The Last Jedi: Themes Critique

***Yar! Here Be Spoilers!***

 

 

It’s too bad that JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson got into an argument about what Star Wars is about, because it makes for a somewhat jarring viewing experience. At least, it did for me, and I get the impression it did for a significant number of other fans as well. JJ did his stupid “mystery box” thing, and then Rian Johnson came and said “Fuck you and your mystery boxes,” basically. There are at least a half dozen huge questions that The Force Awakens asks, some explicitly but all quite clearly, which Rian Johnson just has no interest in answering. He had another agenda entirely, which was fine, but I wish they had worked more closely with one another.

The Last Jedi was in many ways a repudiation of what came before it: Episode 8 versus Episodes 1-7. It is an iconoclastic film in the Star Wars legendarium, and it only had two and a half hours during which to smash expectations and tropes. As a result, I think there were a number of themes touched upon that I would have liked to have seen explored more fully.

Unmasking

Early in the film, we have Kylo smashing his faux-Vader mask in another fit of rage. We get to see a bit of Gwendolyn Christie’s blue eye through the smashed chrome helmet at the end of her fight with Fin. We have a bit of unmasking on Casino Planet (Canto Bight), when Fin realizes the ugly nature of the beautiful place he sees. Supreme Leader Snoke himself could have been unmasked. This theme of unmasking could have been explored more deeply, and could have provided a bit of connective thread in a movie that was very busy severing connective threads with not only The Force Awakens but also every previous Star Wars film. If someone sets out to tell a story that defies strongly-established tropes, one also needs to offer something in place of those tropes, like a strong, consistent theme explored from multiple angles.

Hidden Origins

The Force Awakens asked a lot of pretty explicit questions: who were Rey’s parents? What happened between Luke and Ben Solo? Where did those other students of Luke’s go? How did Ben Solo become Kylo Ren? Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? How is the First Order related to the Empire? How is the Resistance related to the Rebellion? Why did Luke go into hiding?

The Last Jedi clearly did not care about most of these questions. Of course, a few answers are offered. Luke had a moment when he thought he might murder Ben Solo and put an end to the growing influence of darkness in him (which just made no sense, I’m sorry), and subsequently returned to the birthplace of the Jedi to die of old age. Rey’s parents are (allegedly) nobodies who died in a pauper’s grave on Jakku. Those are unsatisfying answers, though at least the answer about Rey’s parentage ties directly into one of the core themes of the film, which we’ll talk about below.

I think this lack of thematic development around hidden origins would have been less of a problem if the directors had worked together more closely, or at least had not been at cross purposes. Those are a lot of huge questions, and only the question of Rey’s parentage is answered in a way that makes sense. Otherwise, there is just a cosmic shrug. Who cares who Snoke was, he’s dead. Who cares where the First Order came from, they’re here and inexplicably threatening, despite being led by a man who throws tantrums and an incompetent Hux. The Resistance is just the Rebellion with a new name for no good reason. Who cares where Luke’s other students are, they’ll show up in a video game or something.

Light and Dark End to become Balance

My impression of the progress of the story isn’t so much that Light and Dark must end, but rather light and dark changing shape somewhat but moving ahead, still in direct opposition. Kylo Ren might want to end the Sith, but he did the archetypal Sith thing, which is to betray and kill his master. He’s Sith through and through, whatever he might say. And Rey similarly does the archetypal Light-side thing, as we’ve seen with Obi-wan Kenobi and Luke, in that she ignores the instruction of her master and goes off half-cocked to save the world.

I was honestly expecting more nuance between Kylo and Rey. I expected Kylo to reveal more layers, and I expected Rey to be more tempted by what she was presented with. I could see Rey, disillusioned entirely by Luke, being more willing to hear a more-reasonable Snoke out. Maybe more actively consider joining Kylo to kill Snoke.

Luke and Rey said a lot of eloquent things about balance, but Kylo and Rey basically lived out the old pattern – a little Return of the Jedi and then a little Empire Strikes Back. But the whole second half of the film would have been even more interesting if Kylo and Rey had been a bit more grey.

Skywalkers with Power become Tyrants

Luke almost deciding to murder the only child of his sister and best friend just makes no damn sense. I’m sorry. No work was put in to explain why that would suddenly be in his character. It was there for the shock, and the iconoclasm, and to add some “See, Kylo has a point” to the story. But the filmmakers didn’t do the work to earn that moment.

