magic

Welcome to Wonderland

This is, more or less, the speech I gave to my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition students on the first day of school.

Today I want to tell you a story about moments, moments the world looks wonderful and strange and different.

I was lucky enough to go to school in Wales for two years. Over those two years, I had roommates from England, South Korea, Kenya, Italy, and Germany. I had the chance to travel—choir tour through France and Switzerland, and a five-week epic after I graduated. The trip I want to tell you about, though, was just a day trip, only as far as the Welsh border with England.

There’s a little town there called Hay-on-Wye. It’s a very English town name—Hay, on the Wye River, so Hay-on-Wye to distinguish it from the other towns called ‘Hay.’ It’s a small English town: grey and green except on those rare sunny days, at which time it is a lighter grey and a brighter green. There’s not much to recommend Hay-on-Wye…except for one thing. Hay-on-Wye is a mecca for books.

Aside from the plane ticket, I had two big expenses getting home from school in Wales. One was the bag that I left for five weeks at Heathrow. The other was shipping my used books home. There was one used bookstore in Llantwit (near school), and I haunted several others in Cardiff (which was a bus ride away), but Hay-on-Wye had more. It was probably for the best that I only went there once.

The streets were dotted with shelves for the book fairs. And the bookstores…there were all sorts of used bookstores there: the kind that are only open for a few hours a few days each week, with bars on the windows and rare books inside; the kind that are nearly a garage sale with boxes of unsorted books; and the many in between—more or less organized, more or less ready for exploration. Those were the ones I spent most of my day with—after a walk to see the mansion and the castle.

There was one store in particular that I went into in the afternoon. It was two stories, and narrow—like a hallway. Shelves stretched to the ceiling, some with boxes on top of them. It was cluttered enough that I couldn’t see all the way to the back. I went upstairs and out stepped a man. He was short, with graying, curly hair and a van dyck. He said to me, with absolute seriousness, “Welcome to Wonderland.”

And for a moment, just a sliver of a sliver of a second, I wondered whether there was a back to the bookstore, whether it went on and on to some other place. It was a superbly Neil Gaiman moment, even though I’d never even heard of Neil Gaiman at the time. I was one of those kids who was always trying to figure out which door would open to Narnia, whether there was a secret knock or some other trick that would whisk me away to somewhere more interesting. For that moment, I was there again.

Alas, the bookstore did in fact end. The short man was just a short man, not a leprechaun. I didn’t find any magic there more than the usual magic of books. That’s not the point.

The point is that, in that moment, my world shifted. In the blink of a mind, I saw possibilities that were hidden. Anything could happen. I had to see.

We don’t get those moments often. I can’t promise that you’ll have those moments in my class. Honestly, I don’t think I ever had one in class. What I want to do, though, is to give you the tools to find those moments yourselves. There are times when you’re reading, times when you’re studying a text, when the world opens up like that. You can’t force those moments, but the more you know, the more you can be ready for them when they come…

…And that’s the story of how I took a trip to Hay-on-Wye. That’s the way the story goes and it’s truth if you don’t believe and a lie if it makes you happy and it’s a story if it blew from a far off place and you felt it.

Okay. I stole that last sentence from my poem, The Storyteller, which I still like even after all these years.

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Nicking from Novels: Erin Hoffman’s Sword of Fire and Sea

We’re starting the new series with an arbitrary library grab: Erin Hoffman’s Sword of Fire and Sea. Published by Pyr in 2011, it’s the first book in the now complete Chaos Knight trilogy.

The Overview: This is a high fantasy novel with a limited number of protagonists and lots of magic. Though epic in scope, it’s not epic in length or the number of characters you need to keep track of. The primary protagonists are a sea captain (Vidarian) and a fire priestess (Ariadel). The register is typical for the genre, though there is one character introduced later in the book who uses contemporary American slang. (It makes sense in the context.) There aren’t any particular linguistic adventures—the names are traditional fantasy and dialogue in concocted languages is brief.

The Plot: Old favors are called in. A journey is taken. The female protagonist is abducted and rescued. The male protagonist discovers he’s got magic (it gets complicated quickly). Ancient prophecies come to life. A gate between worlds is heavily involved in the book’s endgame (and helps set up the conflict in the subsequent volumes).

The Cool Thing to StealConsider

Hoffman builds her world around elemental magic. (If you want to go reference my previous post about magic, this is pretty firmly “magic is in and of the world.”) The four classical elements all have divinities and priestesshoods. The protagonist, in the novel’s first chapter, walks across a bridge of stones held together by enchanted air. The priestesshoods are tightly wound up in the novel’s plot. Vidarian is connected to them by his grandfather’s promises.

