In his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, J.R.R. Tolkien describes magic -- more precisely, “the Magical” – as “the essential face of Faerie".
As a genre, fantasy has multiple expressions: dark, humorous, violent, romantic, children’s, YA, adult, urban, epic…the list goes on and on. Yet the common denominator for all these expressions is the presence of magic.
Writers of fantasy struggle at great length to build systems of magic unique to their worlds. Readers respond to magic with a critical eye, seeking sorcery that “makes sense”, at least on an instinctive level, and – most importantly – that does not simply function to save the day at the end of our heroine’s journey.
This week I’d like to share some of my thoughts about magic; ideas that have come together as a result of crafting Eolyn, and that continue to evolve as part of my journey with fantasy.
Let's start with:
Magic does not have “rules”, but rather is constrained by rules imposed on it.
Arguably a semantic consideration, but it’s very difficult for me to think in terms of “the rules of magic”, because in my mind, the whole point of magic is that it breaks the rules. Magic acts in ways that defy explanation, most often with respect to the known laws of science.
Nonetheless, effective story telling depends on magic having limits. Certain things can and cannot be done by the wizards, witches, mages and magas of our worlds. I’ve come to think of these boundaries not so much as an inherent property of magic, but as constraints that result from the imperfect knowledge, imagination and/or abilities of practitioners. Which brings me to my next thought:
The practice of magic should have cultural foundations.
Similar to what we talked about with respect to religion in fantasy last week, for me the most convincing systems of magic are thoroughly embedded in their respective cultures. The practice of magic has a past, present and future. Magical knowledge can evolve, undergo innovation, and be lost.
It is in this context that “the rules of magic” make the most sense to me. A society’s structure, history and current state of knowledge can determine what kind of magic is practiced by its members. In this way, magic never reaches its full potential because every culture has an imperfect understanding of that potential, and therefore a limited ability to achieve it.
So for example, in an imaginary world we could have one society with warlocks who practice shape shifting but do not engage in divination. A neighboring land might have witches who see the future and read minds, but are inept when it comes to assuming the form of other animals. For me, these differences are most convincing if they exist for reasons grounded in history and culture.
Magic is not the same as science.
Science can inform systems of magic, and it has become popular in recent years to recur to science for explanations of our magic. There are some very clever examples of this, one being the application of the law of conservation of mass to the problem of shape shifting.
It is really up to the author how much of a given magical system can be explained (or constrained) using our current understanding of the natural world. In Eolyn’s world, there is a whole class of magic, Middle Magic, that is essentially an antiquated version of ecology, botany, natural history and medicine.
Yet, however tempting and useful it is to occasionally explain magic through natural laws, sooner or later we need to let magic be magic, and allow it to transcend the framework of science.
Which brings me to my last thought for today:
Magic at its heart is not logical.
I’ve noticed that we writers like to dig into magical systems, ours and those of others. We dissect them and try to make sure every piece fits back together neatly. This is a good, solid practice that helps us build cohesive worlds, but there’s one irony in the process. If magic is truly at work, sooner or later, no matter how water-tight “the rules” are, you’ll come across something that does not make sense.
The best part of this is, if everything else is done right, that one illogical piece is never a weakness of the system; the illogical piece is what defines it as magic.
Now, it’s your turn…
Talk to me about magic: systems of magic that appealed to you, uses of magic that put you off, spells that you thought were totally cool and would like to be able to do in real life.
Also, what do you think the role of “rules” should be in magic? Does science have a place in explaining magic? Is magic “the essential face” of fantasy?
As an aside, while selecting images for this post, out of curiosity I did a google search for "the face of fantasy". Google kicked back oodles of portraits of beautiful women, a handful of demonic-looking men (which I found rather curious), and. . .George R.R. Martin. An essential face of fantasy, indeed.
Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich