A Eulogy for The Magicians, Part 2: Magic Comes From Pain
What a silver fucking lining, right?
It's kind of a tricky concept and one which is thrown around on the show with far too little explanation or examination.
Does it mean that every single magician is always in pain? Are those who are in more pain thus more powerful magicians? What does studying have to do with it?
I think that the pain is meant as a trigger for the magic, allowing someone to access it, and what they do with it -- how powerful they become -- is from that point up to them.
It's like a cosmic balancing of the scales.
I think that's a reasonable explanation in and of itself, but in the first season we see Quentin perform magic that is stronger than any spells he's ever done before, and it happens as a result of him finding out that his dad has brain cancer.
Quentin had already had pain in his life up until this point and he was already a magician, so his power burst suggests that the greater the pain, the greater the magic, which is a slippery slope.
Later, the group casts a spell to rid themselves of their emotions so they're better able to perform battle magic. That seems to be at odds with what we've learned.
Or maybe not. Because you have to assume that the pain that triggers magic has to exist below the surface and, more often than not, is always there. It doesn't necessarily manifest itself on the surface or every day.
That kind of informs what kind of pain they're talking about. It doesn't come and go like a lot of extreme emotions do -- emotions that would interfere with battle magic. The pain runs deep and it's constant. It's a part of you. That's the kind of pain that makes magic happen.
When Julia loses her magic towards the end of season 4, it's not because her pain has gone away, it's that the magic her pain triggered was gone. Magic is fleeting even in the best of times. Your magic is born of your specific pain and if that magic goes away, your pain doesn't just create new magic. It's linked to that specific magic and once it's gone, there's no getting it back...
...unless you find new pain that will never go away. Season five has plenty of faults, but it did a great job of articulating how each character was permanently changed by Q's death.
I think it's important to make the distinction that magicians can still be happy. I don't think this ever explained outright on the show (maybe in the books, I don't know) but I think it has to be the case or else magicians are doomed from the start. It's possible to carry around deep pain while still living a happy life. It may sound contradictory, but I think it's how most people walk through life.
I also don't think there are degrees to this. I don't think that you can put a grade on pain. Everyone experiences it differently and regardless of what the triggering event is, the feeling is what matters. Could you make the claim that, say, Eliot's life was harder than Julia's? Sure. But that's not what it's about. It's about something that sears you to the core and never leaves and all of the magicians had that.
It kind of sets up the idea that every character on the show has a secret of some sort, or at least a past that maybe they don't talk about. There's something heavy in Todd's past, for example. That informs the entire show.
And, honestly, for all the ups and downs of the show, that through line is always there. Pain isn't just the origin of magic, it's the origin of The Magicians.