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Magic (fantasy)

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Magic (fantasy)

Magic in fiction is the endowing of fictional characters or objects with magical powers.

Such magic often serves as a plot device, the source of magical artifacts and their quests. Magic has long been a component of fantasy fiction, where it has been a mainstay from the days of Homer and Apuleius, down through the tales of the Holy Grail, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and to more contemporary authors from J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis to Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, J.K. Rowling or Mercedes Lackey.

Plot function

Within a work of fantasy, magic can function to move the plot forward, providing both power for the hero of the story and power for those who oppose him/her. The use of magic is often transformative of the character, if not the world.[1]

In order to carry out this function, magic often carries a price, equal to its value.[2] (See Limits to magic)

Historical beliefs

Historically, many writers who have written about fictional magicians, and many readers of such works, have believed that such magic is possible – in William Shakespeare's time, witches like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth and wizards like Prospero in The Tempest (or Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play) were widely considered to be real – but modern writers and readers usually deal with magic as imaginary.[3]

Fictional magic

Fictional magic may be inspired by non-fictional beliefs and practices, but may also be an invention of the writer. Furthermore, even when the writer uses non-fictional beliefs and practices, the effect, strength, and rules of the magic will normally be what the writer requires for the plot. Fictional magic may or may not include a detailed system, but when the author does not bother to systematize the magic or create rules, it is more likely that magic will be used simply at the author's convenience, rather than as a believable plot element.

Moreover, it is by no means impossible for fictional magic to leap from the pages of fantasy to actual magical belief.

The Necronomicon was invented as fiction by H. P. Lovecraft; other authors such as August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith also cited it in their works, with Lovecraft's approval, as he believed such common allusions built up "a background of evil verisimilitude." Many readers have believed it to be a real work, with booksellers and librarians receiving many requests for it, pranksters listing it in rare book catalogs, and one smuggling a card for it into the Yale University Library.[4] There have been several attempts by modern authors to produce it as a grimoire, such as the Simon Necronomicon, which used Babylonian mythology and a series of sigils from medieval ceremonial magic used to control or ward off demons.

Types of magic

Magic as an innate talent

In most fantasy works, writers tend to depict magic as an innate talent, equivalent to perfect pitch,[5] and there is wide variation on how spontaneously a person (or other being) with such a talent can use it. Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series at one point depicts a toy that will gradually lose its enchantment and teach any talented child using it to perform the magic him or herself instead; it is used to test for the gift in children, in a process that takes months. Barbara Hambly depicts a character in her Darwath series attempting to practice magic on hearing how it is done, and succeeding. Harry Potter, like many young wizards in his universe, accidentally casts spells before he is taught to do it properly.[6] The unicorn in The Last Unicorn possesses her magical abilities without any effort on her part, as do magical girls in shōjo anime and manga. In the psychological thriller Daughter of Darkness, twelve-year-old Willie discovers that she can make things happen by performing rituals based on those documented in her collection of folklore and anthropology textbooks.[7] Those who use such spontaneously generated powers are usually not called magicians or similar terms, those being reserved usually for those who have to learn to wield magic.

In the Harry Potter books, when two magicians have a baby, the child usually has the same or more powerful magic potential as their parents, regardless of blood purity. Spontaneous magical abilities at birth to non-magical parents (known as Muggles in the Harry Potter universe) is also known to happen, creating Muggle-born witches and wizards such as Hermione Granger, Lily Evans and Ted Tonks. It is also possible for any wizarding couple to produce children that have no magical power at all (known as Squibs), such as Argus Filch and Arabella Figg, although this is a much rarer occurrence.

Magic acquired through studying

Such variation can sometimes occur within the same work. In Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles, wizards and magicians must study their magic, but a fire-witch can spontaneously generate phenomena without training. In Operation Chaos, a werewolf depends only on a light trigger to master his powers, but his wife, a witch, must study to acquire hers.

Talents that occur spontaneously frequently need training to work more than sporadically, or at major effects, or in a controlled manner — and sometimes all three. Harry Potter, first hearing that he is a wizard, remembers occasional odd things that appeared to 'just happen'; school is necessary to cause them to take place at his intention, and to produce more complicated effects. Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea novels, begun in 1964, and the 1960 children's novel The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes were among the first to include a now-common fantasy trope: a school where magic is taught.

Magic bestowed by another

Besides innate talent and study, a third source of magic is having it bestowed upon one by another. Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain depicts several classes of witches and mages whose powers are divinely granted. Sword and sorcery heroes may not only face sorcerers, but crazed cults where gods or demons give power to their followers. This concept gave rise to the cleric class in Dungeons & Dragons, and is now very common in RPGs.

Magic powers may also be gained through a pact with a devil or other spirits, as is common in folklore.[8] In some cases, the demon only provides the means for the would-be wizard to learn magic; conversely, the pact may be for the devil to do the magic on the wizard's behalf, but the wizard must have first studied magic in order to summon it, and in some versions, to compel it to act. The best-known modern example of this concept is probably the deal Mr. Norrell makes with the fairy known as the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair in Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, making it appear as if Norrell himself has raised someone from the dead, when in fact it was the Gentleman who did this at Norrell's request.

