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Magic In Fantasy – Part Two: Real Magic

This is the second in our Magic In Fantasy series. If you missed part one you can read it here.

First off, shall we—cynic, dreamer and scholar alike—agree, for at least the next thousand words or so, that: magic exists. We’re not talking about shooting mighty lightning bolts to and fro from the heavens in a violent sky, or animating the dead, or even fiddling with swords so that they might glow in warning when foes are near. Rather, we’re talking about real magic: the subtle magic(s), which, at various stages of our global histories, people have actively believed in, as fervently as people have believed in gods or goddesses, or medicine and technology.

The fantasy fiction we read is thick with this sort of magic: the sort of magic that, at one point or another in documented history, was thought to be entirely and wholly real. That’s the sort of magic we’re going to discuss.

In fact, it’s hardly surprising that it’s an easy, approachable magic to utilise in any given setting, since—on many levels—it’s a magic that we are (should we choose to educate ourselves thus) more intimately familiar than we might at first think.

Sorceresses Magic by LeoNealDivination

Gypsies with their crystal balls; mysterious “fortune-tellers” with Tarot cards; Celtic-blooded ladies grasping your hands as you meander the stalls of a funfair—it’s all magic we’re familiar with. Of course, this isn’t entirely the magic we’re addressing (divination falls outside of our “real magic” parameters, and merely fits due to its supposed subtly), but, it serves to trigger the right mindset: to get you all to thinking about “magic” that even small children might have heard of.

We’ll take it a step further.

Druidic Magic

Plump hedge-witches giving out poultices for warts and sores; a white-robed gentleman peddling willow bark for a headache or mild fever; a friendly pot of chamomile tea to calm a racing pulse and a lavender pillow-sack to aid slumber—Ulvenwald Mystics by Dan Scottthese were once considered “magical” practises. That they are “medicine” now does not alter their mysterious origins, before people understood the intricacies of plant- and herb-lore.

A lodestone does indeed attract iron (and thus is/was used as a talisman to attract money and wealth). Poppet dolls, used to represent another person or even an animal, were once proof of a person’s involvement in witchcraft, whilst jewellery depicting two parts of a single heart are split in two, and worn by (mainly) girls to create a strong and apparent link of friendship between them.

Science “Magic”

Homeopathic medicine works on the Law of Contagion (Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941), The Golden Book of Bough), whereby suggesting that a “link” between things that have been in direct contact remains after the contact is severed (we’ll not delve deeper into the processes involved in these alternative therapies or medicines, however: fascinating as the subject it is, it’s also a highly complex and theoretical one).

Scientists believe Quantum entanglement describes the relationship between two particles that, no matter what relationship they demonstrate, remain two entirely separate particles that react and interact with an inextricable link. Generally, much of this theory returns to that Arthur C. Clarke quote, doesn’t it? That magic is science we don’t understand/haven’t discovered/developed yet.

The alchemist by ChrisRaThe examples given are indicative of the most “real” magic that exists throughout history, and with the exception of druidic magic, or, medicine—even the scientific theory—are improvable one way or another. Despite this, much of the theory at least makes sense: in particular, the theory of sympathetic magic.

Consider Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and how logic and sound Abenthy’s explanation of Sympathy is—it makes a great deal of sense if we’re willing to accept that there are systems, patterns and processes that constantly occur outside of human perception. Think, too, about the other, entirely non-magical process of our modern lives that make some form of sense, but if their explanations are too closely examined, the single thread remaining as to why they work is “because”. The internet is the best example of this.

Cyber “Magic”

Supposedly, right this second, there are packets of data—what even is data, really?—being transferred, invisibly through whatever channels they traverse, only to be received and understood by a modem that converts the data into readable, perceptible text, or images or even sound. Odd, really, isn’t it? Even if the internet is explained to me in great, startling, excruciating detail, I will still not actually understand it.

MatrixConsider for a moment—let us put white lab coats atop our cloaks and become science fiction enthusiasts—that perhaps the internet has always been there, and that we merely, as our previously unenlightened selves, lacked the correct tools, knowledge or ability to tap into the “space” the internet represents. Cyberspace itself was once thought to be a fiction, after all.

What we’ve done by presenting this idea, is taken something entirely rudimentary to our modern, real, functioning world, and suggested that it just might have elements in common with “magic”: this allows even sceptics to take a breath and consider the rest of the magic we’re to discuss with—if not an open mind—one that is slightly ajar. It also allows us to cease attaching the disclaimer of “but of course, this isn’t proven and it might not really exist” to every other sentence hereafter.

