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Snake-Sticks and Cheap Tricks: Magic versus Miracle

Brian Staveley

Brian Staveley

I think one could be forgiven for confusing magic and miracle. If presented with a list of remarkable achievements – walking on water, splitting the moon in half, turning sticks into snakes, pulling rabbits from hats – it’s pretty tough to know whether you’re dealing with one or the other. Jesus is said to have walked on water, but then, so did David Blaine and Criss Angel.

Regardless of the potential for confusion, the Bible comes down pretty hard on people who can’t tell the difference between divine intervention and human showmanship. Deuteronomy, for instance: “Anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, […] whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.” Not a whole lot of wiggle room there.

It’s interesting to note, however, that the Bible doesn’t claim an inability on the part of sorcerers, charmers, and their ilk to perform some amazing feats. In the seventh chapter of Exodus, to take a famous example, the magicians of Egypt, not wanting to be upstaged when Aaron, with the Lord’s help, turns his staff into a snake, likewise transmogrify their own sticks into serpents. Their serpents are lame – Aaron’s snake is backed by the power of the Lord, and immediately gobbles up the rest – but it’s still a fairly solid bit of sorcery from the Egyptians. If I saw the Pharaoh’s conjurers in Vegas, I’d leave satisfied.

Nonetheless, for thousands of years men and women have drawn a line between magic and miracle, and in the wrong time and the wrong place, standing on the wrong side of that line is enough to get you burned, drowned, or crushed to death with large stones. Criss Angel and David Blaine are lucky – if they tried their acts in seventeenth century Salem, they’d be torn apart.

The Dungeons and Dragons Red Boxfantasy world, too, has long acknowledged this distinction. The first Dungeons & Dragons set included only three character classes: cleric, fighter, and magic user. While the fighter goes to town laying on the hurt with a couple of war axes, the cleric and the magic user are expected to get to work using less conventional skills. Both have supernatural abilities, but where the cleric relies on access to the divine for her power, a magic user needs no connection to a god to start flinging about Blazing Spears and Prismatic Bolts.

The distinction between clerics and wizards, miracles and magic, is an important one for writers of fantasy. It’s all well and good to have men and women running around turning newts into dragons, dragons into green tea, and green tea into goblin hordes, but if there’s no clarity, at least in the author’s mind, about the source of the powers wielded, we’re headed for trouble. I’ve written about magic systems and the rules governing them (as has just about everyone else with a passing interest in the genre), but this divide between miracle and magic is even more fundamental. Either magic is a gift from the divine or it’s an objective feature of the world, and the two cases will lead to very different characters and stories.

Some examples might help to bring the issue into focus. Mellisandre, from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, is a priestess of R’hllor. She has remarkable powers, but it’s clear that those powers are utterly dependent on her relationship with her god. His favor provides her with her visions, her protection, everything. Moreover, it’s clear that this god, like the god of the Hebrew scriptures, can withdraw his favor. By contrast we might consider the Aes Sedai from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. The source of their arcane abilities is the One Power, and though that power clearly derives from the Creator (to quote Bertrand Russell paraphrasing Aquinas, “There must be an ultimate source of all necessity”), the Creator is not conspicuously involved when it comes to the wielding of magic. There’s no prayer from the characters, no sense that angering their god might result in a loss of magical ability. The One Power is a feature of the world, like coffee or bathroom mold.

Lava Magess by Todd LockwoodWhy does it matter? Well, for a few reasons. First, miracles are, almost by definition, unpredictable and inconsistent. No one runs around yelling, “Holy shit, it’s a miracle,” about something they’ve seen sixty or seventy times before. Magic, on the other hand, though often dangerous and capricious, generally has a clearer organizing principle, or at least the shadow of one. A god can suddenly appear in the midst of a battle – as Aphrodite does in the Iliad when she rescues Paris from Menelaus – for no other reason than the god’s whim.