They could have, though. What do we know of the Skywalkers? Anakin became the most famous villain in the galaxy. Leia actually seems to remain herself through her story, and would perhaps be the exception that proves the rule. Kylo is a mini-Vader, prone to ultraviolance and temper-tantrums. So what if we presented the theme that, actually, when Skywalkers get power, especially power through the Force, they become tyrants? What if we saw Luke, well-intentioned but without guidance from any other Jedi, slowly become more harsh and unyielding and doctrinaire? What if we saw Kylo eclipse him, winning the students over because he gives into his darker urges more readily than Luke, and this gives him greater power?

Any of these options could have been handled with a five-minute montage, at most. Probably one much shorter. And then when Luke and Kylo come to blows, Kylo wins, thinks he has killed Luke, burns his temple to the ground. Luke, maybe in voiceover, realizes that there is something corrupt about the Skywalker line and its relationship to the Force, and so that’s why he goes into hiding – to quarantine himself. He thinks he might even corrupt Leia, which is why he just ghosts her for years.

That would have been an amazing revelation to put on screen. Yes, this is the story of the Skywalker dynasty, but it is the story of the galaxy defeating the Skywalker dynasty, because they are inclined to become tyrants when they develop Force powers. So now we have the nobodies rising up, with their own power and their own agenda, to bring down the First Order and the Jedi – the last legacy of the Skywalkers themselves.

See? That’s how you earn that moment of shock and revelation.

Elves and Batman: Stories With No End Aggrieve Us

In the legendarium (I just like that word) of Middle-Earth, the story of the elves ends in grief and loss. The elves are slowly overcome by grief by their long years in the world, and at last the world loses them as they depart into the Undying Lands. Their stories have no endings – they just go on and on. In the same way that Bilbo found so exhausting when he still had the Ring, “…like butter scraped over too much bread.” It’s clear from the text, to me at least, that their longevity is what brings their grief – part of why human mortality is called a gift. Our stories, as humans, have endings built in from the start.

I was thinking about superhero reboots, just now. How even in the comics, periodically superheroes and supervillains have to be rebooted, and in movies every decade or so. Or more often if you’re Spider-Man. Even when you have four Batman movies in a row without a new origin story, they are four very different Batman movies. But it seems that a trilogy is about as far as they tend to get before they start again.

How many times have we seen Bruce Wayne’s parents shot, or seen Uncle Ben die? How many times has Superman crash-landed on Earth? Right now I’m watching the new Punisher series on Netflix, and I’ve watched two other Punisher movies before now. Ten or fifteen years from now, will we have a Wonder Woman or Black Panther reboot? Will that be how we know that POC and female supers are here to stay as lead characters?

The problem with superheroes is that they are like elves – their stories have no end unless they die, and since death means the end of a storyline and loss of sales, superheroes never die. Neither do supervillains. Well, generally speaking of course. But even looking through a list of supers who have died, particular individuals have been the ones who died. The superheroes go on. They never die, and eventually it comes to grief. We just get tired of the story, and then comes the reboot.

Thing is, stories need endings. Eventually they attenuate, then burn out; wear out their welcome and their meaning. Eventually, without an end, stories don’t mean anything.

The other things is, the end of stories is always contrived. Endings are something we make up, so that we can make sense. Sam Gamgee hits on this truth, when he realizes that he is part of the same story that Beren and Luthien were in, that the light of the Silmaril is the same light caught in the Vial of Galadriel that he and Frodo carried. “Don’t the great tales ever end?”

Well, Sam, yes and no. We end them, in order to make meaning. Or, when we can’t end them, as with so may superheroes, they lose the meaning they had. I think so, anyway. So we go to see reboots, because if the story can’t end, at least it can begin again.

But that’s not as good. It’s never as good.

When Anger Drives Creativity

With thanks to Jason Godesky, who helped me articulate this realization better than I have in the past.

Get Angry, Make Things

I was reflecting recently on how many of the creative projects I’ve actually finished were started because I was angry. It started early – I created a literary magazine with my best fried in high school because we were angry with our English teachers. It was called The Erudite Review.

