The swanky party at the castle on the edge of town was invitation only, a select gathering of the most prominent members of the city, and a highly guarded affair. It would take a well-armed small militia just to be able to pierce the walls and tight security. The enchantress smiled, lips pursed. There was no gathering she could not infiltrate. She glided to the burly man standing guard at the entrance, and with a simple wave of her hand, he was granting her entrance and serving as her personal escort into the party.
In the previous entry to this series we discussed what is often seen as the creepiest form of magic, necromancy. But would you believe that there is a form of magic far more unsettling in its ethical implications?
The ability to fool the mind can be used ethically, but can also threaten personal autonomy. It’s what makes this school of magic such a fraught moral tight-rope. Even a minor alteration to a person’s memories can be a violent and intrusive breach of confidence.
Stories about mental enchantments often either speak to that fear of loss of personal autonomy, or are a reflection on the socially violent ways in which we manipulate each other. The above example of Willow and Tara is possibly the first version I ever saw someone use magic to gaslight their romantic partner, and it horrified me. We don’t need charms or enchantments to deceive or manipulate those around us.
We lie, obscure information, and take steps to create a reality in the other person’s mind that drives them to the desired action.
And this is not always done with malicious intent. Going back to the Willow and Tara example. Willow didn’t want to hurt her girlfriend. She wanted to remove painful memories of their confrontation and make everything as it was, but in doing so, Willow stripped Tara of the ability to make a decision about how she felt.
Any form of manipulation that strips a person of their autonomy and decision-making abilities is remarkably unethical. It’s an abusive tactic that renders them a slave to your will. Even if you aren’t specifically casting “Dominate Person” you’re still dipping a toe into these murky waters. Unlike necromancy, this is not an issue that can be simply side-stepped with world-building, as this is an ethical quagmire with real-world implications.
So how can we use magic that gives us power over the mind in a way that is ethical?
Going to admit that, before writing this article, I had to think long and hard about a situation where this form of magic could be used positively, especially given my history as a D&D player. I’ve had characters who have used charms and enchantments against villains, but I have a hard time justifying that level of invasive magic even in a fantasy world. In the end though, I came to a positive realization.
An aspect of this school of magic I’ve never seen utilized in fantasy fiction before, is the implications that it could have in therapy. Yes, a memory charm used in secret and without consent is little more than magical gaslighting, but imagine for those who suffer from PTSD. Imagine if you could instantly heal a person’s mind with their consent by removing those traumatic memories and providing distance and closure. Imagine those who suffer from depression utilizing magical charms as a mood stabilizer. Yes, the fantasy world you’re creating might not have modern medicinal techniques, but if magic is relatively common, could not an enchanter seek to heal and help others in need of therapy?
I want to read more fantasy novels that incorporate the neurodivergent into their magical world-building anyway. However, even modern therapists fall into ethical issues all the time, so this isn’t a catch-all gambit for making enchantments and charms immediately ethical. As always, consent is vital, and the desire must be above all, to help and heal others.
It’s the difference between being the evil vizier manipulating from the shadows, and the travelling psychologist with a host of magical treatments.
Dorian Dawes is the published author of the queer horror anthology, Harbinger Island. You can support their work at patreon.com/doriandawes