Magic (fantasy)

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. LeGuin, Mercedes Lackey and J. K. Rowling.

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. [John Grant and John Clute, "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy", "Wizards", p. 1027 ISBN 0-312-19869-8]

Such 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.

It is by no means impossible, moreover, for fictional magic to leap from the pages of fantasy to actual magical practice. 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 request for; pranksters have listed it in rare book catalogs, and one smuggled a card for it in the Yale University Library. [L. Sprague de Camp, "Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers", p. 100–01 ISBN 0-87054-076-9] 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.

Users of magic

In some works of fantasy, anyone who can learn the arcane knowledge necessary can practice magic, but in many writers, the use of magic is an innate talent, equivalent to perfect pitch. [John Grant and John Clute, "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy", "Magic", p 616 ISBN 0-312-19869-8]

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. [JK Rowling, " [ Section: Rumors] "] 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; 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 (there are exceptions, such as Xanth).

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. LeGuin'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.

Besides innate talent and study, a third source of magic is simple acquisition, either through a magical item, or having it bestowed upon one by another. The personal nature of this distinguishes it from other types of magic: someone "chooses" to grant the power. 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 Role-Playing Games, such as Neverwinter Nights.

Magic power may be gained through a Pact with the Devil, or other trafficking with spirits, common in folklore. [Katharine Briggs, "An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures," "Magicians", p279. ISBN 0-394-73467-X] 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 King 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 Fairy King who did this at Norrell's request.

Use of language and names in magic

Ursula K. LeGuin'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. [Brian Attebery, "The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature", p 167-8, ISBN 0-253-35665-2]

LeGuin is using two concepts drawn from folklore, and 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 series Doctor Who. [Philip Martin, "The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest", p 134, ISBN 0-87116-195-8]

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 (viz. the lackluster spells and the emotionless recitation of them in "Charmed"). 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 special 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. "Elric of Melniboné" studied since childhood many infinitely ancient languages and procedures 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 objects

An often used plot generator is a powerful magical object or artifact, a thing so dangerous that it can defeat the hero, or allow the villain to conquer the world. This can ensure that the plot of a fantasy novel, or role-playing game, is the quest to obtain or destroy this terrible item. Perhaps owing to the defining influence of "The Lord of the Rings" and the One Ring it contained, this particular plot device is so common in fantasy as to be termed plot coupons, or as Alfred Hitchcock would have it, a Macguffin.

Lesser magical objects which do not affect or determine the plot are also common, more so in role-playing games than novels, 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 and an array of magical items from Arabian Nights, including a magic carpet. Another story tells of an element/omen ring.

Such items may be created by magicians or powerful beings; often they originate in the dim 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. [Northrop Frye, "Anatomy of Criticism", p 152, ISBN 0-691-01298-9] The first magical wand appeared in the "Odyssey": Circe used it to transform Odysseus's men into animals. Italian fairy tales put them into the hands of the powerful fairies by the late Middle Ages. [Raffaella Benvenuto, " [ Italian Fairies: Fate, Folletti, and Other Creatures of Legend"] ] 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. Magical wands are used from Andre Norton's "Witch World", to "Harry Potter". 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 weakened if not magically helpless. In the Harry Potter setting, a wizard can only perform weak and uncontrolled magic without a wand. [ [ "Comic Relief live chat transcript, March 2001"] ]

Magical places

Sometimes, too, a place will have magic; perhaps a certain location is "close to the spirit realm" or there are residues from powerful spells once cast here, 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 (like one popular conception of Native Americans in literature) conceal themselves and repel invaders by what look like natural occurrences such as falling rocks.

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 Earthsea, 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. [John Grant and John Clute, "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy", "Magic", p 616 ISBN 0-312-19869-8]

One of the most common techniques is that the person has only a limited amount of magical ability. 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. [John Grant and John Clute, "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy", "Thinning", p 942 ISBN 0-312-19869-8] A more common use is that a person can only cast so many spells, or 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. [John Grant and John Clute, "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy", "Gameworlds", p 385 ISBN 0-312-19869-8] 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 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.

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. [Orson Scott Card, "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy", p47-49 ISBN 0-89879-416-1] Harmless substances can also limit the magician if they are rare, such as gemstones.

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.Michael Kern, " [ The Limits of Magic] "]

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. [Philip Martin, "The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest", p 142, ISBN 0-87116-195-8] . 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 wands or staffs (as mentioned above). Harry Potter is, as well as the wizards in Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.

Various genres

In science fiction plots (especially the "hard" variety), while magic tends to be avoided, often extraordinary facts are portrayed that do not have a scientific basis and are not explained in that fashion. In these cases the reader might find it useful to remember Arthur C. Clarke's "Third Law": "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Psionics is often used to endow science fictional characters with abilities, which, if they were called "magic", would make the story fantasy. [Poul Anderson, "Fantasy in the Age of Science", p 270, "Fantasy" ISBN 48-51518] Many stories deliberately or inadvertently equate magic with psychic ability; others, such as Mary Stewart's Merlin novels or the Valdemar series of Mercedes Lackey, distinguish between the two. Lackey carefully delineates the differences between "mages", who use magic, and "heralds", who have paranormal powers, and the types of training required.

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

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

It is possible to say that The Force from "Star Wars" canon is a type of magic, with Jedi and Sith being seen as wizards and sorcerers. Obi-wan Kenobi is referred to at least once, in Episode IV: A New Hope, as a "wizard".

In the Full Metal Alchemist franchise, alchemy adopts the role magic traditionally takes in fantasy fiction. Just as certain laws govern the practice of magic the same applies to the practice of alchemy. In order to carry out its function alchemy requires a payment of equal value. This limiting factor of alchemy is 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 powerful magical items prevalent in other works of fantasy fiction.

ee also

* Magician (fantasy)
* Magic (Discworld), magic in Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" series
* Magic (Earthsea), magic in the "Earthsea" series
* Magic (Harry Potter), magic in the "Harry Potter" series
* Magic (Middle-earth), magic in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien
* Final Fantasy magic, having to do with the Final Fantasy series of video games
* "Kidō", magic in the "Bleach" anime and manga series
* Magic in the Bartimaeus trilogy (Jonathan Stroud's series)
* "Magic in Negima", an anime/manga series
* Magic in the Realm of the Elderlings (Robin Hobb's series)


*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
*Lawrence Watt-Evans, " [ Watt-Evans' Laws of Fantasy] ", "Starlog"
*Patricia C. Wrede, "Magic and Magicians", [ Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions]

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