Magic Genes

I mentioned in my last post how the manifestation of the Force through midichlorians in Jedi blood, thereby giving a biological component to magical and spiritual power, was sort of elitist. That got me thinking about the connection between magic and genetics in other fictional universes. The Harry Potter world comes to mind, as J.K. Rowling has been known to say magic power is expressed through a dominant gene.

Fans have criticized this because of the existence of squibs, children of wizards who don’t have magical powers. One scholar wrote a paper on how this could be the case, and while I’m likely no more knowledgeable about genetics than Rowling is, it’s cool that someone would do that. I’m fond of in-depth study of fictional worlds. I get the impression that what Rowling might have meant was simply that most children of wizards would inherit magical abilities. Squibs exist, but they’re rare. And as the odds are that a wizard or witch will have magical children regardless of who their partner is, the tendency of pure-bloods to marry each other is generally pointless in this respect. Muggle-born wizards are said to have had magical ancestors multiple generations back, although I suppose the magic gene could also be the result of a mutation. To be fair to both of these fictional universes, neither one makes genetics of utmost importance. Tom Riddle didn’t have to turn to the dark side simply because he was the last surviving descendant of Salazar Slytherin, any more than Anakin Skywalker had to because a Sith Lord manipulated the Force to conceive him.

And Hermione Granger has non-magical parents, but her knowledge and skill in magic put many pure-bloods to shame. You can choose to be good or evil, hard-working or lazy. But you presumably can’t start out on the path to be a wizard or a Jedi unless you have the right genes, no matter how hard you work at it.

In the Discworld books, Terry Pratchett linked magic power to biology pretty early on, but largely dismissed it in later volumes. The Colour of Magic indicates that wizards, even those like Rincewind who aren’t any good at magic, have octagons in their eyes that enable them to see into the octarine. While this essentially just means the ability to see the otherwise invisible eighth color, it also lets them see magical beings like Death and the various fairies from Hogfather.

Picture by Stephen Player
In Equal Rites, we find out that the eighth son of an eighth son is always a wizard, and old wizards have been known to pass on their staffs to newborns who fit the conditions. And as per Sourcery, wizards aren’t allowed to reproduce, because THEIR eighth sons would be all-too-powerful sourcerers. I don’t think it’s ever addressed, however, whether a wizard HAS to be the eighth son of an eighth son. I can’t recall any specific examples of wizards who don’t fit this condition. Rincewind never knew his parents and Mustrum Ridcully is only known to have one brother, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other brothers we haven’t heard about. On the other hand, if Victor Tugelbend from Moving Pictures attended Unseen University simply because he felt it was the path of least resistance, then it’s clear that not all wizards are chosen by destiny. Also, there’s no indication that there’s any biological qualification to be a witch. Yes, witchcraft sometimes runs in families. Granny Weatherwax’s sister is also a witch, and her distant cousin Galder was Archchancellor of Unseen University in The Light Fantastic. Nanny Ogg also mentions having witches as relatives, although none of her own fifteen children took up the profession. Still, witchcraft on the Disc seems to be mostly down to attitude and a way of seeing the world and people, with the magic following naturally if you get that right.

Finally, if you thought I was going to leave Oz out of this, you don’t know me very well. I always liked the explanation of magic given by the Wizard in Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Ozoplaning with the Wizard of Oz: “Magic is like any other science–it takes practice. Of course, if you are a born fairy like Ozma and the former rulers of Oz, working spells and charms just comes natural–like playing the piano by ear. But if you are not a Fairy, you must study witchcraft and sorcery as I have done with Glinda the Good.” As we all know, the Wizard first appears in the series as a humbug from the United States with no magical powers whatsoever. He learns real magic from Glinda, and likely experimentation of his own as well.

