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Magic In Fantasy: An Introduction

Magic has been around since the dawn of fantasy: in fact, much of what makes fantasy “fantasy” is the magic that permeates the genre. Even throughout worlds and stories veering closer to the boundaries of science fiction and urban fantasy, magic is a feature—whether in the form of wizards and sorcerers, or ancient technology and antique devices that merely mimic magic, or offer technology so advanced that the minds it presents itself to are not yet equipped to comprehend it. Arthur C. Clarke had the right idea when he said: “magic is just science we don’t understand yet”.

Perhaps it’s true.

Lotus Wood by Jonathon Earl BowserThe history of magic and its reception certainly goes a long way to suggest this. Consider the old magic of the pagans and druids; consider the peculiar magic of legends and myths and stories that predate Christianity; consider how much knowledge has been destroyed, or forgotten, or lost, or suppressed, or misunderstood throughout history, and the idea that our forebears both understood and wielded “magic” isn’t an entirely whimsical concept.

Tempting as it is to delve deeper into the history of magic—and at some point, we may do just this; but not in this article—instead we’ll say that magic, or at least, magical theory predates any fantasy story ever written.

Not all fantasy has magic that heralds itself. In fact, some magic is as subtle in fantasy as it is in our world. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora demonstrates a strong penchant towards alchemy, and suggests anything unexplained about the world—mainly the architecture—remains from when another race walked the earth, whilst the magic in A Song of Ice and Fire is a rare thing that is steeped in mystery and scarcely ever witnessed.

However, it’s hard to deny that magic in fantasy is extremely popular.

Initiation Ritual by TrishkellAn easy suggestion, as to why magic is a mainstay, is historical relevancy. A large proportion of fantasy stories are based in world that mimics a medieval or specific century—such as 17th or 18th Century—and in these times, the belief in magic was far more common. Magic hasn’t always been “accepted” (but that’s not the point, and surely if something can be outlawed, it exists? How does one outlaw something that doesn’t exist?), and certainly there are layers of superstition piled on top of the concept in our histories, but, at the same time, magic has always fascinated.

It’s useful to remember that whilst histories are written and passed down, the feelings and general emotions of any time period are not: furthermore (and without treading down the road of ‘he who wins writes history’) if we consider that many of the opinions and beliefs surrounding magic that have filtered down through time to us are simply one side of the plethora of thoughts, theories, beliefs and emotions regarding magic, then the whole issue of magic and its important—and, yes, logical place—in fantasy, can be readdressed.

fortune by Sergey-LesiukMagic—in its many forms—was important at its given stages of historic relevance and/or evolution. Fantasy tells the stories of (usually) medievalesque, alternative 16th, 17th, or 18th century (with or without gunpowder, as the writer sees fit) worlds; in the very fibers of these settings, magic thrummed between the lines.

Essentially, the point here is that trying to write these eras without magic, would feel as boneless as presenting a modern day world without politics, technology and conflict—it would be unrealistic. Fantasy might be just that, but, authors spend hours crafting and honing detail upon detail of imagined “pieces” of a world to offer up a realistic, alternative world. Writers are crafting worlds that will seem as real to their readers as the worlds in which our forebears lived. Fantasy is supposed to take us to another time and place: insomuch as there are fantastic and paranormal and grandiose themes and features in these worlds, the backdrops of the stories are seamless and read as smoothly as though they were real worlds that the writer has merely glimpsed. That’s the whole point of creating a fantasy world.

Yes, there is embellishment, and no, we’re not suggesting there have been great prophecies and magical rings, the destruction of which would decide the world’s fate. That magic exists in these periods isn’t the embellishment: the potency, availability and knowledge of it are what the writer takes and changes, making the concepts fit in the world they want to create. Often, plot points—pivotal or otherwise—are built around magic systems.

This brings us to the lovely, chewy concept of just that: magic systems. Now, there are two camps, each flying rather loud colours—the “magic systems are everything in fantasy”, and “who even gives a peppered fig about how magic is used” factions.

Having not pitched a tent with either side, instead, we’re going to look at the differences between the most interesting and fundamental magic systems in fantasy, as well as peppering our findings with a little historical resonance when relevant. Is any magic system truly original, or, does each system a writer “imagines” in fact have origins in our own world’s history?

Divine Magic

The Priestess by capprottiIf we go right back to basics with the concept of ancient magic, it’s present in such epics as Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, and any other selection of literature of the time. Divine magic: a god, goddess, or a mixed sex gaggle of godly entities decides something will happen, and this it happens.

Sometimes there’s a price (there’s always a price!), sometimes a trick, a bargain, or even a retraction of word from said deity. Upon occasions, the power exacted is limited, or time-specific, or even, bettered by a lowly mortal. Divine magic is a mainstay of really, really old, really dust-covered fantasy. Of course, it also features in newer fantasy, though usually freshened up, dusted off and sent out to play with a new set of clothes and a twist up its sleeve. After all, presenting “a god makes this happen” is as tantamount to cheating in fantasy, as the DM placing a high dragon in play in the tavern the players have stopped at for some IC banter and bellowing “roll for initiative!” It can happen, but it’s really, really not very clever. It also usually makes no sense.

Unexplained Magic

After divine magic, the easiest to address is what can be seen as the stage before: people who wield power simply because they have it. Usually there is no indication as to how they received their powers—were they born with it? Did they learn it?—or how indeed their brand of magic works, only that it does, and that it is fearsome. Of course, this is extremely old-school, and in this vein we’re talking about the magic in The Lord of the Rings and other old fashioned fantasies. The same sort of rules with magic exist pre-Tolkien (very, very “pre”!), in the Arthurian romances, and all other romantic fantasies of the period (of course, these touch on divine magic, too…).

