Every Little Thing She Does

...Which is not just a Sting song, it's also the cheat to get all the magic upgrades at once in Warcraft II. I know, it's weird that I remember that. Anyway, I was thinking about magic in fantasy stories, and how pretty much everyone always tries to reinvent the wheel, yet without, it often seems, ever considering what we want wheels for.

There are three questions you have to ask yourself when you're writing a fantasy story. One is, "How does the magic work and where does it get its power?" Another is, "What're its effects on the society?" And the third, the one that will largely determine those first two, is "How do I have it not wreck my story, and not have becoming a mage be synonymous with getting your certification in Deus Ex Machina production?"

Most works' magic involves, well, verbal, somatic, and material components (yeah, speaking of not reinventing the wheel, D&D has some very useful terminology here). Of course this is partly because real-world magical traditions involve speech, gestures, and special substances. Many traditions have taboos on talking about dangerous things, and some idea that names have power, though the idea of having a secret True Name™ is mostly a convention of our fantasy (though most premodern Japanese women did use pseudonyms to avoid the power of names; many modern Navajos of both sexes still do). And there's about three concepts relating to magic substances—sacrifices, where power is purchased by giving things up; something I'd probably have to call "alchemical correspondence", where substances have powers other than their brute physical properties (iron goes with fire, for instance, in alchemy); and sympathetic magic, where you get power over a person through his possessions. Gestures are basically just the sign-language equivalent of speech (making a mudra is identical with saying the corresponding mantra, in Esoteric Buddhism), though I can think of one work where the elemental magic is accessed through non-symbolic gestures. Yes, I mean Avatar (as in Aang, not shaved blue plus-size Ewoks).

Now, you can go with only one of those; word-magic is especially popular, possibly because it's the kind Tolkien used (being a philologist), when he invented about 3/5 of modern fantasy's conventions (the rest of it was invented by Howard and Leiber between them). Word-magic's what LeGuin uses, with the language of dragons; Paolini does the exact same thing—by an astounding coincidence, doubtless—except with the language of elves. Dragonlance is more original about it—spellcasting is in the language of the Irda, who are basically super-elves who are the ancestors of ogres—but the principle is the same, except combined with the Vancian magic it inherits by being a D&D setting. Using a magical race's language is odd, to me, but where I live the spirits are noted for being incapable of speech—the Navajo for "gods" actually means "Speechless Ones" (though they communicate just fine, their words have no power). God forbid we just have the human language be capable of shaping reality, like Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Japanese are thought to do, in the real world. But having all the spells be in it's-not-really-elvish-at-all-I-swear is just one of the things writers are unthinkingly copying from Tolkien.

My own story uses a mix of words and substances—spells are in a dead human language, mostly in the subjunctive (as they were in Latin), but to cast them you've got to pour libations, toss away money or other valuables, or cut yourself or someone else (that last being bad-guy magic, of course). There are gestures, but only waving wands, staffs, and hands to give a rhetorical flourish to the spells.

As to where magic comes from, there's basically two versions. One is the one Leiber and most Japanese fantasy uses, that the magic comes from various spirits, anything from ghosts and sprites to the gods and demons themselves. The other is more common in the West, probably to avoid the Pat Pulling type of Satanism scare (if you don't know who she is, you're lucky), and because pantheism has been the de facto official religion of the Anglosphere at least since Shelley—magic is either purely from a person's will, or uses some energy inherent in the cosmos or life or some such. Greenwood calls it the Weave; people who don't think "skyclad" is a word call it the Force. Whenever someone uses that second option I like to say, in my best disgusted Jerry Seinfeld voice, "Hello, Numen"—"numen" being what the Romans called it. Its name in Hawaiian, of all sources, is probably the most common one in a lot of fantasy: mana. No, I don't get it either, why Hawaiian?