The next angry things I created, with two more of my best friends in Seminary, was Shared Governance, the first student publication of San Francisco Theological Seminary. We create it because we were angry – the Seminary at the time was being reviewed for accreditation, something that happens regularly I suppose. At the same time, a lot of shenanigans were taking place, including some things like ignoring black mold that put a student in the hospital, and ten refusing to do anything more than paint over the mold in her student housing. We got attention when we put a copy of Shared Governance in every board member’s mailbox in the administration building – we even got a sit-down with the President of SFTS himself. I don’t know that we did significant good, but we were angry, and we created a thing.

From 2007 to 2012, I was at work on Parsec, the RPG I was designing, writing and editing for Jolly Roger Games. I was given an established setting and a number of guidelines as to what the owner of JRG wanted in the RPG and set to work. Obviously, it was a long process from being hired after a conversation at Origins to our successful Kickstarter in 2012. But part of this project was also driven by anger, or at least frustration, with Shadowrun. Because of that, I made sure Parsec lacked a huge equipment catalog – in particular a huge gun list – and I made sure that the cool plans you make matter.

One of the worst things about Shadowrun, in every incarnation, is when the players spend an hour or more making a complex plan for the job they are undertaking, and then the job doesn’t matter because the GM has planned something else, or someone fails their key roll, etc. As a result, Parsec equipment, including weapons and armor, is abstracted, and your cool plan gives you bonus dice when you go to execute it, so that your cool plan matters.

Another book I’ve written, with the same friends who helped on Shared Governance, was Never Pray Again. This time, the anger was directed against “Thoughts and prayers” responses to tragedy, or being told to pray my depression away, or the way that so much prayer seems to lead to so little change. So we wrote a book about all of the amazing things we could do instead of praying.

Anger Driving Art History

In thinking about it with Jason on Twitter, it occurred to me more clearly how one could see art history as being anger-driven. The Renaissance in frustration against the Roman Catholic strictures on medieval art. Romantics frustrated with the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Realism and Modernism arose as opposed to Romanticism. Postmodernism opposed to Modernism. And so on.

It’s interesting – I can imagine so much great historical artwork being the result of someone muttering “Dammit” under their breath and then going to work.

Anger Driving Modern Game Design

It’s easy to see game design in a similar way. The Forge was basically founded on anger and frustration with White Wolf. This was often explicit in what Forge designers said about themselves and their process. Ron Edwards and Vince Baker famously described Vampire the Masquerade as causing brain damage in players. I can only guess how much narrativism came out of frustration with a ‘Storyteller system’ that certain gamers found didn’t help them tell stories.

That being said, pretty much everything referred to as “indie” in tabletop role-playing games, including influential and popular games like Apocalypse World and its derivatives, including Dungeon World, Monsterhearts and Masks. Pretty much a who’s-who of story games from the last 15 years originated with the Forge and the discussions that took place there. And a lot of the discussions were driven by frustration with the way non-Forge games were designed.

The Healthy Function of Anger

 

They don’t talk about this in The Artist’s Way, but a lot of creativity is born from anger. I don’t see this connection discussed very often, but having thought it through a bit, I can now see it everywhere. So many great creators saying to themselves “Screw this, I’m-a make a thing!”

In the theory of emotions that I’ve absorbed, positive and negative emotions all have healthy functions. The healthy function of anger, as I understand it, is to give us the energy to protect ourselves and to overcome obstacles. And it’s clear how anger could be helpful in creative endeavors, which always involve overcoming obstacle after obstacle.

So, I guess what I’m getting at here is that as creators, creative people, and maybe people in general, we could focus on our anger. Let our anger tell us what the next project is. Rely on our anger, even, to carry us through.

I’m looking at my own anger to see what might be next for me.

Suicide

I do not like telling stories about myself. It isn’t that I think people should not tell stories about themselves generally (though memoir is one of my least favorite genres of writing) – if you have a story to tell, more power to you. I just feel like…the stories I have to tell are about other people. Mostly made up people, if you get down to it. Make of that what you will.

I don’t think my life is particularly interesting, and I also have a really bad memory. I don’t remember whole swathes of my life, for reasons I can only guess at and don’t want to get into. Suffice to say, in the rare event that someone tells a story of something they remember me saying or doing, especially years ago, there’s a good chance I’ll have no idea what they’re talking about. They say that people with depression have smaller hippocampuses, and maybe that has something to do with it, I don’t know.

