Recently I was watching Disney Junior with my girlfriend and her son. As anyone else with a toddler knows, one of the newest shows is Sheriff Callie’s Wild West – a music filled cartoon with anamorphic characters providing lessons on making friends and good behavior. One of the recent episodes did a twist on the classic magic feather trope.
One of the most well-known examples of this trope includes the story of Dumbo. Initially, Dumbo the baby elephant doesn’t believe he can fly, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, so his friend, Timothy the mouse, gives him a feather and convinces him that it’s magic. As long as he has the feather, he can fly or do other amazing feats. By the end of the story, Dumbo of course loses the feather, but in doing so he realizes that the feather was never magical, and that he had the ability to fly all along.
In Sheriff Callie’s Wild West, one of the characters loses his confidence – much like Dumbo – and the other characters attempt to lift their friend’s spirits. While talking to other characters in town, they get the idea of pretending an item is magic so that they can convince their depressed friend to believe in himself by focusing on the magic item. Unlike Dumbo, the depressed character in this story unknowingly loses the magical item while completing the difficult tasks. Therefore, it is only after the depressed character succeeds that he realizes he did everything on his own without the use of magic.
Following the end of the program, my girlfriend and I started talking about the rehash of the Dumbo feather story, and then both of us started to wonder where the magic feather trope originated. Surely it must have started somewhere, so I began to dig.
After some initial brainstorming and research, I realized that the modern-day term for this trope would be the placebo effect. In other words, people believe that some sort of medicine or treatment will make them better, so they GET better, even though the medicine or treatment has no real value. It’s a psychological trick that has medically been proven to work.
If the magic feather trope is just a fancy name for the placebo effect, I thought that perhaps the origin of the trope was connected to the origin of the word placebo.
In their article, “Placebo, a historical perspective,” Efrat Czerniak and Michael Davidson examine how different cultures and medical practitioners over the centuries have utilized the placebo effect, whether they knew it or not. According to their research, Czerniak and Davidson point out how all the major historical cultures – Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and the Chinese – maintained records that detailed medical procedures. At the time, the bulk of these procedures were a mixture of spiritualism (magic, witchcraft, deity-invoked faith healing), herbalism, and biological science.
The people who practiced these procedures generally possessed high social rankings, and nearly all were significantly educated. Therefore, the masses believed in anything these healers provided as it was dictated as a social rule to do so, because the healers were socially and mentally above the masses. Since medicine was mixed with magic/religion, naysayers could be killed for heresy. Similarly, if a healer could not cure someone, no one ever doubted the medicine. Instead, healers could use the excuse that the ill person had no faith, or that the powers-that-be would not allow the person to be cured for some other metaphysical reason.
While in retrospect, as Czerniak and Davidson conclude, we now know that many of these remedies were rubbish, and that it was the psychological social belief structure that supported the validity of these treatments for so many centuries. Rubbish or not, however, the merits of the placebo effect cannot be overlooked, since many people were “healed” by these so-called remedies.
In an analysis of the word placebo, it seems that the word comes from the Latin and means “to please.” Although I prefer to use the Oxford English Dictionary for my entomology research, (elitist snob that I am), the Online Etymology Dictionary provided the following useful information:
“placebo (n.): early 13c., name given to the rite of Vespers of the Office of the Dead, so called from the opening of the first antiphon, “I will please the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm cxiv:9) . . . Medical sense is first recorded 1785, “a medicine given more to please than to benefit the patient.” Placebo effect attested from 1950.”
Since the term bleeds over from the spiritual into the scientific, this description further supports Czerniak and Davidson’s historical perspectives and analyses. In addition, Czerniak and Davidson argue that “placebo is associated with the pleasing of the patient by the therapist, of the therapist by the patient, or both” (1). Thus, in the historical sense, healers attempted to please their patients with a mixture of good meaning psychological trickery and herbological/scientific medicine. In return, the patients would please the healers by believing in and accepting their methodologies as facts.
Clearly, there are correlations between psychological belief and healing, so it is not a far leap to go from using such placebo remedies to rid the mind of self-doubt. Regardless – our mission here is to find the trope’s origin. After all, something only becomes a trope if it’s used repeatedly as a plot device.
My research thus far has failed to come up with an answer that satisfies me. TV Tropes.org offers a nice list of stories that use this trope, but no definitive origin story. A multitude of people online are complaining via blog about the overuse of the magic feather trope, as they claim it makes children believe that they can do anything regardless of reality – check out magic feather syndrome for more information on that perspective, if you feel the need. I’ve also found several articles that reimagine the magic feather concept into a somewhat pseudo-psychological counseling tool. In other words, therapists identify people or items that patients use as crutches, and then therapists try to convince their patients that they do not need these crutches to be successful in life; i.e., allegorical therapy.
According to All the Tropes.Orain.org, one of the oldest stories that uses the basic concept of the magic feather trope includes “The Conference of Birds,” which is a Persian poem from the medieval era. In the poem, the Bird-God has been lost, has fled, or has been hidden away, so all of the birds in the realm must go on a quest to find their God. They face many challenges, and not all the birds make it to the end. When they arrive in the realm in which they believe their God to dwell, the only thing they find is a pool of water that shows their reflections. At that point, the birds learn that they never needed to go out and find their God (magic feather), because they had the presence of their God within them already.
As I said, I’m not fully satisfied with these answers. Don’t get me wrong – the research quest has proven fruitful and enlightening, but I do not feel as if I have done this search justice. With the tools readily available to me at the moment – the wealth of the Internet – the best answer I can offer for the origin of the magic feather trope is as follows:
If fiction reflects reality, perhaps the magic feather trope is meant to demonstrate several cultural perspectives that have been widely believed and explored over the centuries.
First of all, in order to heal self of doubt and malady, one must have an object of focus administered by a sagely mentor. Whether the mentor is a physician, a priest, or an anamorphic mouse, it doesn’t matter, provided that the person receiving the focus item has faith in the mentor figure.
Second, while the focus item helps the injured/ill person overcome adversity, it is nothing more than a manipulative psychological device used with good intent.
Finally, the use of the trope underscores the basic belief found within multiple cultures that individuals have the power within themselves to do great things. In many ways, that reflects the cross-cultural belief that the power of a deity figure or the divine exists within all of us, as described in “The Conference of Birds.”