This is a legacy post from a blog I wrote in 2018 about language, storytelling, and the shape of things. Delivered here straight from the archives, please enjoy the following issue of The Quiet Post.
The "magic circle" describes the space we inhabit when we’re fully invested in another world. A book or a television show or even a roller coaster—any experience where we cross the threshold, leave our lives behind, and either individually or collectively agree to a new set of rules. I first I heard the phrase in this article, by Jeff Ramos, from Polygon. Ramos describes his experience playing Stardew Valley, and the fact that the title screen’s slow, meditative crawl-in acts as a portal. The moments spent waiting, listening to the music, and watching the animation help transition the player from the real world to a world where they’re a farmer who just needs to water their crops.
“You’ve crossed into the magic circle before if you’ve ever sat at a campfire at night telling scary stories,” Ramos says. “It’s the feeling that takes over when you’re in the crowd at a concert and everyone begins to sing along.”
Though the term is used to describe the very real line that very real people cross to enter a space of play, it’s also a concept you’ll find in a lot of fantasy literature. There are tons of magic circles in books, and tons of mechanisms to get characters into them. The wardrobe gets us into Narnia. Platform 9¾ gets us into Hogwarts. The tollbooth gets us into the Kingdom of Wisdom. The mechanisms that facilitate the shuffling of characters into magical worlds are what draw the boundaries of the magic circle, and these boundaries are equally important in our own world. Book covers get us into books. Overtures get us into symphonies. Dimming the lights in a movie theater gets us into movies. This is why I loathe the “Skip Intro” button that appears over theme songs on Netflix. I want to hear the Stranger Things theme every time—scratch that, I need to hear it. How else am I supposed to enter Hawkins?
What this is really about is structure, tradition, repetition, and systems. It’s not enough to just do something. An activity, a world, an experience must have a beginning and an end. A way to get in and a way to get out.
If you’ll allow me to go off the rails here for a second, this is probably one of my issues with my online experience at the moment. There is no beginning. The Twitter feed crashes into me when I open it and there is no end. A web browser is not a portal. The current structure of most of the Internet is not a world to explore, but an endless pit to fall through.
(Hey, I didn’t get to write my big Internet article last week and I’m still frustrated about it. You can probably expect parts of it to keep popping up over the next few months. I’m going to hack apart that monster of a piece and shoehorn bits of it in wherever I can.)
So. Magic Circles. Thresholds. Portals that give us permission to let down our guard and explore other worlds.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in terms of schools.
There’s this thing Brené Brown said in her recent interview with Krista Tippett on the On Being podcast that has stuck with me in the days since I heard it. I’m going to excerpt a big chunk here, because I think the context is important. Italics are mine.
I think one of the greatest casualties of trauma is the loss of the ability to be vulnerable. And so when we define trauma as oppression, sexism, racism, I have no choice but to leave my house with my armor on and carry the 20 tons of that through my day … no matter how heavy it is, because I am not physically safe in a world — or, this environment. That’s why, when I work with teachers, I tell them all the time: You may be creating the only space in a child’s life where he or she can walk in, hang up their backpack, and hang up their armor. Only for the hour or two hours this child is with you can they literally take that off.
As a person who often works with kids and teens for my job, this breaks my heart. I don’t think I can possibly understate the importance of giving people—especially children, and especially under-resourced and marginalized communities—spaces where they are able to slough off whatever weight they’ve been walking under and experience safety and belonging. It’s like what writer Joseph Fink said once in his podcast, I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats: “Being a welcoming person, like being a kind person, can be a truly radical act in a world designed to put a whole set of conditions on any welcome.”
The failure of our culture and government in making schools safe havens for kids is unacceptable. A shooter was able to kill seventeen students and teachers in Parkland, Florida two weeks ago because we broke the magic circle. In lock-down drills instead of gun control, in sacrificing children’s lives instead of slashing donations of special interest groups like the NRA, we broke the idea that school is a space to learn, explore, and hang up your armor. We’re still breaking it.
The students in Florida were just being born when Columbine happened. They were in middle school for Sandy Hook. We have subjected youth to year after year—their entire lives—of showing them they don’t deserve safety, or magic circles, or spaces to play, in the one space remaining for many kids to find these things, if they can’t find them at home. And now the White House’s most serious policy suggestion is to arm teachers, a notion so ludicrous it barely warrants a response. There is only one thing that will give students back their schools, and it is the same thing that defines magic circles everywhere. Structure. Systems. And boundaries. Mechanisms—policies like background checks and bans—that will redraw the borders.
I really admire these students who are standing up to demand a better world for themselves. I cannot fathom the tragedy they’ve been through, but I feel their anger. I support them without hesitation as they take their righteous fury all the way to the capitol, and all the way to the voting booth.
Lately, it often feels like the only thing that will right the world is some kind of magic trick. That’s okay with me. I’ll stand with the kids and demand more magic.
If you want to read more about gun control, check these out:
Yes, America has a gun problem, at an incredible scale compared to the rest of the world. And yes, there is a way to fix it. It’ll be a long, hard road, though.
How Australia, in 1996, drastically reduced gun violence after their biggest mass shooting in history, including by buying back over 600,000 guns and destroying them.
The same year as the Australian mass shooting, as if in some sort of cruel mirror universe, the US passed the Dickey Amendment, which essentially forbid the CDC from researching gun violence and hindered our ability to address or acknowledge our problem. The repeal of this amendment is one of the things the Florida teens are fighting for.
A fantastic collection of excerpts from articles dealing with our gun problem.
What bullets do to bodies. In my imagination, and probably yours, bullet wounds are little holes that punch cleanly through. It’s not that.
More on the movement started by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, for context. And inspiration.
And while we're at it, maybe we can support black kids who are being killed by police in the same way we're supporting the Florida kids.
By the way are you registered to vote? Do that here.
Stay safe. Be well. Make others feel welcome. Build magic circles.
And get rid of the guns.