individuals remain to question themselves and kick the debris. Were these smoldering ashes really a threat to me and mine? Was he even really a mage? Did I dare assume otherwise?
Did I just make an entire family . . . disappear? What just happened?