A few years ago, lots of Christians were getting hot under the collar about the Harry Potter books. I used to get into conversations on the subject, and this was one of the recurring themes: the Harry Potter books were dangerous because they contained 'real magic'.
I point out that there is magic in the Narnia books, but it seems that the magic in those books doesn't count, and it is only symbolic or something. The magic in those books is only made up, so it is safe. The magic in the Harry Potter books is real, and therefore dangerous.
I found these conversations fascinating and deeply worrying. Nobody had thought about what they were saying when they made this claim, and some got quite upset when I started asking a few basic questions.
The first question is the obvious one - what do you mean? Do you think that witches really used to fly on broomsticks and change princes into frogs? Do you think their potions really made people fall in love?
The answer they gave me was always 'No'. The spells did not work, but the people using them really believed they worked.
This is an aside. A lot of people I talk with seem to believe that people who lived more than, say, fifty years ago were most amazingly stupid. They all believed that touching wood gave you good luck, black cats gave you bad luck and the Earth was flat. People really imagine that folk used to believe in the Virgin Birth because they didn't know how babies were produced 'back then'.
I usually try to explain that a lot of the people who lived 'back then' were really quite bright: Plato is still regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of all time, and the Ancient Greeks not only knew the Earth was round, but they had calculated the radius of the Earth with an astonishing degree of precision.
So, how stupid do you think these old witches and wizards were? Do you think they produced potions to make people love you and ointments to make you invisible, and they really thought these things worked?
To bring it back to Harry Poter - do you believe that when witches and wizards waved a real magic wand (and what would one of those be?) and said the word "Luminos!" they really produced a light at the end of the wand?
So far, nobody has admitted to believing anything of the sort ever happened.
The more important question is the second one: if you believe there is, or was, something that might be 'real magic', how do you think it worked?
For a lot of magic, it is easy for us to understand it as primitive science. Ancient potions to reduce pain or bring down a fever often have ingredients we know to be effective. There is no need for us to to invoke 'magic' in such cases: however well it works, the effect is derived from purely natural means.
What about the rest? Please correct me if you think I'm wrong, but in all the accounts I have read, the magic involves interacting with 'spirits' - demons and the like. Take Doctor Faustus as an example: he does his magic stuff, and what he achieves is to summon a demon (called Mephistophilis) who he makes a contract with.
Now, if you believe in spiritual beings, this is essentially believable. A certain ritual might summon a demon, or at least let it know that you want to talk - rather like ringing a bell or blowing a dog whistle. And if you believe that contracts and oaths are binding, then why should they not be as binding on those spiritual beings as they are on you?
In the pre-scientific world, an oath is only binding because it is,in essence, a promise you make to God. You really don't want to upset God, and the consequences of breaking an oath to Him are be so much worse than any possible consequences of keeping it.
This is why magic spells are traditionally in Latin: not because Latin somehow has mystic powers, but because all educated people spoke Latin at the time, and it was safe to assume that demons did as well. It was the common language that people spoke, wherever you came from.
As far as I can tell, those are the only two options. Magic either works because it taps in to the way things really are - it is unrecognised science - or because it enables you to get spiritual beings to help you.
Understood in this way, I am a believer in magic. I believe that many of the old rituals and potions work through some scientific reason. And I believe that spiritual beings do exist, and you can interact with them. I also believe you can't force them to do anything they don't already want to do, and that you would have to be totally stupid to think that you can gain anything worth having in that way.
After all, if there are really spiritual beings, presumably there is also a God above them. And the Bible says that this God, Who is much bigger and stronger than all these spiritual beings, already loves you and wants you to have the best life possible.