Magic via enchanted objects

In some settings, such as fairy tales, magic items either endow the main characters with magical powers or have magical powers themselves, and are often used as plot devices or MacGuffins to drive the plot of a story.[9]

Lesser magical objects which do not affect or determine the plot are also common, (more so in fantasy literature like the Harry Potter series), to lend characters such abilities as they need. Besides the One Ring, The Lord of the Rings contained magic swords that did not determine the plot. Other noteworthy magical objects include the invisibility cloak in Harry Potter, various items left over from 'The Age of Legends' in The Wheel of Time, such as the shocklance or Dreamspike, and an array of magical items from Arabian Nights, including a magic carpet.

Such items may be created by magicians or powerful beings; often they originate in the distant past, with no such items being possible at the present time in the story. Other fictional magical objects have no explained past, but again, the more clearly they can be described by the author, the more believable they will be to the reader. Wands and staves often feature, usually in wizards' hands.[10] The first magical wand appeared in the Odyssey, which was used by Circe to transform Odysseus's men into animals. Italian fairy tales put them into the hands of the powerful fairies by the late Middle Ages.[11] These were transmitted to modern fantasy. Gandalf refused to surrender his staff in The Lord of the Rings, and breaking Saruman's broke his power. One element of this is the need to limit a wizard, so that opposition to him (necessary for a story) is feasible; if the wizard loses his staff or wand (or other magic item on which he is dependent), he is often weakened if not magically helpless.[12] In the Harry Potter universe, most wizards can only perform weak and uncontrolled magic without a wand. Some very powerful and talented wizards, like Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort, can perform powerful, effective magic without the use of wands or incantations, but this is a rare skill.[13]

Magic divided into separate areas

In some settings, such as the Magic: The Gathering collectable card game and the Final Fantasy video game series, types of magic are divided either by color and/or element. As in actual folkloric and occult tradition, the white and black magic dichotomy may also exist. In Pamela C. Dean's The Secret Country trilogy, the schools of magic are called Blue, Red and Green, each focusing on a different element, and there is intense rivalry between them. Dean also refers in passing to a good wizard as a "white magician".

Magic via words, names, or language

Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea novels feature a magic driven by words. She uses the concept of an original, primordial language by which the creators of the world originally named things. People who learn these names are able to control the things named, an ability shared by both the wizards who study the language, and the dragons whose native tongue it is.[14]

Le Guin uses two concepts drawn from folklore, which are now relatively common in fantasy literature. One is the notion of true names whereby a person's true name is a powerful magical weapon against them; this seldom applies to objects, but in works from Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away to Andre Norton's Witch World, wizards and witches keep their names secret to keep from their being used against them. In Discworld, the Librarian hides his name to keep from being turned back to a man. This concept was also used in the episode "The Shakespeare Code" in the Doctor Who television series.[15] In The Inheritance Cycle, magicians must work to discover their own true names; and the language of magic itself has a true name, by which all magic and magic users can be controlled.

Another is the use of a special language to cast spells. Many works — such as the Harry Potter novels, in which the spells are cast in a Latinate jargon — use this without offering an explanation. Patricia Wrede, in The Magician's Ward, described it as a technique to prevent power from overflowing the spell; Poul Anderson, in Operation Chaos, explained it as a natural consequence of the laws of similarity governing magic, because a magician can not produce extraordinary effects from ordinary language. Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence and Diane Duane's Young Wizard series also use special languages for magic. In Christopher Paolini's books, the ancient language is used simply to define one's desire. It is possible, but more difficult, to use magic without the language. R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series describes magic as requiring the user to speak one language string aloud while simultaneously thinking a separate and different language string, allowing the simultaneously apprehended meanings of both strings to reinforce each other and precisely define the result. In the Elric of Melniboné novel, the title character had studied many infinitely ancient languages and procedures since childhood in order to do spells, as well as the complex thought processes behind them. Ordinary humans and even some Melnibonéans cannot learn this style of magic — even the basics would render one insane.

Magical places

Sometimes a place will have magic; perhaps a certain location is "close to the spirit realm" or there are residues from powerful spells once cast there, or a place is magical by nature, as in the case of an enchanted forest. Ancient battlefields may be haunted. When the battles were fought by magic, on civilizations erected by magic, the location can be dangerous indeed; in Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master trilogy, the ruins left behind by the powerful Earthmasters contain dangers. In The Crystal Cave trilogy, some places are described as being frequented by gods, but at least one "enchanted" forest is simply the home of an ancient indigenous people who conceal themselves and repel invaders by what look like natural occurrences such as falling rocks. In Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series, the country of Ireland is of great magical significance, being one of the most magical pieces of land in the world.

