Speculative Fiction Tropes: Magic
Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Magic.
Like many elements of mythology and folklore throughout history, magic has become one of the most prevalent tropes at work in the fantasy genre. In fact, the presence of magical elements in a story is often the indicator that links fantasy's wide variety of sub-genres.
The origins of the word itself can be traced at least as far back as 4th century BC, when it was used in reference to the Magi, followers of the sect of Zoroaster. The Magi believed they could divine (and manipulate) the fate of the world by observing the stars, and thus became known not only for their religious practices, but as great astronomers.
Christians may recognize the term from some versions of the Bible, as the word Magi was used in the original text of the Gospel of Matthew to describe the famous three "wise men" who were said to have come bearing gifts when Jesus was born. In fact, the Bible even describes them as having learned of Christ's coming by reading the stars. Interestingly, the word is also used in Acts to describe Simon Magus (magus being the singular form of magi), also known as Simon the Sorcerer, who is confronted as a heretic by Peter.
Characters in fantasy works may be born with innate magical abilities, or they might need to train and master the arcane arts. J.K. Rowling's famous Harry Potter series portrays both. Accidental magical outbursts get Harry into all kinds of trouble as a child, before he finally attends Hogwarts to learn how to become a wizard proper.
Most of the fantasy stories I've written have focused on religious themes and political machinations, with conflicts being solved by good old-fashioned swordplay. I have written a couple with heavy magic elements though, including some that embrace the "whatevermancy" school of tropes. My wizards are called mancers, trained from birth in specialized castes to manipulate the layers of reality that lie beneath worldly perception. They can't create from nothing, but they can wield the forces of nature around them like a weapon. For instance, pyromancers can't summon fire, but if there's a flame nearby it becomes a pliable instrument in their hands. Mancers are feared and revered, and lay at the heart of one of the religious wars at the center of one of my stories.
As a reader, I enjoy just about all of the various forms of magic at work in fantasy. I especially appreciate it, though, when you can find magical themes in an unexpected place, perhaps alluded to. One of my favorite fantasy tales is that of a young farm boy who meets an old wizard. The hermit teaches him how to use magic, and to wield a sword. When the boy's family is killed by an evil empire, he sets out on a quest to defeat the wicked sorcerer behind it, and to avenge his father's death by slaying a dark knight. If it wasn't for magic, he might never have prevailed.
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Neverending Story
The Longest Journey
Dragon Age series
The Elder Scrolls series