“Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.” -Epicurus, A Guide To Happines
The first question, of course, is where exactly do we begin to find out what exactly “Friendship is Magic” means within the context of the show? This was, honestly, the easiest part of the whole thing for me to answer; The Elements of Harmony. They are a magical artifact that is powered by friendship after all, so if there is any way to pull out a meaning to the phrase a look at the Elements is probably the best place to start. But not just any Element. Oh no, we got to go straight for the big dog itself: The Element of Magic. To understand the phrase “Friendship is Magic”, I think, we got to understand the Element of Magic. The others are important too, but we’ll get to them later.
So that makes the second question then a variation on our starting question; what does magic got to do with friendship? And this is where I think the problems can start. It is very easy to take “Element of Magic” very literally and treat it as simply being about raw, magical skill and talent. After all, Twilight Sparkle is the Element of Magic, and one of her defining traits is her powerful and skillful use of magic. She’s probably the most powerful unicorn in existence even.
The Story book from episode 1:
When being used:
The Element of Magic is literally in the center of the Elements when it is presented. But why? If it only appears when the others are present, and we can easily conclude the others represent important virtues in friendship, then the Element of Magic has to represent something central to the concept of friendship itself if it’s being given such importance. But if the Element is simply just a representation of magical power and skill, what would that say about friendship? That it is all based upon power? That seems completely off. So what, then, does it mean?
The best articulation I have ever found of a meaning to the Element of Magic comes from a fanfiction. In particular, it comes from chapter 4 the fic “Boast Busted,” an AU-fic that is centered in a universe where Trixie is the apprentice to Princess Luna while Celestia was the one banished. I won’t get into the entire fic and will simply link it at the end (and highly recommend it because the Lunaverse, which this fic is a part of, is just awesome). The important thing to note is that in this fic Twilight, having not been a student of the princess and is basically what we saw her in that first episode, has that idea that the Element of Magic represents magical power and believes Trixie is either holding back her magic or is a complete fraud. Trixie’s attempt to explain the element I think bring forth a much more plausible meaning:
“And that’s when I earned the Element of Magic. Not because I knew so many spells, not because I had some kind of deep reservoir of magic to draw on. But because I had a…a connection with those ponies. My friends.” She scuffed a hoof on the wooden floor of Twilight’s wagon in slight embarrassment. “That’s what magic is. It’s connections. Unicorn spell-casting is the most obvious kind of connection, when we take our inner power and cast it out to the world around us and shape it by making connections with whatever we touch. But magic is also how a pegasus has a connection to the air and the clouds and the seasons. Or how an earth pony has a connection to the land, to growing things.”“But it’s more than just that, too. It’s the connection between friends, or family, or lovers. It’s the connection a teacher has with her students. The connection a musician has with her instrument, or a weather pony with her job, a farmer and her business, a mother and her daughter. Or a magician with her audience. It doesn’t matter what the connection is. If it’s there, it’s a kind of magic.” Trixie looked to Twilight hopefully. “Is any of this making any sense?”
-Boast Busted, Chapter 4: http://www.fimfiction.net/story/13204/4/boast-busted/4-run-runaway
I went ahead and bolded the most relevant part; the idea that magic is connections. For a more in-show source for this idea, we just have to go back to when Twilight and her friends first use the Elements to defeat Nightmare Moon and the small exchange she had:
Twilight Sparkle: The spirits of these five ponies got us through every challenge you threw at us.
Nightmare Moon: You still don’t have the sixth Element! The spark didn’t work!
Twilight Sparkle: But it did! A different kind of spark. I felt it the very moment I realized how happy I was to hear you, to see you, how much I cared about you. The spark ignited inside me when I realized that you all… are my friends! You see, Nightmare Moon, when those Elements are ignited by the… the spark, that resides in the heart of us all, it creates the sixth element: the element of… magic!
The spark that activated the Element of Magic came not from using magic (in fact that was Twilight’s first attempt and that failed completely) but when she realized that she felt happy and joyful at sound of these ponies that she had just gone through a perilous journey with and developed a special bond with. It was the realization of that bond, and not raw power, which caused the Element to be activated.
Need a little more proof? Think to when the other times the Elements were used or invoked: Twilight’s story in “Cutie Mark Chronicles” and “Return of Harmony Pt 2” (I wish to address “Magical Mystery Cure” in another article).
In the former, Twilight’s magical abilities were jumpstarted upon Rainbow Dash’s successful doing of a Sonic Rainboom. As we later find out, everypony’s cutie mark story can be traced back to that event. As the characters themselves point out, they had a bond before they even met. Cheesy? Maybe a little, but the idea that some friendships can transcend time and space is not necessarily new or foreign. Best example of modern use of it would probably be from Avatar: The Last Airbender S3ep6 “The Avatar and the Firelord”. Long story short, the friendship between Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin was playing itself out again among Roku’s reincarnation (The Avatar Aang) and the Firelord’s son Zuko (a descendant of both Roku and Sozin). Point of the matter is that Twilight’s sort of “revealing” as a potential bearer of the Element of Harmony is because of this bond she shares with the others.
As for “Return of Harmony”, Twilight is able to successfully use the Elements against Discord once she has cured her friends of their state of being “discorded” by reminding them of the bonds they shared and learning the lesson that “friendship is worth fighting for”. Pretty straightforward I think.
So if the Element of Magic is a representation of the bond between people, or ponies, who are friends, a bond that is not a literal one but a sort of strong feeling of connectedness that just seems inexplicable, then what are the other Elements? Well, like I said, the other Elements work well enough in the role of simply being representations of what is needed for such strong bonds to form. I think I can even break down a little, drawing a bit on from some of the various philosophies discussing what exactly a friend is. Here we go:
A friend is a person who we are able to find pleasure and enjoyment in being with, someone that is makes us laugh and be joyful. A friend is a person who we can be honest with not just about our feelings but our entire existence and trust they will sincerely listen to us. A friend is a person who will be loyal and stand by us instead of simply blowing us off when we are in need. A friend is a person who is generous not in materialistic terms but something greater, that they are willing to give their all for us without expectations of reciprocity. And they do this because they are kind, acting not out of selfish motivations but because they truly love and care for you as a person*.
And when you find yourself with a person who you are able to make such a connection with, well, isn’t that just magical?
So, I think that pretty much wraps up my thoughts on the whole meaning of “Friendship is Magic”. Instead of being a simple, catchy phrase, it can be instead thought of as an understanding that friendship is a truly unique and powerful connection between persons. If you’re interested in some of the larger philosophical discussion on friendship, please visit the page below as a pretty good starting place. I myself am interested in looking into this topic further. If you have any insights yourself, please, feel free to share.
*If you read that and almost feel like you just read a description of a lover, don’t be so surprised. I was surprised to find that one of the things philosophers have had a hard time figuring out is just what is the difference between true friends and lovers is beyond, well, sex with the latter.