Most people mix and match, actually—some of the magic in Slayers, for instance, like Zelgadiss's shamanic magic, uses that natural energy instead of demon- or god-power. In my book the humans' magic uses the power of spirits, both fairies and ghosts, while spirits themselves have elemental powers. It kind of irks me, though, how LeGuin postures as being a Taoist when her magic's all numen-based; all the really big stuff in Taoist magic involves invoking spirits, up to the ultimate technique, the "Invocation of the Lord of Mt. Tai". Of course she also thinks Taoism disapproves of seeking immortality, so, um, yeah.

As to magic's effect on society, a lot of people seem to think it would be akin to various kinds of technology; they seem to think, for instance, that introducing the ability to do large-scale manufacturing to a feudal society would be bad. They think this because they don't know that feudal society had large-scale manufacturing—water wheels, kids, water wheels. The so-called industrial revolution only had the deleterious effects it had because of the social and economic changes brought about by the Renaissance, the Reformation, and, more to the point, the loot of the monasteries (concentrating the wealth of the newly-Protestant countries almost as much as in Roman times, and far more than in the Middle Ages, long before industrialization). In actual fact, mages would be like any other power-factor in society; in my setting they're all nobles, their magic replacing cavalry warfare as their power-base. There's also normal nobles, of course, and the main effect of the presence of mages is retardation in the development of siege-engines—who'd bother with catapults and battering rams when you can fireball the doors? I'm not the only one that did it that way; Zero no Tsukaima did it too (weird, huh?), though there, the mages are basically the only nobles.

How magic works is pretty easy, and its social effects follow naturally, if one can merely clear one's mind of mythology and read some real history. The question is, though, how do you keep it from breaking things? Magic can be damn near a panacea, at least for material ills; how do you keep any kind of drama or conflict in a world like that? A lot of people fall back on "oh, well the characters and their relationship are the real drama", but frankly, though characters are important, if you're only going to have that be the story, why bother with fantasy at all?

There's basically two ways to do it. One is to have the magic be weak, and the other is to have it be hard—or expensive. Some people do both, especially in "low" settings like Leiber and Howard. There are basically no human mages in those stories whose spells exceed D&D's 4th or 5th level, and most of them are more like 2nd—maybe shocking grasp or invisibility but nothing approaching fireball or lightning bolt, let alone meteor swarm, AKA the Dragon Slave. And in exchange for this cheapjack hedge wizardry, creatures who probably sip darjeeling with Cthulhu know where you live—it's important to remember Leiber and Howard were in the Lovecraft Circle.

On the other hand you have magic that's not weak, but only has limited uses, for various reasons. One of the best known is Vancian magic, named for Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels. I've never read them, so I can't comment on the idea when it's at home, but you and I both know it better from its new address: Dungeons & Dragons. The way mages forget their spells once they cast 'em? Yeah. It feels a little forced to me, actually, a rather arbitrary limit to place, but the idea is sound—make sure wizards can't just sling spells all day. It's probably more popular to have the wizard get tired out when he uses magic; that's basically how mana systems (or MP) work—a more believable way of limiting the mage's power. The other thing from D&D is related, restricting mages' armor and weapons. It makes no sense (unless you're gonna rule that iron armor, or something, interferes with magic); people do extremely intricate, concentration-intensive things in outfits a lot more restrictive than competently made armor.

One that I'd like to see, but seldom get to, is the real-world restriction: purity codes. Yes, it's the one I use in my book. Basically how it works is, the spirits that power magic won't even talk to a mage unless he's in a condition of ritual purity. Which isn't the same thing as "following his alignment", as D&D puts it, though it's related; purity codes involve pollutions from good things as well as bad. Pick up some competent anthropological studies of things like Shinto and Korean shamanism—I recommend Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life by Laurel Kendall. It's not as feminist as the title sounds, except in the sane sense of the word, and it's incredibly useful in showing how people who own televisions and cars interact with spirits they didn't just make up to feel "spiritual".

I'd also recommend finding an old copy of Clyde Kluckhohn's Navaho Witchcraftthis is how black magic works, kiddies, accept no substitutes.

No comments: