A Short History Of Magic
The door itself was terrifying. Don't be ridiculous, Sarah thought to herself, it's just a door. Still, it was tall, dark, and imposing. And decidedly shut. It was the kind of door that always turned up in the occult thrillers she liked to read. Usually some hapless wizard would wander in like a fool and come to a sticky end, like Eustace Brocklehurst in The Dark Secret of Stonecroft Manor. It was also nothing like her own Head of House's door. Professor Flitwick had a bright, airy office with a view over the Forbidden Forest towards the mountains. He generally kept the door open and the tea on, even when it wasn't technically office hours. And for all that, she hadn't got any good explanation.
She considered opening the door. That was probably a terrible idea. Knock first, at the very least. It was his office hours. True, he had never actually announced them during a lesson, but the tiny code in alchemical symbols along the margins of his first potions assignment had clearly stated the hours. Sarah was no great shakes at alchemical symbols, but she saw them and had to look them up. The code had been in every first assignment of the year since her first year, but she never thought of approaching him until now. She had never needed to.
And perhaps she didn't need to now. Couldn't she just leave the door and the looming darkness of the dungeon corridor and run back up to the lovely Ravenclaw tower? Perhaps she could write to her mum instead. That was terrifying in its own way. Sarah had been a bit terrified to write her just after her sorting, She knew her dad would be pleased, he was always pleased with anything she did. Mum might have other feelings about it. But her mum had simply replied, "Well, of course. It suits you, dear." And then there was that surprising postscript, "If Professor Flitwick ever can't help you with something you need…" But more to the point, it would probably be useless to write her mum now. Her mum had always told her, "If you want to know something, you'll need to find a way to find out."
And she always did find a way to find out. It was what had cost her points when Professor Snape caught her and Stebbins 'experimenting' in the rose bushes at the Yule Ball. And what led to that embarrassing incident with the Goblet of Fire. Well, she had to find out if there was a way to get around the age restrictions. Whenever she needed to know something she did find a way. She wanted to know. She needed to know, with everything that had been happening. And he would know. As good as his word.
She knocked. The door swung open immediately. Professor Snape was looking down at her.
He was about as imposing as the door. Also he was waiting.
"It's, uh, your office hours, sir." She felt like a fool.
"And how would you know that?"
"It's written out in your assignments, sir."
He studied her. "Having trouble with your parchment on cheering charms, are you?"
"No!" Now he was being insulting. But he was still waiting.
"What's dark magic?" she blurted.
He swung the door open further. "Get in." He didn't sound pleased. She got in. The door shut behind her with a very final thud. This was a terrible mistake.
There was a low chair in front of his desk. When she sat, she felt as tiny as a first-year. The office was full of things. It wouldn't do to look at them.
He was studying her again. It was a very uncomfortable feeling to be studied.
"Your Head of House has office hours."
"And yet here you are, bothering me."
"He… he wouldn't answer the question."
"What, precisely, did he say?"
"Well, he asked why I wanted to know." Professor Flitwick had looked so uncomfortable. It was really unlike him.
"Our defense textbooks. I told him that they talk about the types of curses, and they say that dark wizards are 'the most pernicious threat to wizard society,' but they don't define it. Nobody ever says exactly what dark magic is! I don't know how we can learn defense against something unless we know what it is."
Professor Snape almost looked amused. "And Professor Flitwick's answer?"
"He said that the Ministry forbids instruction in dark magic and he couldn't say any more."
"Did he now?"
Professor Flitwick often answered student questions with other questions, but Sarah understood that his technique was to lead students to their own conclusions. Professor Snape's technique was different. It was an interrogation.
"And then, you came to me?"
"And why would you do that?" There was a dangerous note in his voice.
That wasn't the answer he was expecting.
"Your – what?"
"My mum, she said -"
"Who is your mum?" he interrupted.
"Helena Fawcett. Oh, it was Helena Marsh, then. She said that her seventh year was your first year as her Head of House. She said you delegated some things to her. You trusted her."
He remembered her mum, she could tell. Anyway, mum always took care to be memorable.
"She said that… you're as good as your word."
It had made that strange postscript so much stranger. If Professor Flitwick ever can't help you with something you need, you might call on Professor Snape. He's as good as his word. Sarah's mum didn't ever go about just praising people like that. It had to mean something.