There’s no indication that he has some kind of magic genes or midichlorians, or any other wizards in the family. Granted, we don’t really know. Maybe he had a distant ancestor who was also a wizard. Still, I find the comparison to “playing the piano by ear” to be quite interesting. I’m sure some people have a genetic predisposition to be better at music than others, but those who aren’t naturally good can still practice and learn to play a few simple tunes. The way magic in the Harry Potter world is described, however, it sounds like it would be more akin to a Muggle or Squib hitting keys on the piano, and rather than getting cacophonous sounds, getting no sound at all. I guess I kind of like the idea that it’s at least POSSIBLE for anyone to learn magic, even if not everyone is going to be naturally good. Genetics might play a role, but it’s not strictly necessary.

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5 Responses to Magic Genes

  1. rri0189 says:

    An early example is the Talent in the Lord Darcy series. You really need something of the sort if you want to put magic into the real world, even if it’s a parallel universe.

    • Nathan says:

      There’s something I remember reading about how that kind of thing was also why more comic writers started coming up with superheroes who had origins that kids couldn’t possibly hope for. Kids can say “Shazam!” and get upset that it doesn’t work, but there’s no way a kid can be a survivor of the planet Krypton.

  2. caelesti says:

    I thought the Midi-chlorian thing was stupid too. For one thing, it just kind of took the wonder out of it. J.K. Rowling seemed to be making a point in her books that making your own effort, rather than relying on family prestige (like the Malfoys) is what’s important.
    I like the approach in Diane Duane’s “So You Want to Be a Wizard” in that the wizards self-identify based on their intelligence, personality traits & values.

  3. Bryan Babel says:

    Genetics and magic in Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Chronicles, from Wikipedia:

    “The basic ability to naturally develop Deryni powers is hereditary in nature, passing from parent to child and thus from generation to generation. Although several characters in the novels refer to Deryni-nonDeryni hybrids as “half-breeds” or “half-Deryni,” the inherent nature of Deryni powers enables them to be passed to a child even if only one parent is Deryni. (Throughout the novels and ancillary material, nonDeryni humans are referred to simply as “humans,” although it is unspecified whether this exclusionary terminology was originally positive or negative.) However, the natural strength of the Deryni bloodline tends to become weakened if succeeding generations continue to breed with full-blooded humans. The exact rate of this genetic “dilution” is not specified, and several half-Deryni characters (such as Alaric Morgan and Duncan McLain) display significant levels of arcane strength. An appendix to one of the early books speculates that the usual Deryni powers are carried on the X-chromosome (thus explaining why Morgan and Duncan, who have Deryni mothers, can have full powers), while the “Haldane potential” (also seen in several other families), is carried on the Y-chromosome. However, this is not borne out by later genealogies and seems to have been dropped as an explanation by Katherine Kurtz.

    In addition to their genetic basis, most Deryni abilities must be trained and developed. While basic arcane skills can be often be mastered during adolescence, more complex abilities and talents may require constant study and practice throughout the adult life of a Deryni. Deryni adepts such as Camber MacRorie and Wencit Furstán of Torenth continue their arcane studies throughout their lives, enabling them to wield powers far beyond the abilities of many of their contemporaries. Conversely, Queen Jehana of Gwynedd, a full-blooded Deryni from an ancient and powerful lineage, is barely able to perform the most basic of Deryni talents, due to her lack of training throughout much of her life. Regardless of the inherent strength of a Deryni’s natural powers, proper training is essential for those powers to be of any practical use.

    It should also be noted that the use of the Deryni powers generally requires some degree of mental concentration and is physically tiring to perform. The need for concentration is key to the drama of the battle that ends in Duncan’s capture in ‘The King’s Justice, as well as his rescue later in the same book. Alaric Morgan is frequently shown pushing himself to the point of exhaustion and collapse by the repeated use of his powers in short periods of time, generally when driven by the demands of events. These facts, together with the training requirement, impose realistic limits on Deryni magic.”

  4. Well I’ve tried everything else and not been exceptional. Maybe I should try magic! ;)

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