But I listened to Mike Perna’s episode of Bard and Bible a few days ago, and I decided, OK, I’ll tell a few brief Doug stories. These stories are about suicide, so if you don’t want that, now you know to skip this post. (These are not all of my stories about suicide, but they are the ones I’m telling today) I respect your time, so I’ll keep them as brief as I can while still maybe making sense.

First, I’m perpetually the New Guy, and before that, was perpetually the New Kid. I counted, and I’ve moved 24 times in my 37 years of life. No, I’m not a military brat or anything like that. I’ve just moved a lot – with my family as a kid, then as an adolescent, then as an adult.

As the perpetual New (Fat, Nerdy, Short) Kid, I had to sharpen my natural defenses. The key was always humor. After being pretty steadily beaten up and bullied and made fun of up through elementary school, I put together that if I was able to be consistently funny I would generally be safe. Not all the time, but most of the time. Being my dad’s fifth child and my mom’s third child meant lax parenting, so I watched a lot of late-night TV even as a kid. I watched a lot of comedy specials, and as much as I could, I’d absorb them, and then replay them at school with my own spin in order to shield myself with laughter. By Middle School I had a pretty solid repertoire of Robin Williams and Richard Pryor, among others, and was always someone who was trying to be funny. All this to say, Robin Williams in particular saved me from a lot of ass-kickings. Beyond that, he always seemed like an amazing person. He’s a lifelong hero, the kind of rare, wild genius that I feel privileged to have shared the world with.

Next, I’m a teenager and I have a crush on this girl. She and I are really close friends, actually. We hang out a lot; when I sneak out, it is to go hang out with her. She knows I have this boundless teenage love for her, and she does not feel the same way, and we’re both aware of all of that. It was what it was. But I’d take what I could get, so we spent a lot of time together.

One night, I’m dropping her off at home (I had an early birthday and was an early driver among my friends), and she tells me that she’s going to commit suicide. I beg her not to, but she has made up her mind, tells me goodbye, gets out of the car and goes inside. I’m just sobbing in this Chevy Blazer for I don’t know how long. Eventually she comes back out, gets back in, and tells me that she won’t. If I’ll stop crying, and go home and go to sleep, she promises she won’t.

Then she does.

Next, a year or two later, I’m in my dad’s office. It’s very late, and I’m so depressed and upset and angry and sick of the shitshow of being alive that I have taken down the case where he keeps a revolver. Six bullets shine in little shaped holes like board game pieces. (Not a simile I thought of at the time) With shaking hands I open the mechanism that lets the cylinder fall to the side and I start putting a bullet in each chamber. Why more than the one bullet I’d be using? I have no idea. Symmetry, maybe.

I remember the nauseating weight of it in my hand.

I hold the gun, hands still shaking, feeling like I’m going to throw up a clot of darkness out of the pit of my insides; thinking about whether I’ll feel the impact of the bullet to the side of my head, or just feel a hot dry shove and then nothing, or what. Will I go to Hell, or just fall and never hit the bottom?

I would love to say that Jesus came to me then, or that I thought about the people who loved me and how I’d hurt them, or what it would be like for my dad to wake up to a bang and find my brains all over his shelves. I thought of those things, but I had already thought of those things, and yet there I was in that room, in that moment, weighing whether to end everything because that would also end the pain of being. I knew I would hurt people, but I thought they were misguided. They didn’t understand, would be better off without me.

What happened was, I hit bottom. Whatever step there was before the very last step – that’s where I stopped. I felt like I had fallen a long way, but had slammed into a cold concrete floor, and would not fall any further. I would hurt horribly, would be miserable, but I would not fall farther than that. Not now, anyway.

Feeling like I was going to pass out, I put the gun and bullets back exactly as I found them, went back to my room, told no one. I’d continue to fantasize about killing myself for the next fifteen or so years, but never did it. Obviously.