Imagine the same scene if it relied on magic rather than miracle: two sweaty dudes decked in out in their bronze slugging it out while their armies look on. Suddenly, with no warning or explanation, one of them disappears. Homer’s move – the miracle – is satisfying because the caprice of the goddess is precisely the point – Aphrodite has all the maturity of a drunk teenager. Frame the same scene up as magical, however, and the whole thing looks hokey and contrived. “How’d Paris pull that stunt?” we’d mutter, “and if he’s soooooooo great at teleportation, why doesn’t he just pop on over to Achilles’ tent and stab him in the eye?”

Euphrates Disaster by Thitipon DicruenClosely tied to this first point is a second observation: miracles suggest divine interest and involvement in mortal affairs. God/s don’t dole out miracles arbitrarily, tossing them down from the empyrean like beer-sodden spring-breakers chucking empties out the truck window. Gods and goddesses, if they’re bothering to bend the laws of nature, care. They parse their favors, rewarding the faithful, punishing the fickle. There’s a real barb in this observation, because as soon as the author acknowledges that the world’s divinities are invested in the petty affairs of humans, it is suddenly incumbent on the book to explain, or at least interrogate, the behavior of those gods. The behavior has to make some sort of sense.

Homer brilliantly constrains his own gods through a web of Olympian checks and balances. Athena and Zeus, Hera and Aphrodite can interfere, but only to a degree and never without consequence for themselves. Zeus would like to rescue his son, Sarpedon, but doing so would wreck such havoc with the other gods that he allows my favorite character from the Iliad to die. Homer’s balance seems to work, at least to me. Not all fantasy novels are so convincing. If a goddess is sufficiently involved to start doling out miracles, we need to be convinced that there’s some rhyme or reason to the dispensation.

Wizard by MastroianniWhich brings us to point number three: miracles are, generally speaking, allotted based on the contents and quality of the soul. Sometimes that quality has to do with a certain moral purity, sometimes it’s simply an alignment between the human in question and the divinity handing out the favors. In either case, you usually can’t get a miracle just by working harder or studying more.

Magic, on the other hand, tends to reward perseverance, even intelligence. Not, of course, that all smart, hard-working folk have access to magic. There’s usually an arbitrary element in the initial distribution of talent, but past that point, diligent application is often rewarded. In many novels you become a better magician in much the same way that you might become a better chef or a better dental hygienist – through hard work and attention to detail.

Put those three elements together, and you’re looking at two very different types of story. If miracle predominates, you probably have characters vying for the favor of a deity (or deities) who are heavily invested in the phenomenal world. Crucial events can and will turn on the favor of the gods, and that favor will not always make sense. On the other hand, in a primarily magical world we need not have any gods at all. Women and men are responsible for their own destinies, the rules are at least partly clear, and the magic wielders most skillful in manipulating those rules will most likely emerge victorious.

Of course, there’s no reason you can’t mix the two. That is, of course, what Gary Gygax did in that first iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. The wonderful thing about the mingling of magic and miracle is that no one character or type of character has a monopoly on the supernatural. Mix the two up, and things get messy, and messy, as any two-year-old can tell you, is a good thing.

Title image by algenpfleger.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Chelle says:

    What about magic (or miracles) explained by science in a fantasy setting? Like say, if you have a deity, demigod, magician, or whatever, who understands (maybe subconsciously?) how things are put together (and held together) on a molecular or even quantum level, and has figured out (or been taught) how to rearrange them and turn a stick into a snake, would that even work? The character would have to learn on the fly because even two sticks that are identical might have a different molecular makeup that would have to be dissected and rearranged. I’m just thinking out loud here, but a character could conceivably rearrange all the molecules in the air to concentrate oxygen around their target, and ignite it making a scientifically believable fireball. Right? I think modern science has enough weirdness to be warped into potential magic or miracles in a fantasy setting (quantum entanglement, wormholes, radiation, chemical reactions). I suppose it would take a pretty good working knowledge of the sciences, and a pretty wicked imagination to pull it off. Any feedback on this concept?

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