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Between Two Extremes: Magic in Modern Fantasy

Magic, by its very definition, is unexplainable – or is it?

Today, that’s changed: and the magic of mystery – the Eye of Sauron, the R’hllor of Martin’s ASOIAF – is no longer the only player in the game. There’s a new extreme in magic systems, and it’s for magic with rules. So, has fantasy’s magic changed? Why? And who, exactly, writes which type? Though please don’t type those ones into Google, as I’m about to try and answer them. (You’d completely ruin… the suspense)

Has Magic Changed?

There’s a clear answer to this one: yes. It’s commonly accepted that the series which started modern fantasy as we know it was, of course, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Its predecessors, though limited in number, mainly kept to the mysterious magic of mythology. Yes, Gods did magic – they were, after all, divine. Witches and sorcerers did magic – but really, who cared how they did it? It just happened. Lord of the Rings is similar: the Palantir, the Rings, Gandalf’s abilities – they’re used when needed, but not bound by rules, and under no circumstances are they understood! Tolkien, after all, drew from folklore, mythology, and epics (such as Beowulf).

Though his immediate followers used the same moulds, times did change –we had, if not fully rule based magic, magic of limitations. Though certainly not an early example, I’ll use Robin Hobb’s Skill as an example of this. It has a degree of explanation for its existence and function (though many go unexplained), but the core knowledge of it is in its apparent limitations. It’s magic that can’t do everything, or even very much – and as a result, it’s far more plot-centric for Fitz, who can use it. Compare that to Gandalf, who we could never get as a viewpoint character.

Today, we have authors writing magic systems which are fully rule-based, and even partly ‘scientific’. And yes, there is a distinction: and to me, it’s one of discovery. A rule based system is one in which we know the magic adheres to certain rules: it has limitations, costs, things it can and can’t do. A scientific system is one which the plot treats in at least a pseudo-scientific way – it’s partly discovered though theory and test, rather than simply known. An example of this sort of extremely plot-centric system is that of Mistborn, in which almost every protagonist is an Allomancer, and the quirks and subsequent discoveries of the system fuel a lot of the plot.

Why?

The main reason for this change – well, I’m going to go back to Sanderson for this one. As Sanderson’s First Law states:

“Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”

If magic has no rules, using it to resolve your plot is, well, just deus ex machina. Yes, bits which we already understand can tie in (just look at Lord of the Rings), but there’s no resolution either hinging on the magic or happening because of it in Tolkien. Except, of course, on the Ring – which we do garner a few rules for – and the ‘no man of woman born’-type prophecy. Contrast that with authors using more rule-based systems. Kate Griffin, for instance, writes an urban fantasy drawing on the simple rule that ‘life causes magic’ so simple everyday rituals and beliefs acquire mystical significance. For instance, think how much life is poured into the telephony system – well, in Griffin’s world, this created the ‘blue electric angels’, spirits of the telecommunications network. But because we understand what our protagonist, Swift, can do, and what gives rise to the rituals he uses, there’s a unique combination of atmosphere and resolution. Magical resolution is possible – we understand the system. Atmosphere, the opposite – because the rules are looser, we’re constantly surprised by what becomes magical in Griffin’s alternate London.

Furthermore, I’ve never seen a truly high-magic fantasy using ‘mysterious’-type magic systems. But that’s not to say that the mystery has disappeared. Our other extreme is still around as well.

Take Martin, who’s explicitly stated that his fantasy is going to stay low-magic. Magic – well, it’s mysterious. It has a high price (there’s a lot of ‘blood and fire’ bandied around…), seems to be linked to dragons and to the far north, and it’s… Very rarely used. And because of that, it’s far more atmospheric. When Daenerys enters the House of the Undying… Well. Familiarity prevents fear – but it also lifts some of the wonder as well.

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10 Comments

  1. akapaoloverdi says:

    An interesting article. Thinking about it made me wonder how much the popularity of RPGs, and D&D in particular, have influenced the need for authors to expand upon the mechanics of spellcasting. Just a thought!

    • I’d say this is the reason “why” rules based magic has become more popular. The rise of the RPG (D&D, Warhammer etc. etc.) and the explosion of Video Games has really paved the way to thinking of magic as ‘systematic’.

      Also there is the increase popularity that “science is king” so a theory is only correct and right if we can explain it through a hypothesis or working model of rules. Though it’s important to remember that science is a relative truth and not an absolute.

      Sanderson’s First and Second laws are brilliant at providing the core concept/rule of how magic should be used in a narrative. He’s summed it up so well.

      However, Sanderson developed these laws in response to the popularity of rules based magic and because many authors were arguing over “the right way” i.e. rules based magic or non rules based.

      At the end of the day both are valid and interesting so it comes down to a personal preference in the writer (and reader) and then being consistent in sticking to ‘the truth’ you set out in your world.

      Nate

  2. Hadn’t considered that, actually – good point! Though I do think the role of it in the narrative is probably the larger influence. Still, D&D has to have been an influence, and I guess a number of authors became used to the idea that magic could be ‘systematic’ though it…

    D&D magic still isn’t as much a system in the sense that we might consider some modern fantasy magic, though: individual abilities are limited, but the system itself seems to contain, well, almost anything!

  3. Great article. There is nothing I hate more than a plotline solved by a magic system that the reader didnt realize could be possible until that moment. There is a difference, however, when that plotline is solved by a magical solution that works within the rules but wasn’t seen coming. Now, that is a great payoff.

    • I completely agree – when you could have expected the resolution, but DIDN’T, you know the author has planned it well. When you look at the resolution and realise: this was impossible to predict even slightly, you know the author hasn’t.

  4. afa says:

    Nice article, and I agree completely.

    I have often argued in favor of ‘rules’ in magic, as well. In fact, it is one of the reasons why I’ve enjoyed Sanderson’s novels. He does an excellent job of explaining his magic, and essentially makes it somewhat akin to ‘logical’ (if such a term can be used to describe magic). And because we are distinctly aware of what said magic can or cannot do, the author cannot simply use it as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

    And then there are authors like Martin, Abercrombie, Lynch, et al., who avoid the problem of limitless magic by simply choosing not to make it an integral part of their plots. Both approaches are acceptable, of course, but I do find myself drawn increasingly away from series with a high level of unexplained magic.

    • Yes, I feel the same way – having low-level but mysterious magic, or high ‘explained’ magic. Of course, there are middle ways – having set magical abilities’ for which we know the limits, but not knowing the rules of the overall system, for example. I love Sanderson’s books for their logical systems as well, in addition to the originality.

      I’m hoping to find some other authors doing similar things soon – there aren’t many truly-rule based, high magic fantasies like Sanderson’s as yet! (But, my, how I wish there were…)

  5. Joanna says:

    Nice to read your article. I think you could write a whole book about this topic. And then I would certainly expect a reference to Piers Anthony’s books about Xanth.
    I think these are great fantasy books with a definite set of rules about magic.

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