Next, I’m working as a barista in San Anselmo, California, while going to seminary. I’m at Marin Coffee Roasters and in walks Robin Williams. My hero. The shimmering barrier of humor between me and innumerable ass-kickings. The guy who, for all intents and purposes, is the person I want to be. Yes, he suffers from depression, I’ve read all about that and his marriage troubles and his drug abuse and so on – but he does all of these things and is also world-famous for being hilarious and wonderful. Meanwhile, I’m a broke, depressed Seminary student. He did things in the world – I was just a fan. Yeah, I’d trade lives with the guy, no question.

He was a big bike-rider at the time, and Marin Coffee Roasters was kind of a bike hangout, so he comes in and orders a small mocha. I make him his small mocha, and he says thanks; shares a small smile. I am literally clamping down on all of the things I want to tell him, just boiling up inside of me, because honestly he looks exhausted and I don’t want to impose on the guy. Well, I want to follow him home like a whimpering puppy and hope he takes me in, but the mocha is all I give him.

Last, Robin Williams commits suicide on August 11th, 2014 – three years ago today. Three years later I’m still basically without words. He got to that moment, and bottom for him was just one step farther down than it was for me. He fell past where I stopped, and that was that. The person I desperately wanted to be for years was dead, and I was alive.

And then Prince, and then Chris Cornell, and then Chester Bennington, about whom Mike Perna spoke so eloquently on the Bard and Bible podcast, which set this post in motion.

If you want someone to talk to, I am always available, for this, for anyone, any time. I don’t advertise that, but maybe I should. I have talked to other people who have been in that place, and I have been there, or somewhere like it.

You can also talk to other people who want to help, and who want you to live.

I don’t have a conclusion for this. No summation, no lesson to walk away with. Just what I wrote. Just that and no more.

Works in Progress

I have way too many irons in the fire. I have a lot of things to work on (in addition to, you know, work) – far too many to actually finish any of them. As a friend reminded me recently, finishing things is a skill. I have that skill, but I need to sharpen it. Sometimes it helps to write everything out – and who knows? Maybe something here will be of interest to a reader. So, in no particular order:

Servants of the Secret Fire

Yes, this is a fantasy hearbreaker. A Tolkien-esque one no less! Until Cubicle 7 put out The One Ring, I was working on a system that actually reflected Middle-Earth. When TOR came out, I really felt that they did a good job at my task, so I let it languish.

The system as it is still has some interesting things about it. I wrote a post about attribute decay, for example, that is part of SotSF, and there are other elements in there that I like. But, an obvious problem: I do not work for Cubicle 7, which currently has the right to publish a RPG based on Middle-Earth. So whatever I do to complete this project would just be for me, for groups I game with, or maybe to release out into the world for free.

Simplified D&D

Years ago – eight years ago now? – before 5th edition existed for D&D, I hacked 4th Edition in order to run a game for a group that wanted to play D&D but wasn’t interested in learning a lot of rules. Or, in some cases, any rules. Though that hack was designed with 4th Ed in mind, I could definitely adapt it to 5th Ed. It’s even something I’m still interested in playing and running.

Rewilding the Bible

One of my problems is that I am interested in too many things. Scattered. But one thing I’m interested in is rewilding, and more than that, the idea that for the most part our civilization is not a good idea, certainly not in the long term, and that some other way of life is probably the way to go.

There are plenty of other people who know a lot more about this, who are working to learn self-sufficiency, and becoming ungovernable, and training in prehistoric survival skills. I’m not very good at any of these things, yet.

I have noticed, though, that I know more about the Bible than other people who are interested in rewilding. What I would like to do is to create a resource, probably the length of a short book, that looks at passages in the Bible that reflect this worldview. There is actually plenty there. And based on the reception of a recent sermon, I think there are people who might be able to hear what I have to say.

95 Tweets Expanded

A few years ago, two friends of mine and I assembled 95 Tweets, our homage to Luther’s 95 theses, all arguing against the idea of a Hell of eternal conscious torment. Even from a purely Christian standpoint, even from a literalist, the arguments for Hell are incredibly week, and the counter-arguments kind of overwhelming. So we overwhelmed, with 95 tweets.

The problem is that, with a barrage like that, there’s no point at which to engage. Even if someone wanted to argue a contrary position (and I know many do) it’s hard to get a hand-hold. So, I feel like I need to expand the ideas and claims that we made in the 95 Tweets. Part of what makes me hesitant is that there is already a lot out there about this issue, and I need to make sure that what I would contribute would be worthwhile, and not just replicating someone else’s work.