Professor Snape was sitting back in his chair. He was studying her again, but it didn't feel quite so uncomfortable, as if she had moved from one category to another in his regard.
"Some knowledge has a cost, do you understand?"
She nodded. Her mum had told her as much.
"Someday you will pay for it." But his voice wasn't threatening or demanding now.
She nodded again.
"There is a technical definition of dark magic. It refers to any magic that abides by at least two of Frazier's Three Principles of Dark Magic."
Sarah leaned forward. This was exactly what she was looking for. A definition. The definition.
"First principle: the part may stand for the whole, and the whole the part. Corollary: a symbol may stand for the object and an object for the symbol.
"Second: all energy must have a source.
"Third: the caster may affect the spell and the spell the caster."
He stopped. She stared at him. She had expecting something that might be more of a 'pernicious threat.'
"Well, Fawcett. You have your definition. When you are quite done gaping like a fish you may shut the door behind you."
It was no good; she had to speak to him again. The definition alone without any explanation – it was as bad as just smelling a roast without being able to eat any of it. And she had tried to find out on her own. She had looked up Frazier under every spelling she could guess. She found a G. J. Frazier in Worblethorpe's Notable Wizards, a 'groundbreaking scholar in comparative magic systems.' But the library didn't have any books by him or anything that explained his definition. When she had asked Madam Pince, the librarian gave her a hard looked and stalked away muttering about 'nosy Nellies.' It was maddening.
So there she was a week later in front of the door again. The door stood between her and her roast. She knocked.
He had opened the door just as quickly, but this time her let her in without the interrogation. She sat.
"Sir, could you… explain the definition?"
He regarded her. "You still understand that there may be a cost."
"I am not currently asking for payment, but when I do, I expect you to remember."
"I – what?"
"You said you understood."
She had said it, but it was now clear to her that she had exactly misunderstood. She thought the 'knowledge has a cost' bit was the same stuff the occult thrillers trotted out about people going mad from learning the wrong spell. Like what had happened to Dogred Weary in The Curse of the Black Doll. But that didn't matter to her because she always felt more like going mad when she couldn't find something out. She didn't realize that Professor Snape was asking her to pay him. She felt like a fool. And her mum had said he was as good as his word. Was this some kind of weird sex thing? It didn't seem likely. He was glaring at her with ill-disguised irritation. It was nothing close to a leer. She didn't know what he would want from her.
Worst of all, now she was so much closer to her answers. She could see the roast as well as smell it. She didn't want to turn back now. Whenever she wanted something, she had to keep going till she got it. She must have got that from her mum.
Sarah nodded. "I understand."
He looked at her keenly, making sure she did.
"Very well. The first principle. The part may stand for the whole and the whole the part. In your so-called Defense class, have they covered effigy dolls?"
"Yes, uh, briefly. The textbook said they're not used much."
"But you understand the principle. A figure made of wood, wax, cloth, or so on. A hair or other physical piece of the target is added, and any harm visited upon the doll affects the target. The part, the piece of hair, stands for the whole, the body of the target. Clear?"
"Through the corollary, a symbol my stand for an object and an object for a symbol, non-physical parts and wholes are also included. When a necromancer summons a spirit, the spirit's name is an integral part of the incantation. The name is the symbol which stands for the object, the spirit."
"But a spirit isn't an object."
"Object in the sense of goal or target, it doesn't need to be a physical thing," he said impatiently.
"Second principle, all energy must have a source. Do you ever get tired casting Lumos? Or holding it active?"
"No. Light magic does not require energy in the same way as dark magic. The energy of a dark magic spell may come from the caster, who will need an effort to cast. It may also come from the target of the spell, as in the Unforgivables, or from the ingredients, a sacrifice, or the environment."
"For example, every potion requires energy. The energy comes from the fire that heats it, the physical material of the ingredients, and the chemical reactions between them."
"Chemical – "
"We are not getting into that, Fawcett. Is the principle clear?"
"Third; the caster may affect the spell and the spell the caster. In the most basic sense, this refers to anything which requires any special concentration, effort, intent, mood, or mindset on the part of the caster. Back to Lumos. You do not need to visualize light or will it into being; all you need is the correctly executed word and gesture. You could probably cast it in your sleep. With the Unforgivables, on the other hand, you have to mean it."
