Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Do You Believe in Magic?

Talk of the supposed “disenchantment” of the world of “modernity” continues apace, providing (as it has always done) a cottage industry for academics and connoisseurs of Angst–and little else.

I thought it might be useful to have a quick look at the history of the word, and what it means–or, at least, what it has meant.

The verb “to disenchant” is neither very old nor, until recently, very common in English. The Oxford English Dictionary lists its earliest occurrence as 1590 in the Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney. It doesn’t occur for another 70 years; it is then found again in 1691, once more in 1759, and then around 1850 and 1874. In every case, the meaning is roughly the same.

Indeed, the OED only lists one definition for the word: “To set free from enchantment, magic spell, or illusion.” In other words, “enchantment”1 has to do with magic, witchcraft, deception, and so on.

Thus the third occurrence of the word (1691), from Dryden’s King Arthur, opposes “enchantment” to both reason and religion: “Reason and Religion will yield you countercharmes, able to disenchant You.” This opposition is not accidental; the Christian faith has been the greatest foe of “enchantment” the world has known.

The next instance we find, in Oliver Goldsmith (1759), gives evidence of a similar meaning–only here study is ineffective against the fairies: “No reading or study had contributed to disenchant the fairy land around him.”

The final usage given–in an extended sense meaning “to disillusion” or “to break the illusion”–comes from J.R. Green’s Short History of the English People (1874): “He had disenchanted his people of their blind faith in the Crown.”

We don’t really find the modern sense of “Oh, you know, I just kind of have a general ennui because the earth seems to be a cold, dead place” until 1876 (around the time, more or lessish, that res under discussion was invented as, well, A THING), and for that we have to look for our signum to the noun form (“disenchantment”) and to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (which, by the by, plays an important role in the thoroughly disenchanted–or enchanted?–world of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go); and in that case, its application is not objective (“my environment is disenchanted, no sprites, no woodland nymphs”), but subjective, i.e. it is the character who is “disenchanted,” not the world. Eliot writes:

This was precisely what Gwendolen was unable to do; and after her uncle was gone, the bitter tears, which had rarely come during the late trouble, rose and fell slowly as she sat alone. Her heart denied that the trouble was easier because she was young. When was she to have any happiness, if it did not come while she was young? Not that her visions of possible happiness for herself were as unmixed with necessary evil as they used to be—not that she could still imagine herself plucking the fruits of life without suspicion of their core. But this general disenchantment with the world—nay, with herself, since it appeared that she was not made for easy pre-eminence—only intensified her sense of forlornness; it was a visibly sterile distance enclosing the dreary path at her feet, in which she had no courage to tread.

  1. This word has a longer history, perhaps to be treated in a future post.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.