What is magic, and why does it matter?

I’m still feeling my way with the architecture of WordPress, so some changes may be on their way in the next few days. I intend to get working on a links page/blogroll of related topics and areas I’m interested in (several of which seem to be focusing on gaming and feminism currently), so watch this space for more changes. But in the meantime, I feel I need to ask a question, and provide some answers.

What is magic?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – Arthur C Clarke

Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. – J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

Magic seems pretty ubiquitous in fantasy novels and games these days; where would the adventurers in Dungeons & Dragons be without their handy +1 Sword, or their Magic Missile? Magic-users appear almost everywhere in fantasy settings, but relatively few seem to think in any great depth about what their magic is, or why it works.

The vast majority of magic encountered in fantasy seems a grafted-on addition to technology, to allow people to do things that are otherwise impossible. In this case, they follow the Clarke’s laws, making use of a technology that others cannot, without any particular cost to themselves. It’s just another skill to master. This is particularly the case in D&D and related fantasy (like the Diablo or Elder Scrolls games), where the characters will, as they advance, accumulate magical items over time as part of a natural progression to allow them to do more things or face down bigger challenges.

Worlds may also introduce other kinds of magic to delineate particular abilities, like the divine/arcane magic split in D&D, or the White/Black magic in Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician series, or the thaumaturgy/charms divide in Exalted. Or, to take it to its logical extreme, the colours of magic in Magic: the Gathering. in this setting, magic is powered by mana, which is split into five colours that specialise in doing specific things; doing healing with black or blue mana is much harder (if not impossible) than with white or green mana. But mana is essentially the same limited stuff that was inspired by Larry Niven’s novel The Magic Goes Away; it is a resource to be used, with no further thought given to it than that.

Part of me now wants to say “but all of these things are the SAME!” What these differences do is subtly categorise magic into certain domains, so that you don’t get magic users who can do everything. It’s still the same flick-of-a-switch property to it, like magic is somehow incidental to the characters. Even though Sonea in Canavan’s novels is threatened with destruction if she doesn’t tame the magic within her, the process of channeling that energy ultimately makes it an entirely mundane process. It is something that some characters can do, and others can’t. The whys and wherefores of that question are mostly left hanging.

The Harry Potter books treat magic in a different, better, way. Magic becomes part of what a person is, an expression of their character (remember Ollivander’s “the wand chooses the wizard” comment?). MtG does do this, but to a lesser extent; people are associated with different colours of mana and therefore different people cast different spells, different people turn into different animals, people have inherent aptitudes for certain kinds of magic, and so on. But Harry Potter’s magic gets treated holistically, rather than a tack-on accessory, and the structure of magical society is based around that difference.* And as people who journey with Harry and co into the world of magic, we get to experience all the differences and wonder of that journey with them.

What I’m driving at here is a point that I’ve noticed about sci-fi novels and technology, that magic and its use rarely changes the world that it is used in. Sonea still fights her class battles just like she would if she was in a completely magicless fantasy setting, D&D adventurers still swing their +20 magic swords the same way they swing their normal swords, etc. I remember while reading Isaac Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn that (spoilers alert!) while the ultimate solution to the book revolved around a robot character being telepathic, the actual capacities of robots weren’t much different from domestic servants. The same thing happens in Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, in that interstellar travel wasn’t much different from getting onto a passenger liner in the 1950s (when Asimov was writing).  Despite writing in the future, he does not foresee how technology has changed our societies, even without space travel; the advent of new fictitious technologies didn’t change the basic social assumptions of the world from which Asimov drew his inspirations, and generally fantasy worlds are written with a similar set of assumptions to those which the author surrounds him/herself.

To go back to the quotes at the start, Clarke was right in reverse with his famous law: magic tends to be indistinguishable from advanced technology. And this technology is almost always shorn of any of the social changes that should come with it, without altering the world around it. When people in the Medieval era believed in magic, that belief brought with it a whole gamut of experiential differences to the way we live now; what the planets were was different, the night and the woods held different kinds of threats, doing any of a dozen things could bring terrible consequences if you did something wrong or undreamed of wonders to you if you did something right. And those who could manipulate magical forces had a certain status and position in society commensurate with their abilities, which in turn altered everyone else’s position. It did not just tack on the idea that you do certain things to get a certain result, that feels far too limited to be a way to think about magic properly. Magic and its use needs to alter the world in which it is practiced, otherwise it loses part of what it is. And I think fantasy as a whole needs to remember that.

If anyone has any thoughts on this, please feel free to discuss below.

*I’m aware that quite often in MtG settings characters aren’t aware of mana and so act accordingly. One character in the early novels even says “no one really believes magic has colours.” But even when it does get used by characters who are aware of the difference, it doesn’t get much air-time beyond being a tool to be used, with little or no affect on its users or the societies around them.

About Aramithius

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I enjoy exploring it in various ways.
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3 Responses to What is magic, and why does it matter?

  1. Pingback: World Building or World Creation? An Analogy | Method in the Mythos

  2. Pingback: Purple Vision « Stories in 5 Minutes

  3. Pingback: Harry Potter and the Muggle Psychologist: Convincing the Other Character of Your Sanity « M. Giroux Stories

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