"And the spell affecting the caster, when does that happen?"
"In dark magic, whatever effect can occur in an outward direction can also occur inward. But the principle can also refer to physical changes. An animagus requires strong intent for their transformation, and they themselves are transformed by the spell."
"So the animagus transformation is dark magic?"
"To be classified as dark, it must meet at least two of the three principles."
"But surely an animal form could be a symbol –"
He raised his eyebrows in a mocking manner. "Are you suggesting that Professor McGonagall dabbles in dark magic?"
"No, of course not!" But he hadn't really answered the question.
"Then why would anyone use dark magic? I mean, if it takes all this energy and effort and special concentration."
"You heard me, go on." He was watching her.
Sarah had been relaxing as Professor Snape went on, but now she felt ridiculously nervous. He could probably find fault with her technique. But it would be worse if she kept him waiting.
"Lumos" The light bloomed.
"Nox," he cast. The light went out.
"Easy come, easy go, Fawcett."
"And you may have heard in your defense class that there is no way to block the Unforgivables, for example. The power behind a spell that is based on nothing but a word and a gesture is little compared to one that draws on a symbol or great intent and an energy source. And since the mindset or intent of the caster can change the spell it is much more flexible in effect, as well as harder to block or counteract. It is also longer-lasting. 'All spells die with the caster' refers only to anything not cast on an external power source."
"The definition is perfectly clear to you, Fawcett?"
"Then I believe we are done here. Shut the door behind you."
She knocked again, harder.
"Office hours are cancelled!" The voice came through muffled, but no less threatening for that.
Still, still! It all matched, but it didn't make sense. She leaned against the door and pounded this time.
"The patronus charm!" she said indignantly.
He pulled the door open at last. "What about it?" he asked, very low. He was not at all pleased. Sarah was too upset to care.
"It meets all three principles! It's dark –"
He did not let her finish, pulling her in sharply by the shoulder of her robe and slamming the door behind her. He stalked back around his desk, which was piled very high with mid-term parchments. Some unlucky student was currently getting dense paragraphs of corrections in red ink.
"Fawcett, I do not have time to entertain any half-baked theories."
"But sir, it meets the first principle – the symbol of a happy memory stands for the spirit of the caster. And the second, it takes energy, I've felt it! You can't keep it up for long. And the third – it requires both a mindset and concentration from the aster. It meets all three principles – it's dark magic!"
"Well, what of it?"
"But it can't be!"
"I thought you just convinced yourself that it is."
"It's not… bad," she said weakly.
"That is not a requirement of the definition."
"But, I mean, it's not forbidden. And Professor Flitwick said –"
"The Ministry definition of forbidden dark magic and the technical definition are two different things. Spells are categorized into different classes – look, you can pull up and read the idiot statute, it's public knowledge!" He was looking back at his stack of parchments now. His eye twitched.
"But sir, if dark magic is not all bad and it's so powerful, then why do we use light magic? I mean, how –"
"No, no you don't! That is an hours-long – no! Fawcett, get out now!"
He was coming round the desk; she got up very quickly and headed for the door.
"I am not giving you a history of magic, you have history classes!"
The door nearly clipped her heels.
"Do not get paid enough for –" she though she heard him mutter as the door thudded closed.
She would not get it from her history classes; she knew that almost from the moment his door had shut behind her. In fact, all of her classes – she sighed. She supposed it was fine for first-years to just be taught the basic mechanics, the 'how' of spells, but now she was a fifth year and she was still getting little else. History was one of the worst. Nothing but dates, and what good were dates, for Merlin's sake? More and more she felt like classes at Hogwarts were a very pretty tapestry, but the minute you plucked at a thread, it all unraveled into a great dark hole beneath. How could they say they were teaching students magic without giving them any depth of knowledge of how or why magic worked? Professor Flitwick would go on theoretical rambles if you gave him an open-ended question during his office hours, but often Sarah would be stumped to try to find any practical application. Professor Snape at least gave concrete examples. And he knew how it worked, she was sure of it. But she clearly needed to be much smarter in asking.
Sarah chose a sleepy week. Quidditch had been called on account of storms, no long parchments were due in Potions, and no one's cauldron had exploded all week. She went to his door and knocked. Professor Snape opened the door and regarded her wearily.