With that on the table, let us consider a type of magic that so easily translates into fantasy fiction, entirely because of a) its believability, and b) its longevity—it’s been in existence for an indeterminable length of time.

Folk Magic

Whether you call it “folk magic”, “Pagan magic”, “witchcraft”, “Wicca”, or any other fancy, “new age” spiritualist term, the magic at the heart of these religions/practises/systems of belief, is exactly the same thing.

The Alchemical Divination of Soul Synthesis by Chris SedgwickWe’ll steer clear from labelling it “witchcraft”, because it’s too sullied a term throughout history, and we’ll disregard “Wicca”, too, since theorists tend to grumble about a “created religion”, despite the fact that it is essentially “Neo-Paganism”—just with a different name. We won’t, however, refrain from calling it “Pagan magic”, regardless of whatever religious connotations the word has. So, let us consider Folk Magic, and Pagan Magic.

Throughout the fantasy genre as a whole, whether books, television, anime and manga, or roleplaying, the concepts of Folk Magic feature more than people would think. In fact, often the barest concepts of the fantasy genre can be attributed to it.

The roleplaying system Mage: The Awakening uses a similar notion of “true names” that is integral to the tutelage of Naming at the University in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, whereby knowing a person’s (or a thing’s) True Name, can allow a certain amount—even entire control—can be demonstrated. Magic by KetkaIn the roleplay system, learning a player’s True Name allows spells to be more effective, and in the Kingkiller Chronicles, the True Names of such things as the wind, water and iron can be “learned” and subsequently used to the wielder’s advantage. Think back to the German fairytale Rumpelstiltskin, whereby learning his name, the girl frees herself from his power.

Ursula K. Le Guin uses the concept, too, in her Earthsea novels, as well as the notion that a magical language exists; an original, primordial language by which the creators of the world originally named things. Furthermore, Le Guin demonstrates the same notion exhibited by many authors—including J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—that “magic words” can be spoken to create a magical effect. This too, has origins in folklore.

Pagan Magic

Pagan Magic is a little more mystical in its effects, and can be more “visually” perceptible. The entire magic system in Gail Z. Martin’s The Chronicles of the Necromancer, and the resultant Fallen Kings Cycle is that of Pagan Magic. Regardless of the nationality of its origins, the magic used by the characters is of a Pagan nature, though it exhibits a wide range of concepts and ideas, from Shamanism and Necromancy, to divination through entrails (afterbirth included) and the use of smoke to invite prophetic visions.

Even more obscure, but still with roots deep in the wide range of popular and often, throughout history, fashionable divination methods, lies the illegal reading of shells (conchomancy) in Mark Charan Newton’s Legends of the Red Sun series, where shells are used to foretell the future.

Nights of Villjamur (banner)

Touching in Newton’s work invites us to consider the magic in his world more closely, and whilst it presents a wide array to examine, it also suggests itself as an “alternative” magic system, purely because of its many and varied branches: the notion of ancient lost-and-found-again “technology” at once adheres to the Third Law (Arthur C. Clarke’s term for his magic-is-science theory), whilst it steers surprisingly closely to the idea that we view such dated concepts as Naming, Sympathy, geomancy, and palmistry as magic, only because we have forgotten how to use them, just as the inhabitants of Newton’s world have lost and forgotten their ancient technologies. However, given the vast scope of Newton’s work, and the sheer variety he presents, we’ll further consider his work when we discuss “alternative” magic systems.

GAIA by aeterneOf course, everything here is conjecture, but, it is fun conjecture, isn’t it? To think: perhaps we only cannot wield magic because we have forgotten, across our history, how to do so! Furthermore, consider that if these supposed “dark arts” were once outlawed, that perhaps the reason behind this was their sheer potency.

When you consider the varied range of magic discussed here, and think how it might have evolved—in the case of druidic magic and medicine—or have been forgotten and buried by “advanced” thinking and knowledge, it’s quite an exciting thought that someone out there could be actively practising the types of magic we only dream about wielding.

In fact—I think we’re crossing over into the realms of fantasy fiction where police constables are wizards and the streets of London are policed more diligently than you think.

Title image by Dan Scott.



  1. Avatar R.T. Kaelin says:

    Great article here. A wonderful exposition on the topic.

    Wish I would have had this a few days ago before my seminar I did with Jean Rabe at Origins. We could have definitely used this as great reference material.

  2. Avatar J Pedno says:

    Awesome article. Writing my first novel, and now I have some new ideas.


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

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

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