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Magic In Fantasy – Part Three: Ancient Magic

This is the third article in our Magic In Fantasy series. If you missed part one or two you can read them here:

Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Real Magic

The Priestess by capprottiDivine magic—magic wielded by godly and divine beings—might not be a mainstay of fantasy fiction anymore, but it originates at the very roots of fantasy (legends, mythology and folk-tales). Whilst the inclusion of deities, whether a pantheon of figures, or a single figure at the head of a monotheistic religion, is still a rudimentary part of fantasy, the actions of these beings holds less and less sway over the actual stories. This is because, some critics say, the actions and power of deities removes any “conflict” from the story.

I’d like to disagree, but these are musings for another article (forthcoming). Addressed briefly, gods still exist in fantasy, because removing religion entirely from a fantasy world would remove a sizeable measure of the “realism”. Either way, the concept of active godly magic is rarer and rarer.

Since we’re discussing ancient magic, we should define our terms: for purposes here, we’ll use divine magic to refer to magic wielded by gods, deities or other divine figures, and elder magic to define magic that predates the time in which relevant/present characters or persons live. The magic of Zeus would thus be divine, and the magic of Tolkien’s Noldor, in the Silmarillion, would be elder.

Having established these, we can give brief reminder of the intricacies of divine magic, before exploring in a deeper sense the different notions of elder magic used in both classic and modern fantasy fiction.

Sisters of Stone Death: the Gorgons by Donato GiancolaMany readers of modern fantasy are at least familiar with the plethora of myths that permeate the ancient and classical civilizations of the world, and the magic that cursed Medusa and Cassandra, the magic that gave Hercules his power and the magic that gave Athens the olive tree: all instances of magic so old, so grand that on some level in our collective perceptions, it ceases to be magic at all, and becomes something else—an act of the divine. It is, however, still magic, still something that occurred without an explanation that can be rationalised.

This, of course, suggests that we should define magic hereafter, however, we’ll skim over this for a single reason: magic is indefinable, at least in terms of fantasy. Furthermore, a definition is supposed to be definitive, and it is a ridiculous notion to suggest that we can define what passes as magic, even in our world. Magic is constantly altering depending on the depths of our present understanding, and whilst certain aspects might at first seem magical, after scrutiny and examination, such things no longer appear so, whilst other acts of magic are entirely inexplicable, regardless of the scrutiny they are placed under. This is the case with divine magic. Whether in our world, any parallel world, or fantasy worlds, the actions of real, presumed, or imaginary gods will always fall outside of our boundaries of comprehension.

A Darkness Forged in Fire (cover)A shining example of this is Chris Evan’s Iron Elves series, wherein the Shadow Monarch—divine by the definition of her power and legacy—seeks to cover the world in her cancerous black frost trees. There is no reason that the populace can understand as to why she seeks to conquer in such a destructive manner—she merely does. Her power isn’t infinite, and she cannot wipe out the world with a blink, but her forest spreads and awakens creatures long dead. Her power is vast and her motives entirely unreadable. She fits the classic image of a terrible immortal queen or mythological goddess, wreaking havoc for reasons she alone can understand.

On the contrary, aspects of elder magic can go both ways: some will eventually be explained, whilst others remain magical. A brilliant example is the architecture and craftwork left behind by the Eldren (see the “elder” hiding in there?) in Scott Lynch’s The Gentlemen Bastard Sequence. The scope and design of the architecture in the city of Camorr is beyond what the current populace can recreate, or even understand. Perhaps it was crafted via magic—whether it was or not, it might as well have been for all the present day inhabitants of Camorr can understand it.

This example could be cheating, however, since we could suggest that—much like the pyramids and other real-world constructions that we don’t understand—the citizens of Camorr merely don’t possess the level of engineering technology. However, we still don’t really understand how Stonehenge, the pyramids, or even the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were made; therefore, we cannot claim that our ancestors, or the Eldren, did not use something at least akin to magic.