"Fawcett," he said. He sounded resigned.
"I will not get anything from my history classes, they're rubbish," she said. "And the defense classes are rubbish too."
He stood aside and let her in.
"I will not answer any open-ended, ill-formed –"
She was shaking her head. He came around and sat behind his desk.
"Sir, light magic and dark magic, they have to overlap. I mean, there are spells that meet just one of the principles, or two, or even three, so it's more like a - a spectrum. And good or bad, it's not…"
Sarah realized she was coming dangerously close to rambling. She took a breath and started again.
"Are they related? Dark magic and light magic? And how?"
He frowned at her. "It's a large question. Do you understand that the payment may be greater?"
Sarah nodded. She was probably a fool.
Professor Snape settled back.
"Records of early magical history are very incomplete. Before the Statute of Secrecy in 1689, the majority of magical records were destroyed, either by Muggles who at the time were trying to wipe us out, or by our own people, in an effort to hide our existence. Most surviving records were written by Muggles, who of course had very imperfect knowledge of magic.
"However, we do know that most early magic can be classified as dark. The exceptions were mostly in passive observational magic, such as divination, astrology, scrying, and so on. Those fields are classified as 'Receptive Magic,' and are not regarded as light or dark. At the time, other major branches of magic included healing, charms, potions, transfiguration, and alchemy. There was also weather-working and environmental magic. Since the purpose of that was cooperation with Muggle agriculture and travel, it mostly fell out of favor as wizards began to be actively persecuted. It survives today in the field of herbology.
"In all these fields, any cast spells were in the form of incantations. That could be recited poetry, as in the Welsh bardic traditions, chants or songs. Since all incantations take time, when Muggles began persecuting wizards, it was very hard for us to mount an effective defense.
"However, a new branch of magic began to be developed quickly at the time of the witch-hunts. Necromancy. Now it did exist before in a very primitive form – bowls of blood and milk and so on –"
Sarah had no idea what 'and so on' meant, but Professor Snape was hitting his stride and she didn't dare interrupt.
"But it was refined in earnest during the burning times. Partly as a weapon against Muggle persecution, since animated corpses, revenants, can be sent against an enemy, but also as a defense. At that time, it was very dangerous to write down or communicate any magical information. As witches and wizards were being quickly rounded up and killed without a chance to pass along their knowledge, there was a fear that we would be completely wiped out, along with our culture, history, skills, and lore. Summoning the spirit of an executed wizard and questioning it was a way to ensure that the knowledge would not also perish."
It was so different – Sarah had always thought that necromancers were the lowest of the low. Well, at least all the occult thrillers portrayed them as mad villains with very unhealthy interests. Like Baron Despard in The Unhallowed Tomb.
"Necromancy of course follows all three principles of dark magic. Casters use the name or an object associated with a spirit to summon it. The spells need energy – the amount of energy required to even temporarily draw a spirit back from the dead is tremendous. And all necromantic spells can definitely affect the caster. If the caster slips or loses control in any way, the spell can rebound and kill the caster or loose an angry spirit on them. So necromancers use certain safeguards: an inscribed warding circle fortified with alchemical symbols and objects associated with the spirit. They would inscribe the circle with a bit of charcoal, chalk , or colored wax on the end of a long stylus so they wouldn't have to constantly kneel as they drew out the circle. Thus protected, they would then sing or recite their incantation to summon the spirit and bind it to their will. By the 1570s, the method was highly refined and widely studied.
"Now of course, there are no verified records, but the accepted theory is that it all comes down to some careless necromancer who fudged his circle. Perhaps he scuffed a symbol; perhaps he failed to connect a line – little matter. In any case, he was in a sticky situation with an angry spirit and a rebounding spell. He had his stylus to inscribe symbols, and he had his incantations to cast his spells, but what he didn't have was any time.
"So, using Frazier's first principle of dark magic, the part may stand for the whole, he used his stylus to inscribe one symbol in the air, and he spoke one word of the incantation, and it worked. The one symbol and the one word became the whole circle and the whole incantation, and the first wand-based spell was cast."
Sarah felt a chill go right through her. This was even better than the duel between Fenton Fortesque and Lord Meadowcroft in The Peril of the Red Hound.
"That's how it happened?" She felt like the pretty tapestry was long gone and she was plunging headlong down the hole beneath.
