Systems of Magic

Kathryn Andersen kat_lists at
Sun Aug 25 17:43:35 EDT 2002

On Sun, Aug 25, 2002 at 07:04:35PM +0100, Caleb W wrote:
> > Kathleen Jennings
> > Sent: 25 August 2002 01:02
> >
> > This is something I never used to think about. Some books were
> > magical, others had magic in them, and that was that. Narnia was
> > magic - but people, or most people - didn't go around casting
> > spells. In fact, only bad people cast spells. Aslan's 'magic' was,
> > of course, something altogether different.  And The Hobbit and LotR
> > were similar - the 'magic' was in the book and the land and the
> > characters - actual spells were few and  far between and involved
> > deeper, higher and darker forces. (The 'magic' of myths and sagas
> > and fairytales, I suppose).
> I've always preferred this type of magic. A friend of mine was outlining an
> idea for a fantasy story he had, and everyone was using magic, and if they
> were the seventh son of a seventh son then their ability was multiplied by
> ten, and this magical mcguffin multiplied magic by three and so on. I really
> didn't like how mechanical it was, just like some simple system cooked up
> for a computer game. Science isn't as boring and predictable as that! Magic
> ought to have some sense of wonder, otherwise it defeats the point somewhat.
> It depends very much on how the author does a magical system, but really I
> don't like the whole idea of there being a "system".

Yes, yes, yes!  Give me a sense of wonder, give me something mysterious,
give me something that makes magic as elusive as beauty, not mechanical
like pressing a switch or turning on a tap.

Not that systems-of-magic can't be intellectually interesting; but it's
like reading hard-SF almost.  Some of the systems can be pretty cool
(even though they're cold and mechanical) while others are just boring,
analogues of electricity or water flowing through pipes from reservoirs,
or of pressing buttons in the right combination or just something else
equally mechanical and boring.  Such systems remove the magicalness from
magic.  No sense of wonder.  Maybe we should blame D&D for this?
> As a Christian I have certain reservations about people going around casting
> spells left, right and centre, although I can perfectly safely read a book
> in which people do without being tempted to do the same, as one person
> seemed to argue with me! Since I believe that supernatural power either
> comes from God or the devil, and God doesn't let his power be used for
> "party tricks" while the devil would be very happy to do so if it would be
> ultimately detrimental to the person using it, then in real life I think any
> real magic is very dangerous indeed. However, I can tell the difference
> between fiction and real life, and would teach any children I had the
> difference too.

True, true.
Actually, another thing that mechanical magic systems remove, besides a
sense of wonder, is a sense of peril.  Or maybe even a sense of
> I love the musical magic in The Magicians of Caprona, especially the
> marvellous set piece with the two families fighting each other in the
> street.

I love the magic in the Dalemark books even more, actually.  See, I'm
not saying that magic shouldn't have a logic to it, but again, here with
the musical magic and the weaving magic, it was deeper and more elusive
stuff; it was to do with the Naming of things, of the nature of things.

The problem with most mechanical magic systems is that it's simply about
the application of power.  You do the right dance, you have the right
materials, you speak or sing the right incantation, you have a
sufficient reservior of magic-power, and zap!  I hated the magic system
in "The Soprano Sorceress" because it removed the beauty from music.
Nobody can actually make beautiful music, because all songs invoke
magic.  Our Heroine goes around singing doggerel and it zaps things.
What a complete and utter contrast with "Cart and Cwidder" where music
is still music, and the thing that makes the magic work is a combination
of power (the cwidder), talent, and Truth.  It's something that engages
both the heart and mind, something which requires a unity of soul,
something which needs more than just a shallow understanding.

> There was a Doctor Who book I read which had  the Doctor arrive on a
> fantasyland planet only to have space explorers land there soon after - the
> juxtapostition of genres was quite fun, as was the inevitable "scientific"
> explanation of how magic was possible.

Title?  Not that I'm really reading DW books nowadays, I think the last
one I read was "The Infinity Doctors" and now the companions and the
situation has changed so much I feel very reluctant to try to read any
of them because I'll be completely lost.

> A later Who book, The Scarlet
> Empress, also had the Doctor visiting the definitely magical planet (of the
> Narnia/Middle-earth/non-spells type) of Hyspero, and blew great big
> raspberries at the portion of readers who demand a scientific explanation of
> such things by just having it _happen_.


> It's one of my favourite Doctor Who books, by the way.
Hmmm, noted.  Would I be confused if I read it cold?

Kathryn Andersen
Theroux: What's the problem?
  Kenzy: We're missing a stiff.
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