5E Setting: Dragonblade

I started a D&D 5E game set in what I’m not calling Tianxia, but that was just called Dragonblade at the time. It’s a south and east Asian mashup in the way that a lot of fantasy settings are a north and western Europe mashup, primarily drawing on Japanese, Chinese and Indian history and mythology. It’s fun, and I’ve posted a bit of my work on this blog before. It’s also the result of my frustrations with other attempts to do the same thing. Does that make it a hearbreaker? Sort of. Oh well. I think it’s a cool setting, and I’ve run the first part of a game in it. My rule is that I design settings that I would be excited to play in, and this one fits the bill.

5E Setting: Twilight of the Gods

I recently completed a long-term campaign called Twilight of the Gods. The setting is mythic Scandinavia, and beyond that, Europe and the wider world. The setting takes Ragnarok literally, and a campaign set in it will begin when Ragnarok is just about to. The advantage here is that the setting is actually slightly simpler than the base setting for 5th Edition. I’ve also already put in a lot of the work already, having run a full campaign.

5E Setting: Alaam

This is a cool setting that I’ve sketched out, but in which I have yet to run a campaign. It is inspired by the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights as well as aspects of Islamic mythology, blended with Dungeons & Dragons of course. It has a monotheistic religion, and godlike genies ruling a realm of raw and exaggerated elements, and other coolness. Less developed than Dragonblade or Twilight of the Gods, but still really cool.

This Blog

I’ve been blogging since 2006, and have carried over two other incarnations of my blog to this site. So, if you want, there are 11 years of my writing to choose from. Can’t recommend it all, though.

I’ve been working to be more consistent in writing, and I’ve found some cool connections on Reddit, as well as continued connections through social media. I’m trying to build up weekly, ideally daily, writing discipline. I’m not there yet, but it’s a vehicle for sharpening my skills. It always has been.

Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard-Merritt

Parts of this book were a little bit hard to read – but there are some stories that I’m just not going to tell because the people involved aren’t dead yet. When I am old, I will enjoy telling all the stories. In the meantime, I read other people’s stories. Carol’s story is evocatively written, moving, and sometimes quite surprising. Her prose is, as always, intelligent and approachable, and periodically poetic. Each chapter ends with thoughtful exercises that take the things Carol is writing about and makes them into concrete practices.

Anyone who knows me can probably tell you that I don’t usually read memoirs, as a general rule. Maybe it’s jealousy, since I haven’t lived an interesting life and don’t think anyone would want to ready my memoir. I’m neither old nor important, so it hardly seems like the time. While Healing Spiritual Wounds is not a memoir as such, it is framed as a reflection on Carol’s own life and experience that unfolds to include what she has learned on her journey that might be helpful to others.

The way that Carol writes is a sort of gestalt – you have to read through the whole book to get it. It isn’t one that is easy to review in the future by skimming notes or main topics, because it moves around in time and flows along the lines of Carol’s recollections from various parts of her life – as an adolescent, as a student at Moody Bible Institute, as a full-time pastor in the D.C. area, and so on. That’s why it isn’t a memoir, though it draws on memoir – the text follows the process of healing, drawn from Carol’s experiences of healing and then abstracted out a step in the hope that she can help others heal.

This book is therapeutic – I bet it was therapeutic to write, and it is intended as therapeutic, as a vehicle for healing. In my own case, my wounds are different. I don’t share the story of needing to recover from trauma at the hands of conservative Christianity that so many others have, a fact for which I am thankful. I still got a lot from reading Carol’s book – it was therapeutic to read. And from what I know of healing, I think that this book could indeed prove therapeutic to a wide variety of people in addition to its intended audience of people harmed by their religious past. Even if you are not seeking healing from spiritual wounds, Carol is an excellent writer, and in her story you might find healing for other wounds as well. Even if you aren’t looking for help in healing, Healing Spiritual Wounds is a well-written and thoughtful book that approaches painful experiences with grace, whether Carol’s experiences or your own.

(I know that I’m supposed to refer to authors by their last name, but Carol is my buddy. Don’t hold it against her.)

Buy Carol’s book.

Seriously, buy it.

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?