"It's the accepted theory. Some Houses take care to preserve their traditions. It can be verified that the earliest known single-word spells were cast with a stylus and are in the field of necromancy."
"But then –"
"But then," he said firmly, "as time went on, other branches of magic began to adopt the same method. The ability to cast a spell quickly was a necessity of defense against Muggle persecution. It was then that our losses began to slow and our population stabilize. The long bulky stylus became shorter and shorter so it could easily be concealed and used in defense."
"But our wands – they're different, and the core –"
"Yes, the first wands were a simple piece of wood of no special quality and with no core. Since wizards would use a stylus for years inscribing alchemical symbols, even a quite ordinary stick could become imbued, accustomed to being a conduit for magical power. Modern wands simply use the shortcut of a magical core to speed the process. Any wizard can make their own wand with time, practice, and determination. The first spells cast with it would be quite weak until the conduit is established."
"But they say that the wand chooses –"
"Marketing," he said with deep scorn.
But they were dancing around the edge of the hole now, ignoring it gaping in front of them and it was important.
"So a light magic spell is a dark magic symbol and incantation that have been shortened and work by the principles of dark magic." She felt like she was teetering on the edge of the forbidden now. But she had to keep going. "Is light magic dark magic?"
Professor Snape didn't answer, but raised his eyebrows at her.
Yes, the answer was yes, she knew it.
"But then, it's all the same, it all abides by the same principles, it's all connected!"
"Congratulations, you have just invented holistic magic theory." He was being insulting. Again.
"But –" she said, still feeling like she was teetering.
"And as I believe your question is answered –" He stood and walked towards the door.
"No," she said quietly.
"It's time for you to go."
"No," she said as she backed out. It couldn't be like that!
"We are done, Fawcett."
"No," she said helplessly.
But the door had shut.
Sarah had gone through her classes all week, but in a kind of daze that was very unlike her. Professor Flitwick noticed and pulled her aside after dinner one evening.
"You know, my dear, if anything is troubling you, my door is always open."
And it was, after all. But how could she tell him that every charm she learned now, every transfiguration and countercurse, sent her mind on a long spiral down a dark hole. What was the dark magic incantation it had come from? Had it been a song once? What was the full inscription behind the wand movement? What was its original power and purpose? Was every witch and wizard at Hogwarts dark without even realizing it?
Professor Snape had warned her that knowledge had a cost. All those occult thrillers where someone learned too much and went mad - was this how it started?
She had to see him again, she decided, or she really would go mad. She didn't want to end up like Sidney Humphries in Whispers at Midnight.
So once again she was standing before his door. She knocked.
"Fawcett," he said when he opened the door, "if you ask me what magic is or how it works I will take 50 points from Ravenclaw and give you detention for a month."
"That's not it, sir."
He looked at her hard, but let her in.
"I can see it, how one form of magic grew out of the other. They are related, closely related."
"But when you were explaining the three principles, you did contrast them against Lumos. You said it doesn't follow the three principles, and I can see how it doesn't. So even if it did come from a dark magic incantation, it's different. So light magic is different than dark."
"It has been shortened and standardized, and external energy sources have been removed. It owes its existence to dark magic, but in this shortened form, it no longer abides by the principles. It stands for the original incantation, but it does not have to follow all of its rules. It is faster and more convenient, but it is weaker in particular ways. You can understand how a spell without an energy source doesn't have the power or permanence of one which does."
Sarah nodded. "What do you mean by 'standardized?"
"Early incantations were invented by and unique to the caster. A poem or song composed to manifest their intent. Many magical traditions in other cultures still use this method. Finnish wizards are famous for their origin songs, and the Sami are justly proud of their yoiks. After all, a sung spell composed at that moment can't be countered by anything but another incantation specifically composed to undo it."
"So each incantation was invented."
"Yes, of course," he said impatiently, "did you think they were brought down by angels?"
"No, I mean – look, sir, then can anyone just invent new spells? Compose a new incantation, attach a symbol, then shorten them?"
"Yes. It takes a clear intent, a great deal of trial and error, and a thorough understanding of magical theory and symbols, of course."
"But Hogwarts doesn't teach magic theory. Or alchemy or symbology. Or incantations. Or even singing!"
Professor Snape leaned in. "Why would they want to?" he asked quietly.