Such places are often the homes of powerful beings. The woods in A Midsummer Night's Dream is haunted by fairies, including Oberon and Titania, their king and queen. In the Earthsea novels, the wizards hold their school on Roke Island; two places on the island, Roke Knoll and Immanent Grove, are particularly conducive to extremely powerful magic. Lórien in Middle-earth was also a magical location, but its magic stemmed from the powers of those who lived there. This is true of other apparently magical locations in many fantasies, and in many more, it may not be clear whether a place is magic because of its inhabitants, or its inhabitants have chosen to live there because it was magic. Within one work, as in Andre Norton's Witch World series, there may be all three types of apparently magical places.

One such magical place is Faerie or Elfland. Its location may not be fixed — in some cases it acts as a parallel world — but magic is both found and occurs there. Though it stems from folklore, it is found in such works of fantasy as Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist, or Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter.

Limits to magic

In any given fantasy magical system, a person must have limits to his magical abilities, or the story has no conflict: the magic can overwhelm the other side.[5] If the character is a deity or similar, limits may be entirely self-imposed, like Simkin from the Darksword series.

One of the most common techniques used by writers is that the character has a limited amount of magical ability inside of them. In The Magic Goes Away, Larry Niven made it a factor of environment: once the mana is exhausted in an area, no one can use magic, and innately magical beings, such as centaurs, die or lose their magical aspects, such as werewolves, which revert to being entirely wolves.[16] A more common use is that a person can only cast so many spells, use an ability so many times in a day, or use a measured amount of magic. This is the most common use in role-playing games, where the rules rigorously define them.[17] Similarly, in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series, the One Power is limitless but each individual user can only channel a limited amount of it at any one time.

An alternative form of magical limitation provides theoretically unlimited power, but restricts what a user can do to what that user is capable of imagining, comprehending and understanding. In this scenario, magical ability may often be increased through scientific study of the world in order to better understand its working, something observed in The Belgariad by David Eddings.

In Glen Cook's Black Company series, magic is a limitless power where the wizards are limited in their ability to use magic for fear of being used by a more powerful spell-caster. The most powerful of spell-casters can turn entire cliffs in magma and make storms that rain so hard men can't stand up and therefore the spell-casters purposely limit themselves.

In Earthsea, magic is limited by a balance factor which requires the user to take into account the consequences and effects of what he does; a student of the arts soon finds out that the proper way to use magic is to do only what he must do. In The Wheel of Time, heroes in theory gain access to an almost unlimited power source but in practice can only use a certain amount of it safely, the exact amount being different for each individual. Possessing certain items can increase the amount significantly.

Powers can also be restricted to a certain kind of ability. This is more common for innately magical beings than for those who have learned it. The person can be rendered defenseless by a situation to which his powers do not apply. For instance, if one is inside or underground the power to manipulate the weather is relatively useless.

Magic can also require various sacrifices. Blood or life can be required, and even if the magician has no scruples, obtaining the material may be difficult.[18] Harmless substances can also limit the magician if they are rare, such as gemstones. This sacrifice can either fuel a specific spell, or be used to acquire a 'pool' of magical energy that can then be expended to fuel spells, as in A. K. Moonfire's The Aubrey Stalking Portal. Once this pool has been drained, the magician is magically helpless until he has made a further sacrifice.

The need for learning may also limit what spells a wizard knows, and can cast. When magic is learned from rare and exotic books, the wizard's ability can be limited, temporarily, by his access to these books. In Earthsea, the changing of names weakens wizards as they travel; they must learn the true names of things in their new location to be powerful again.[12]

The magic required to perform a spell may also be taken from the spell-caster, such as in Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle. Depending on how strong or advanced the spell is compared to the caster, the spell can cause weakness, fainting, or even death.

Magic may also be limited not so much inherently as by its danger. If a powerful spell can cause equally grave harm if miscast, wizards are likely to be wary of using it.[19] One example of this is Jack Vance's The Dying Earth novels, in which even one little slip of the tongue in reciting one the vocal elements (called "pervulsions" in the novels) of the incantations of the spells could dramatically change the effect from the desired outcome. In the case of Cugel the Clever, he finds himself seized in the claws of a demon, and carried thousands of miles across an impassable sea to a place where he tried to escape from earlier in the story.

Many characters that work with magic are limited to using wands or staffs. Harry Potter is, as well as the wizards in Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.

Magic in other genres

In science fiction, Psychokinesis is used instead of magic to endow characters with paranormal abilities.[20]

Magic has been portrayed in numerous video games, in which magic is a characteristic available to players in certain circumstances.

Sorcerers and sorcery are a staple of Chinese wuxia fiction and are featured in many martial arts movies.

In the Fullmetal Alchemist franchise, magic is replaced with alchemy. In order to function, alchemy requires a payment of equal value known as the "Law of Equivalent Exchange". The Philosopher's Stone is believed to allow an alchemist the power to bypass this law and is comparable to magical items prevalent in other works of fantasy fiction.

See also


External links

  • John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy
  • Philip Martin, ed., The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
  • Watt-Evans' Laws of Fantasy", Starlog
  • Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions
  • Anders, C.J. (2011) "The Rules of Magic, According to the Greatest Fantasy Sagas of All Time" (includes 7x51 chart)
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