July 23, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about systems of magic in the various fantasy genres. I find it intriguing how different writers approach magic and how that impacts the stories they tell.
What I find most interesting is that magic is almost universally treated as an inherent ability. The characters who do magic in any story must be born with the ability, making them “special” humans or part of a specific race that has magic as part of their racial heritage. Magic is almost never something anyone can do so long as they have the desire to learn.
While it might be interesting to debate why this is and what that says about us as a literary culture, let’s skip that for now and meander over to another topic: What makes an intriguing magical system in fantasy fiction?
Definitions and Limitations of Magic
I firmly believe that the definitions and limitations of magic in any novel or series is the key to capturing the reader and holding on to their interest. If the reader is not given a firm understanding as to what magic can and can’t do, or more specifically what a character can and can’t do, there is a very distinct possibility that they will end up feeling cheated or tricked at some point in the story and you will lose them.
Let’s take Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for example. For a fantasy trilogy, magic plays a remarkably small role in the books. Sure, you have the One Ring- a magical artifact of immense power, swords imbued with elven magic that can detect the presence of orcs, and even wizards engaging of battles of will. The only character of the fellowship that can do magic is Gandalf and even though he seems to be powerful, he hardly ever uses his skills. This means that the reader never knows the extent of his capabilities. Is it any wonder then, that so many fans felt immensely cheated when the eagles swoop in to rescue Sam and Frodo from the imploding Mount Doom after they destroyed the Ring?
“What the hell?!? Do you mean to tell me you made Sam and Frodo wander all over hell and creation facing countless dangers and imminent death for years, when the Eagles could have just flown the poor bastards over Mount Doom and let Frodo drop the ring into the lava from the get go? Dude, that is soooo not cool. You tricked me. Gandalf tricked me. I hate both of you right now.”
To be fair, it wouldn’t have been much of a story if they had just used the eagles to start with. Those of us who really want to give Tolkien the benefit of a doubt have offered up a number of explanations for why it still makes sense. Possibly my favorite is that Gandalf and his wizard kin are angels and they are allowed to guide and advise other characters, thus manipulating world events to their ends but that there is a limit to how much they can interfere. A much simpler explanation would be that Sauron’s magic prevented the eagles from flying to Mount Doom until after both he and the ring were destroyed.
The LotR Effect
The trick here is that Tolkien doesn’t explicitly offer either of these explanations nor any other. There’s part of me that is content to draw my own conclusions about the why and to assume that Tolkien had good reasons for why it was possible at the end of the story but not at the beginning. Unfortunately, there’s an equal part of me that thinks it’s the Marianas Trench of plot holes and that it’s entirely possible Tolkien either knew he was cheating and didn’t care or, worse, never noticed it.
Since we, as readers, don’t know, we’re left to draw our own conclusions. Since the definition and limitations of magic are never described, we can only guess.
As writers, I think we should use Tolkien as a cautionary tale and think long and hard about outlining the definitions and limitations of magic in our fantasy series.
In modern fantasy, the most common way of doing this is creating beings gifted with very specific skills. A character might be able to summon demons to do their bidding or banish them and that’s it. A character might be able to make themselves invisible or blend in with shadows. A character might be able to set things on fire, bend water to their will, teleport themselves small distances, read minds, change into animals, call animals to their bidding, levitate objects, and, well, you get the idea. But whatever their ability, that’s the one they get and that’s all they get. It’s as inherent and intrinsic to their being as drinking blood is to a vampire or getting fanged and furry is to a werewolf under the full moon. It has easily definable limits that the reader can pick up on immediately.
Also note the obvious similarities to mutants in X-Men where none of those abilities are defined as magic.
Not that I would discount any fantasy series using this sort of magical system, however I have found myself much more intrigued by fantasy series where authors have created complex systems of magic that are less arcane and esoteric and where the writer gradually explains the details and inner workings of their version of magic making it almost a scholarly or scientific pursuit.
Over the next few days I’ll be posting articles on my favorite systems of literary magic; how they work, why they’re awesome, what they do for the reader, and what we can learn from them as writers. So stay tuned!