What is Magic?

I recently posted about the intersection between magic and technology, riffing off of the well-known Arthur C. Clarke quote, and then applying my thinking to various kinds of speculative fiction. But this of course begs questions – what is technology, is one question, but I think that we have a good sense of this, living in a technological society. What is magic, though?

I’m not going to get anywhere a definitive answer. Magic always has an imaginative definition because, as far as I understand the world we all share, magic is imaginary. Or, at best, metaphorical perhaps. We create the meaning of magic, through art and culture – we also create the meaning of technology, of course, but through distinct means because our activity in the world and understanding of it is mediated through technology. (It’s something to think about and explore, though – to imagine how the world would appear if our activity in it and understanding of it was entirely mediated through magic. But that’s another question for another time)

First I’ll talk about what I think magic is, and then I’ll talk a bit about what I think magic should be in order to be compelling and meaningful.

Magic is Minority Religion

This is always my starting point with  magic, because it is where magic comes from in our own world. If you think about it – druidism, kabbalah, hermetic magic traditions, secret societies and so on, where we get our magical traditions in our world, are all just minority religion. Imagine the pre-industrial world: a priest chants a prayer to a god, expecting a supernatural outcome, and that’s religion. A wizard chants a spell to the spirits of the world, or in the Old Tongue, etc., expecting a supernatural outcome, and that’s magic. Sorcerers and djinns in Islamic stories are similarly holdovers from the pre-Muslim belief systems and animism that existed in the regions that Islam conquered. “Medicine men” and “witch doctors” are just practitioners of religious that existed before the currently dominant ones came to power.

Magic is Intrinsic (Arises from Character, Situation, Place)

Technology differs from magic in that technology is always instrumental. Anyone can pick up a smartphone and, theoretically, use it to do the same things. Not so with magic. Magic arises from a person’s identity, or from a particular situation, or from a specific place, in a way that technology does not. In the classic example, a person often must be born with the ability to use magic – like Harry Potter compared to a Muggle. Often this is literally genetic, with magically gifted bloodlines, or is because of someone having elves in their ancestry, or dragons, or demons. A person might be changed by contact with magic, or by a trip to the Perilous Realm, and when they return, they are attuned in a new way to the supernatural.

Magic might also arise from a particular situation, or confluence of events – the Night of the Eye on Krynn, or Tarmon Gai’don in the Wheel of Time, or an astrologically auspicious day in Chinese legend. This could be as simple as when the shards of the magical sword are reforged, or as complex as the interweaving of deceptive prophecies in the Mistborn trilogy.

Magic can be intrinsic to a place. The One Ring can only be unmade in Mount Doom where it was forged. The True King can only come from Avalon when the time is right. Sun Wu Ying is born on the top of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit and nowhere else. This place might be a place in the world, or a place that is in itself magical, like the classic Faerie, or Shangri-La, or Atlantis.

Magic Arises from Story

Magic is always an element from a story. One does not need a story to understand the functioning of an internal combustion engine, but one does need a story to understand the functioning of magic. This is true whether it is the magic intrinsic to a person, a situation, or a place. In some situations, like the Neverending Story, it is the story itself that is magical. Otherwise, the magic will only function in, and make sense as part of, a story. Even in the coloquial meaning of “magical”, referring to something that was especially interesting or unexpected or moving in our lives, we will have to tell a story to make sense of it to ourselves and to others. And sometimes, “you just had to be there.”

Magic is Numinous

In this case I am using numinous in its philosophic sense – the sense of an encounter with Other, sometimes seen as a divine or supernatural or otherworldly presence or truth. As much as magic can be intrinsic to character, story, situation and place, magic is also an intrusion into the everyday world. To be in the presence of magic is to be in the presence of Other, of something that is outside of our normal experience. Magic an have its own rules, different from the rules of everyday life. There is a sense of joy, or wonder, or fear, or even alienation in the experience of magic. This is why in our descriptions of events, we might describe an experience as “magical” because it stands out from the rest of our lives.

So, then, what is thoroughly imagined magic, that makes for compelling stories and games?

Magic Should Have a Cost

Hopefully this is something more than the “cost” of studying and learning magic, which almost always happens off-screen (though Rothfuss does a fantastic job of showing us the cost of learning magic as a real thing by I think, as does LeGuin in a very different way). In your classic fantasy game setting, you create a wizard character who already has spells, and who will continue to advance and learn more magic, and it would make a boring game if every time she learned another spell she had to go to school for a semester. The study that made her a wizard in the first place happened before your story begins. This means that it isn’t really a cost at all.

And this is something more than the mere opportunity cost of having to use one kind of magic rather than another – cast this spell now instead of that one, etc. Because every action has that same cost. I’m saying that magic should cost something as magic, per se. Whether this is sacrifice, or a limited supply of cosmic energy, or the need to grow in wisdom before you can control it, magic should have a cost beyond opportunity cost, and this cost should be exacted as part of the story.

Magic Should Have Rules

“Because it’s magic” is not a sufficient explanation for anything. It might be a stop-gap, like saying “the spaceship moves at the speed of plot”, but it’s hardly satisfying, and basically closes the door on ways to leverage magic in a story or game. When magic has rules, those rules can be enforced in interesting ways (as it is for Harry Dresden), or they can be hacked and manipulated to achieve surprising things (in every Brandon Sanderson story), or they can be used to raise the stakes and further the story (as with Earthsea).

The need for magic to have rules is basic if this magic is part of a game, but is also important for stories. If there are no rules to magic, you can’t create expectations and then break them, or set up foreshadowing, or provide a meaningful surprise. Magic without rules is just the arbitrary whim of the creator or storyteller, and quickly reduces to boring, or a succession of Deus Ex Magica.

Magic Should Serve the Story

As I said above, magic comes from story, and to that end, magic should serve story. Magic should be driven by what is ironic, or dramatic, or moral and immoral. Magic should have an emotional impact on the creator and audience, like any good artwork. As Brandon Sanderson advised on his podcast Writing Excuses (and doubtless others have elsewhere), magic should be both surprising and inevitable. It should elicit responses of “I can’t believe it!” and “Of course!” simultaneously, just like any good twist in any good story.

This is of course hard to do, but what worthwhile magic is ever easy?

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