The James Clayton Column: So kids, you want to learn magic?

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice may not have won the approval of mainstream critics but, James argues, it’s a veritable goldmine of information for aspiring wizards…


“I want to know about magic!” cried the little boy as he put the dollars he’d saved up on the counter of the box office booth outside the old movie theatre in middle-of-nowhere, backwoods, Midwest USA. “Well sonny,” said the crusty, yet kindly old man with a beaming and benevolent smile, “today’s your lucky day. Y’see we got these Harry Potter movies a-playin’ and they’re all about the magic…”

“Jeepers oh boy gosh darn!” yelped the kid, and with the ticket stub between his fingers he raced into the auditorium and filled his febrile mind with thoughts of flying owls, juvenile wizards and transfiguration spells.

His world was alive with magic. His heart was full of joy and his tongue fizzed with accio charms. He knew that from that day he wouldn’t rest until he’d joined the ranks of the characters on screen and was heading to Hogwarts to make his way as a muggle-born wizard.

Sadly, upon returning to his home in the trailer park, life took a nasty turn. His gran beat him for stealing her spectacles and his twenty-five brothers and sisters gave him a kicking every time he waved a pencil in the air and shouted “wingardium leviosa”.

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Things got really tragic when he grabbed a penknife and cut a lightning bolt scar into his forehead. His parents took him to a doctor who dosed him up to his eyeballs with Ritalin and Thalidomide and packed him off to the self-harm and psychosis unit at the Damien Thorn Facility for Troubled Children in Nebraska.

The moral of the story is this: Harry Potter is bad for your health. The book-burning religious fundamentalists were right all along. Behind the scar and the glasses is a black abyss of devilry and danger that will poison and destroy your children. It’s false magic that will only warp young minds and make them do silly things, like dress up as a Quidditch star and hang around bookshops at midnight.

If you want to know about real magic, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Genuine paranormal power isn’t about golden snitches or summoning broomsticks. Au contraire, it involves more serious stuff like blood oaths, spiritual possession and communion with nature.

Proper magick is done to ensure a good harvest, bring fertility, communicate with ‘the great beyond’ and manipulate the essential elements of the earth. Harry Potter is only interested in cheap party tricks to pick up chicks.

For a more effective source of immense magical wisdom, I’d suggest that you either meditate on Gandalf’s beard and hope it reveals something profound, or watch the kind of old-school horror flicks where Christopher Lee has a big house in which people draw pentacles in the attic or sacrifice virgins in the basement. (That’s called making the most of the space.)

Otherwise, you’re going to have to visit the abandoned sections of libraries and rare book stores to find medieval witchcraft texts like the Malleus Malleficarum or Burchard Of Worms’s Corrector And Doctor. They’re entertaining, enlightening and I recommend them as bedtime reading.

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These eldritch tomes were written to warn readers of the dangers of witchcraft and put the fear of God into the masses. Paradoxically, they manage to do the opposite and act as instruction manuals to all kinds of delightful shenanigans. They’re the perfect foundations on which to build a new wave of historically-set horror cinema.

Having seen Black Death at the cinema earlier this year, I’m thirsty for more period thrillers dabbling with dark/paranormal matter. I’m imagining potboilers with thesps like Ian McKellen acting as narrator-cum-inquisitorial-voice-of-damnation barking at the viewer over shots of grim swamps and thatched hovels bathed in mist.

“Have you done what some women do?” asks Gandalf over the opening of the adaptation of Corrector And Doctor (retitled What Witchy Women Want to sound snappier on the marketing material). “They lie face down on the ground, uncover their buttocks, and tell someone to make bread on their naked buttocks.”

That’s a genuine extract from the text and the beginning of a method to make husbands “more ardent in their love”. What Burchard of Worms tells female magic practitioners to do with a fish in order to secure the affections of the opposite sex is too extreme to be printed here. All I’ll say is that even Helen Mirren would hesitate to strip off and shoot it. An X-rated certificate is likely and animal rights groups won’t be impressed.

Because Disney doesn’t do nudity and unorthodox sex rituals involving seafood, the archaic sources of olde-fashioned mystic wisdom are no good for the mainstream family demographic that buy Harry Potter DVDs. It’s understandable, therefore, that the House of Mouse chose to make The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to spread sparks over the summer multiplex. I completely approve. The movie’s a lot of fun and does an excellent job of representing the spirit and tradition of magic.

Oh, eager children of the land itching to enchant and conjure, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice will definitely help you more on the road to sorcery success than the ‘Assorted Every-Flavour Adventures of Ronald Weasley’s Best Mate’ will.

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In part, it’s thanks to the quirk, strangeness and charm of Nicolas Cage, ever-reliable as an educational screen icon. Accept him as your teacher, kids. He’s shown you how to be a good-hearted babysnatcher (Raising Arizona) and tutored you in the art of suicidal alcoholism (Leaving Las Vegas). He’s taught you how to be a good bad cop (Bad Lieutenant) and raised you to be a ruthless costumed vigilante assassin of vengeful design (Kick-Ass). Trust in the man now riding a steel eagle across the New York skyline, and the power of Merlin shall be yours.

The movie also links ‘magic’ to science and age-old intellectual culture instead of pooh-poohing it as ‘childish’ fantasy, which is more reasonable than ridiculing it as silly buggers comparing wand sizes. As a motion picture, it does positive work for subject matter threatened in the oh-so-serious modern world and captures the imagination.

I’m also willing to bet that if that little boy had seen The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that day, he’d have learned the true power of magic and been able to employ it before they incarcerated him in the asylum.

It’s a nice introductory text for aspiring wizards before they get to the more hardcore dark matter encoded in the thick and esoteric high-brow literature. I just hope that in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice 2, Nic Cage doesn’t take his disciple Dave to the fish market.

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can find movie-related comic strips by James Clayton at

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