Saturday, April 14, 2012

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.

Magic is a concept that humanity has been flirting with since we lived in caves and huts. The idea that we may be able to alter or manipulate the forces of this world that normally remain out of our control is very attractive. After all, who wouldn't want the ability to increase your fortune with the simple utterance of a few magic words?

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.

Magic takes many forms in fiction. It can serve as a simple plot device or be a large part of the worldbuilding process, with complex systems designed around its use. It usually involves the endowment of supernatural power, either in a mystical object or a person.

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.

Recommended Reading:
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

Recommended Viewing:
The Neverending Story
Star Wars

Recommended Gaming:
The Longest Journey
Dragon Age series
The Elder Scrolls series


  1. I'm so glad you have Patrick Rothfuss in your recommended reading list. I think the magic system he creates is absolutely genius. It's different from many others as it's based far more in science than fantasy. I can truly imagine it working. That, people, is how to write magic. Not just airy fairy hocus pocus miracle working!

    1. I agree, Pat Rothfuss' magic system is fantastic, probably my favorite. And what's cool is he doesn't just have one. He has your standard alchemy, he has the "naming" system that has always been one of my favorite magic tropes, and then he has the awesome "sympathy" system that I've never seen before and is so detailed. I can't wait for his next book!

  2. Great post, J.W.! And I love that you used magic in your stories as a manipulative force that controls elements already at hand (it reminded me of Avatar, The Last Air Bender -- absolutely adored the series, big fan of Sokka!). I'm a sci-fi gal, but even in the magical systems of fantasy there must be some plausibility. One cannot create something where there was nothing before, so a wizard that summons something out of thin air stretches my belief, whereas one that manipulates what he finds at hand is really awesome to read. Good choice on that one, in my humble opinion.

    1. Thanks, Vero! I agree, the more detailed and "common sense" the magic system is, the more I'm willing to suspend disbelief. Plus it doesn't hurt that an added layer of drama is introduced when your mages aren't just uber-powerful beings with few limits on what they can do. If a mancer is limited by what's around them it makes them more vulnerable and compelling!

  3. This is a really interesting post. I've read part of Robert Jordan's series (haven't managed to plough through it all yet!) and can't believe what a detailed world he created...

    1. I've yet to read the entire series yet myself. It's massive!

      Thanks for stopping by, Stacey!

  4. Call it psionics and you have yourself a sci-fi story. XD

    1. Yep, science fiction writers have found more than a few ways to introduce "magical" elements into their universes. Some of them are better at it than others! Then you have Star Trek, where Roddenberry basically lifted fantasy archetypes and placed them into a scifi setting (Elves, Orcs, etc), yet managed to keep from drifting into science-fantasy territory like George Lucas did.

      Thanks for reading!


Thanks for reading!