Gandalf and the Balrog by gonzalokennyIn The Lord of the Rings, we don’t know how Sauron has enough power to become the Dark Lord, and we certainly don’t have much of an indication how the magic works. Words and general spellcasting obviously feature (the Elves speak words in Quenya and Sindarin throughout the Middle-Earth books, the effects of which are magical and perceivable), and yet magic must exist in some “pure” or “raw” form to be imbued into Frodo’s sword Sting, or into the One Ring (and the other Three, and Nine, for that matter).

In fact, there are so many different examples of magic in Middle-Earth, that it does raise the question of how the system works, after a while. The Eye of Sauron is obviously magical (an extension of the Dark Lord, yes, but crafted how?) as are the Seeing Stones, which are obviously imbued, and yet it’s more complex than merely a magical sword. Not that Sting is simple, and yet its mechanics can be theorised over: is there blood melded in the blade that reacts with the magic in the sword, alerting when enemies are nearby thanks to a reaction between the two being triggered?

It’s ridiculously pedantic, but it brings back to the suggestion that magic is just unrealised science. Perhaps some mineral power, the extraction of which the normal humans in Middle-Earth are incapable of, merely reacts with orc blood. That’s chemistry, isn’t it? (Which is what we used to call “alchemy”, right?)

The One Ring is trickier, but then again, most people cannot explain how and why a camera or television works, let alone the intricacies of quantum physics or circular time theory. Photography used to be a mystery: now scientists understand it. Medicine and “healing” raise the same sort of parallels.

Perhaps the One Ring only needed destroying in the fires of Mount Doom, because the poor Middle-Earthians weren’t quite advanced enough. Or, perhaps like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Elves knew what the Ring was, knew what was coming, and decided to make like the dolphins and say “so long, thanks for all the…” Well, you get the point.

Surprisingly, that the magic is really so transparent (or at least easily labelled as “magic”) in The Lord of the Rings perfectly demonstrates our magic equals science theory, especially with the suggestion of simply “advanced alchemy” in the magical swords, and even the moon-sensitive runes and spell-locked doors. The idea of voice-recognition in fantasy (especially in The Lord of the Rings) is absurd, but, scientific concepts usually sound absurd until the time in which they can be realised and developed rolls around.

Magic Will

Sorcerer's Apprentice DaveIf we move a little further and take a brief Eddings stop, the argument becomes stronger. Eddings’ “The Will and the Word” is clear: magic requires both a word (spellcasting, magic words, magically imbued language) and the will to make that word have an effect on the world. The idea of magical words is already familiar by this point in fantasy fiction, and whether or not the concept of “will” exists, it is at least given a name herein.

Immediately the film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice comes to mind. That scene in the car where Nicolas Cage tells Dave to make the particles in the car across the way “vibrate” using his ring. Let’s take the “word” and replace it with Dave’s ring. Despite having this extremely magical artefact, the magic cannot occur without Dave’s focus—without his Will. Even in very modern fantasy, the presentation of some magic systems has not changed, merely become slicker.

In the Dresden Files, a similar concept of magic being inextricably linked with physics is present (I am assured; I haven’t had the pleasure yet), and this notion is adopted in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Regardless of science, or magical words, Eddings’ own suggestion of Will seems to be a definite mainstay in the genre. Of course, that will is involved, implies that effort too should be a factor.

Magic’s Price

Black prism by MiguelCoimbraIndeed, in many stories there are instances of characters wearing themselves out, or even draining themselves entirely through their reckless or necessary uses of magic. Sometimes, a mage/sorcerer/whatever-you-will has a finite measure of will or magical energy, whilst other wielders of the craft merely need to recharge or rest between periods of exhaustion. A notable instance of the first is Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism, wherein “drafters” might “break the halo” when their magical energy becomes too strained, too old, or merely forces control from their hands. In these instances, the drafters (supposedly!) go mad, or worse.

Weeks’ notion of “drafting” is the newest example here, but it sits easily with the idea of magic and willpower being linked. However, his colour-based system is far from classic, and as such, he’ll get a closer examination when we look at alternative magic systems.

It’s impossible to address every aspect of magic in the genre in a single sitting—there is simply far too much we can address, and too many writers and systems to leave out if we aren’t encompassing in our analysis. Primarily, during the course of our examination of magic, we’ll be considering: “real magic”—magic in fantasy that mimics magic theory in our world, “ancient magic”—magic of the divine and fantastic nature, or magic that is simply very, very, very old, and “alternative magic”—systems that are either unusual or unique, or that simply present magic with a new spin.

Title image by byWest.



  1. Very useful post! I can’t wait to read the rest of your thougts on magic. I write a lot dealing with folklore/mythology, and so magic occasionally comes up (rather, quite often). I’ll be keeping an eye out for the rest of your series.

  2. […] If you missed part 1 in this series: introduction click here […]

  3. […] One: Introduction Part Two: Real Magic Part Three: Ancient […]

  4. In Lord of the Rings, Tolkein does explain that Sauron, like the wizards, were originally divine beings (along the lines of what we’d call “angels”.) Even the magic of the elves was taught to them by divine beings, which is told in the Silmarillion, or comes through their use of one of the three rings forged in tandem with Sauron when they didn’t realize he was evil. So really, the magic in Lord of the Rings could be included with “divine magic”.

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