Systems of magic

Rowland, Jennifer A B jennifer.rowland at
Wed Aug 28 08:01:43 EDT 2002

Kathryn wrote: (I've rearranged paragraphs to help my response be clearer)

> 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.
>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!  
>Actually, another thing that mechanical magic systems remove, besides a
>sense of wonder, is a sense of peril.  Or maybe even a sense of
>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?

I agree with all this - magic should be magical- but I still don't mind
reading books where magic is less numinous and more explicable. Even the
magic-as-electricity ones- after all, I like hard sf. (You can get a sense
of wonder from the best of that, too.) I think showing that magic is part of
the world and magicians can use it is better than going in for pages of
technical detail, though! In the best sort of story that uses magic in a
less 'mythical' way you see magic in action, and see that there are
consequences for the users, and get a sense that there are rules to it- with
as little stated as is needed for the story, but enough to know that it
isn't "just apply magic and stir, kazam, no more problem". 
Maybe it's because I'm a scientist- I think in a world where magic was not a
gift from the gods, say, but was part of how the world worked, it wouldn't
*necessarily* be thought of as amazing, beautiful, mysterious- any more than
we think of physics as amazing on a daily basis, although it is. We just
have engineers who make stuff for us. I like seeing how different authors
include magic in their societies- both those that write 'mystical magic' and
those who use it like technology, although I find the writers who use it in
a deeper way (eg, as Kathryn says above, that it deals with the Names and
the Nature of things) more satisfying. Howl is one of my favourite DWJs,
though, and he's very matter-of-fact about magic- I think anything that
works with the story is good.

My favourite magic systems? Umm... The sorcery and Fire in Duane's "Doors"
series. Dalemark. McKinley's kelar, and also the magic like sticky dust in
Spindle's End. The Curse of Chalion's religious magic. The sadness in
Tolkien, with the magic dying out and the elves going into the West.
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