Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the First

In which the author begins a discussion of magic in fantasy literature and the wonders that it holds.

The Tempest by Ivan Aivazovsky 1899
The Tempest by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1899. (A glimpse of Prospero's "So potent art"?)

Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the First

Dear Reader,

Thus far in our correspondence we have spoken briefly of Dragons and Adventurers. There is more to say concerning each of these subjects, but today I suggest we turn to the matter of magic.

This will be a conversation of multiple parts, spread out over multiple letters, as magic is a vast and fruitful field, and I am interested in gathering and refining these thoughts into a comprehensive blog post or even an eBook– a Tome of Magic, shall we say.

As we proceed, I invite you (if you are so inclined) to share your thoughts on the matters touched upon and thus help me in fashioning the final compendium.

We begin with a certain point of view…

The Systematizers and their Art

There are those who hold that magic is a matter best discussed in terms of systems.

(Sadly, David Wolverton – better known by his pen name, David Farland – recently passed away. He was a strong and vocal proponent of this school of thought.)

There is, the thinking goes, “hard” magic (with rules and boundaries clearly defined by the author) and there is “soft” magic (where things are more fuzzy and arbitrary).

Hard magic, like the rune magic in Farland’s The Runelords, the one power in Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, and Sanderson’s…well Sanderson’s anything (he really is a bookwriting robot) focuses a lot of our reading attention on the magic.

The author explains the boundaries (though not all of them because there’s going to be some sneaky additions down the road) and we watch the game unfold in the narrative space.

This kind of magic is sometimes critiqued as being too mechanical. Essentially, this kind of magic makes the conflicts into glorified games of rock, paper, scissors – and the winner is the cleverest of all. (“Oh, the cleverness of me!”)

Soft magic, as a definition, is sometimes waved at, say, Tolkien: There’s stuff that happens in Middle Earth, but there are no rules, so magic could come out of nowhere and just do something in the narrative space. Thus, it’s a soft system. (Though Brandon Sanderson actually makes the argument that Tolkien interweaves a hard and soft system together in his worldbuilding.)

This kind of magic is sometimes critiqued as allowing too much “deus ex machina” into the narrative space. The author can just pull a magic solution out of his hat and – Poof! – problem solved!

Examining the Value of their Model

But these critiques (as well as any praises doled out) do not prove to be universally true, and really only hold merit in regard to individual works of writing.

You can have a story where the magic is so mechanical and obtrusive that it becomes distracting – and boring (Sanderon’s The Way of Kings suffered from this in its prologue).

You can also have a story where the author shrugs and throws in a magic solution that effectively breaks the world, risking the reader’s loss of faith in the writer. (Such works as Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, and Star Trek are all guilty of such writing at various points – and they all get away with it as part of the accepted conceit of their storytelling approach).

But though I see some value in the interpretative model provided by the magic systems school of thought (just as I can derive value from the Hero’s Journey model), I believe it ultimately tells you more about the interpreters than it does about how to think about magic in the narrative space.

So how, Dear Reader, shall we speak of magic? I propose we begin by gleaning from those who have written it well.

Turning to the Professor Once Again

It is usually safe to begin with Tollers when discussing fantasy, so here we are. (It is your destiny.)

The Ring of Power makes its wielder invisible. It grants understanding of the speech of the Dark Lord’s servants and it can be used to dominate the wills of others. Yet, it also draws the Eye of the Dark Lord and his servants. It seeks to corrupt its wielder and those that come within its reach.

And within its small frame dwells the will and power of Sauron himself.

That last clause is really the key to the whole thing. A list of powers would just make the One Ring your standard McGuffin. But because the ring is an active presence of Sauron in the narrative space, it becomes something more.

It betrayed Isildur to his death. It is the will and the power that ruined Sméagol. It is the corruption that worked mightily upon the heart of Boromir. It was a mere bauble in the hand of Bombadil because his was the far greater power. It was resisted by both Gandalf and Galadriel. It failed to ensnare Faramir. And, at the last, it overmastered Frodo – though grace, through the way prepared by Bilbo’s mercy, intervened to save all (a deeper magic – to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase – that resonates back to the music of creation).

Is this a matter best discussed in the language of ‘systems’? (If you choose to do so, you’ll find that in the case of the Ring, you’re more in the “hard” magic side of things: the boundary conditions of the One Ring are quite clear.)

Yet, the One Ring is consistent with the rest of the magic you will find in Middle Earth: from the Wizards to the Elves to the Orcs and so forth – it is bound up with the identity of its creator.

Magic’s Signature of Self in Tolkien

Consider the Wizards.

The Istari seek out lore, whether of such things as magic passwords and Hobbits (Gandalf) or ring lore (Sarumon even forges his own ring). They speak words of command (when Gandalf conjures fire on Mt. Caradhras and when he holds the door against the Balrog in Moria). Sarumon’s voice has the power to bend wills to his own. And each of them is likely capable of performing a variety of other magics including – but not limited to – conjuring fire and light.

Is this just a grab bag of abilities drawn upon according to the needs of the narrative? No, there is a deeper logic at work.

Let us look more closely at one of the moments I mentioned, listen to what Gandalf says after he chooses to light the fire on Caradhras with a word of command:

‘If there are any to see, then I at least am revealed to them,’ he said. ‘I have written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin.’

There is a signature to the Wizard’s greater art that blazes forth further than mortal eyes can see.

This language of being “revealed” of being “uncloaked” (as Gandalf warns Biblo in the opening chapter of the Fellowship) shows up throughout The Lord of the Rings:

Glorfindel revealed in his wrath when facing the Nine at the Ford of Bruinen (thus we learn from the book that visions of the wraith-world need not be wholly of darkness, as compared to Jackson’s movies), the hidden kingliness of Aragorn displayed in power and royalty upon the Hornburg, Gandalf’s revelation of his power to save Faramir from the pyre, and the “long years of death” revealed in the body of Sarumon after he fell in the Shire – just to take a sampling.

In each instance there is something hidden in a character that is made known, something that transcends the typical expectation of the material world (“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back, taking things further than Tolkien would have, but getting at the same concept of unseen depths of power and meaning).

Of the Many-Branching Path

There is more to unwind in this conversation of magic, Dear Reader, but let us set the matter down for the moment.

Next week, we will speak more of Tolkien (for his is a rich art), addressing the Elves and their magic (which they are surprised you call magic) and the Dark Lord and his servants as they pervert and corrupt what is given (including their very beings).

From there the way branches and there are several paths to follow – and we may speak of other matters before considering the next turning.

In time, we will make our way into a discussion of the Names of Things (Glen Cook and Le Guin). After that, I am thinking about examining the nature of Authority in Incantation or Pact (Michael Moorcock and Susanna Clarke).

And at some point, we must get back to the systematizers – especially Brandon Sanderson and his Laws of Magic – and parse out the merits of their approach.

But there will be time enough for matters of decision in the days ahead. Let us see what our journey reveals.

Best regards,


P.S. Yes, I will talk about J.K. Rowling's work. No, I will probably not specifically engage Jim Butcher's.

P.P.S. Yes, I will do a letter on D&D magic – but no promises it will make it into a Tome of Magic.

P.P.P.S. And, I will talk about Prospero. (You are also correct in assuming that I added all these postscripts as a homage to Gandalf.)

Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

Want to throw me some coin to support me financially? I have a Busker's Hat to help buy coffee and used books.

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Well met, Traveller into Perilous Realms. I am your guide Bryan Rye, Game Master and Author. Stay awhile and let us speak of many things.

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