"But then we can't…" she trailed off at the look he was giving her.
"A newly invented spell has no countercurse. There is no defense against it. It is unclassified. It is unregulated. It is completely beyond Ministry control."
"They want to control us?"
"Can you blame them? Imagine the over 10,000 adult wizards and witches in Great Britain all simultaneously inventing new spells. It would be chaos."
"But if no new spells are ever invented, then we'll never, well, develop!"
"No. So those who wish to learn must teach themselves."
It sounded so much like her mum's 'if you want to know something, you'll have to find a way to find out.' What did Sytherins teach themselves behind closed doors?
"Is that why the Ministry forbids the teaching of dark magic?"
He raised his eyebrows at her and didn't answer the question.
Yes, the answer was yes.
Finally she realized what it all meant. It wasn't just the teaching of particular dark magic spells that was forbidden. It was everything that Professor Snape had been teaching her for weeks.
"Why do you trust me?" She felt the danger of the question as soon as it was out.
"What did your mother tell you?" he asked quietly.
"That you're as good as your word."
"Yes. And there is still the matter of payment."
She didn't knock on his door again. He didn't ask for payment the rest of that year, nor the next. Sarah read every theory book the library had, every collection of Welsh bardic verses, every riddle incantation in the Exeter book, every Finnish origin song she could find. She still saw that black hole behind it all. Sometimes she toyed with writing incantations, but she didn't quite have the nerve to recite them aloud. Maybe when her knowledge of magic theory and symbols was a little more thorough.
But then, just at the end of her sixth year, the terrible news came. The Headmaster was dead, and Professor Snape was accused of killing him. He was a dark wizard after all, everyone was saying. Whatever that meant, Sarah thought. But she burned her little scraps of half-finished incantations. Dark magic was dangerous stuff, just as the occult thrillers said, and the spell could affect the caster. Was that what had happened to Professor Snape?
She thought that she would never see him again. She could hardly believe it when he was appointed as Headmaster, hardly believe it that she had the nerve to go back. But somehow she did.
And so there she was, standing outside the new Headmaster's door. Despite the brightness of the corridor, it felt more intimidating than the dark door of his old office. Of course, this time she had been summoned. And she was quite sure she was going to pay.
She knocked. Headmaster Snape opened the door immediately.
"Fawcett, get in."
She got. To her surprise, they were not alone. Millicent Bulstrode was standing near his desk, watching her glumly. "Her?" she said. The Headmaster ignored her and took his seat. There was no chair for her in front of the desk, so Sarah stood there, cursing herself. She had been such a fool.
"Fawcett. Knowledge has a cost. Do you remember?"
She nodded, resigned.
"I am asking for your payment."
"What do you want, sir?" She didn't really want to know, but then again, she could never stand not knowing, could she? It was what had got her into this mess.
"Information. You are going to be one of my eyes in this school. You will observe and report on the actions of any student who resists my or the Carrows' authority."
This was worse, so much worse than she though. She felt sick. "I can't, no, sir. I won't hurt them. I can't help Him!"
"You won't be."
It took a moment for the words to sink in. Did he mean to pretend that he would be protecting the students? How on earth could he say that?
"But how – I can't trust you!"
He looked at her sharply. "Can't you? Wouldn't you be able to betray me at any time? Don't you think that one word of this to the wrong person would be my death warrant?"
She didn't dare answer that.
"But you won't betray me," he went on. "Am I right, Fawcett?"
She nodded miserably. He was right, of course.
"Because of what my mum said about you."
He was waiting.
"You're as good as your word."
Bulstrode gave a disgusted snort.
"You will report only to me or Miss Bulstrode. You will not get caught. You know my office hours."
A/N: This story can be seen as a companion piece to my story Inconclusive Evidence and Sarah Fawcett's brief appearances there, but it can also stand on its own. I wrote it in part to expand on the definitions of dark and light magic that I've been working on and give them a little historical context. I was struck in the original books how the few pieces of dark magic we see, such as the ritual used for Voldemort's resurrection, are much closer to magic that appears in folk traditions than most of the magic at Hogwarts. So I based my definition of dark magic on various folk traditions. I also found it interesting in the books that Snape is only one who uses full incantations, such in the spell he uses to heal Draco. There must be a reason for that.
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