It’s not just in fantasy fiction that this sort of idea exists: in science fiction, the notion of travelling to a far-flung planet, light years away, perhaps even several jumps through space-time, maybe even at the other side of wormholes, lost civilisations are found and artefacts that unleash magic are uncovered from the debris of fallen worlds. Even though in science fiction the usual explanation for this would be to refer to Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, occasionally (think about mainstream science fiction films such as The Fifth Element, for example) the answer is left hanging, and magic is easily inferred. In addition, the notion of psionics (study or practise of psychic ability, e.g. telekinesis, telepathy) is a common tool that melds quite classically viewed magic with science fiction themes.

If we move entirely away from anything constructed (possibly!) by magic, or a suggested human advancement/genetic mutation and stick to things purely magical, it leaves less room for debate and discussion. Plus, what can be viewed as pure magic is much more fun and far more fascinating.

The Redemption of Althalus (cover)We already briefly examined divine magic; however, there must be places where the divine and elder magics meet—and indeed there is. Taking a single example, if we consider Dweia from Eddings’ The Redemption of Althalus, and the Book through which magic is used, we see a goddess in human form whose actions are part and parcel of the plot. Yet the conflict is not removed, and the solutions to the trials the cast overcome are not found by this deity merely clicking her fingers. It’s still difficult to say Dweia’s part in the standalone novel isn’t divine—she is a goddess—however, there are limits to what Dweia can do and the plot revolves around the use of the Book. The magic comes mainly from the Book. Its power is unexplained and very, very vast in scope: it can open the way to everywhere and everywhen, as well as a myriad of other acts that continue to build the story. This is classic divine-meets-elder magic.

But we can get even more classic: the magic of the Shadows in Jon Sprunk’s Shadow’s Son and forthcoming Shadow’s Lure; the ancient magic of the emperor and his incarnations in Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves; the power of the Fae in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles.

Shadow’s Son (cover)In Shadow’s Son, Caim can call upon the power of ancient shadows, shadows with links to the fae and their worlds, a power bestowed upon him through his lineage. This sort of notion is on par with the likes of Hercules—powerful only because of his parentage and his blood. It is a classic notion that Sprunk makes new. The power he wields is not to be confused with any blood-power a changeling might have. In Tad William’s The War of the Flowers, the protagonist discovers the truth about his lineage and finds he has links to the fae, though any power he holds differs immensely from that which Caim wields.

Another visit to the fae, and perhaps a more detailed one this time, comes in the shape of Rothfuss. Even just looking at the handful of examples given, the concept of the fae (faeries, faelings, no, we won’t call them “fairies”) is extremely popular, and also very old. Rothfuss uses his notion of the fae to essentially replace elves in his work. Usually, (and commonly, though perhaps this is now outdated?) elves take the part of the immortal, or at least long-lived magical race alongside which humans life, either in awe, or in ignorance.

The Wise Man's Fear (cover 2)In Rothfuss’ world the fae are important—many of the in-world myths include the fae—and yet they are not as present as other myth-like or alternative races can be in fantasy. Instead, Bastas son of Remmens, Prince of Twilight (nice title, huh?)—Bast, to Kvothe—is the only fae creature who really features in the story, save for Kvothe’s brief encounter with Felurian.

The way in which the fae-world is presented in fantasy—even if we just use Williams’ and Rothfuss’ musings as an example—usually follows at least a few rules, the most common of which, is the sheer age of the fae and their world, when compared with mortals/humans. The fae are wiser and older, in general. If we think about our world, how old are the stories of sprites, dryads, nymphs or even brownies? Very, very old. The magic of the fae is ancient magic in its own right—the very worlds of these fantasy races are permeated with elder magic, down to its very roots.

As with both divine and elder magic, there are always exceptions—there are exceptions to everything and anything in the world, let alone subjects without proper definition. However, in our final look at magic, when we consider “alternative magic” anything that might have slipped through the cracks, or has been touched on, but not fully realised, will be discussed then. In fact, you could say that the concluding article will be the most fun, purely because it will seek to show magic that not only breaks the expectations of magic, but also presents common traditions (magic words, wizard wands, etc) in different lights that make magic appear fresher and different.

This article was originally posted on July 8, 2011.
Title image by Donato Giancola.


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