Hoffman does a nice job reinvigorating old magical standbys. Elemental magic is nothing new, and it’s nothing new to have humans worship associated deities. (I have fond memories of elemental clerics in 2e Dark Sun, though those just worshiped the elements themselves.) What Hoffman does remarkably well is balance technicalities with the plot function of magic. She’s written a complex and deep system of competing magics and practitioners. I have a feeling that if I were to hit her up on Twitter and ask “could character X do this with her magic?,” Hoffman could answer easily. She has spent the time to figure these things out.

Letting magic play such a prominent role in the story without letting it become the story is a worthwhile achievement. Designing and understanding a complex system is tricky, especially when you are simultaneously working from scratch (as part of your worldbuilding) and with inherited tropes (like the classical elements). Hoffman displays marvelous technical chops in the way she handles the magic.

The most impressive part, I think, is that she does it without getting sucked into exposition traps. Vidarian knows almost nothing about magic, and has to have elements of it explained to him frequently. Technically, that’s exposition. Hoffman keeps those explanations brief, though. The whole novel skips agilely from encounter to encounter, never getting bogged down in the explain-y bits. (An aside: That brisk pace sometimes unbalances the progress of the plot and characterization.) A different author could have taken the same plot points and world and written a novel half again as long.  She’s not at a Gene Wolfe level of explaining-without-explaining, but she makes every single bit of necessary exposition count. There’s no extraneous display of worldbuilding.

What We Nick from this Novel:

Never let characters lecture. It’s a good rule of thumb generally, but Hoffman does an excellent job of avoiding the tempting spots to turn her characters loose with exposition. If you design systems for your world, only explain the bits the characters (and readers!) have to know. Technicality is not, in itself, bad.

And oh man…I didn’t even mention the gryphons. Sword of Fire and Sea has gryphons. They’re important. And they’re cool.

Where Does Magic Live?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future

Well and good. As a fantasy writer, though, I usually have to approach the question from the other direction: what (if anything) makes magic distinguishable from technology? Is it just a different kind of science, a matter of formulae and experimentation? Is it part of the fabric of the universe (or worse, midichlorians)? Is it an element of special souls? Of words? Of music? Is it woven into objects and made permanent, or is it ephemeral? If it’s any or all of those things, how magical is it? How does it defy expectations, and when should it fulfill them?

Over Memorial Day weekend, I reread large swathes of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels. I have lots of reasons to love those books. One is that LeGuin’s writing of magic—especially prominent with a wizard as her protagonist—is probably the best I know. LeGuin integrates magic seamlessly into the world, but also into her characters and stories. Magic is never just a prop or a trick. (More on this below.)

Well-written magic makes fantasy stories shine. Poorly-written or poorly-conceived magic can keep stories dull. Magic is an easy place to go astray. It’s too easy to slip towards a gaming conception of magic: wizards (and maybe priests) casts spells that mostly do big, obvious things—quantifiable things. There’s a spell for healing. A spell for fireballs. A spell for turning an orc into a newt. There’s not much magical about that, especially if you steal D&D’s Vancian fire-and-forget approach.

Broadly speaking, magic’s qualities depend on where you put it—the mind, the soul, the world, divinity, or in things.

Dungeons & Dragons: I cast magic missile at the darkness.

The early Dungeons & Dragons took its inspiration for magic from the works of Jack Vance. Vancian wizards basically wrote spells in their brain in some metaphysical equivalent to temporary tattoos. Casting a spell took it out of their minds. (Zelazny’s second Amber series uses a similar approach to “hanging” spells.) There was little fuss in D&D about where the magic came from. It was just sort of out there…unless you’re playing a cleric, in which case it behaves with identical rules but the power source is your deity of choice. It isn’t until you get into the higher levels of magic that the rules begin to bend away from a patchwork of the quasi-mundane.

Brust: Twists of Mind

In Brust’s work, magic is a series of tricks of the mind. You can manipulate energy directly (pre-Empire sorcery), through something called the Imperial Orb (sorcery), or through symbols (witchcraft). The energy is out there to be manipulated. Some characters have genetic predisposition to certain kinds of magic (particularly pre-Empire sorcery), but most can be learned by people with the resources to get training. Mostly, magic does what the plot needs it to do; hardly anything is codified. The interesting thing about the Dragaera books is that magic is pervasive. Brust has incorporated many of the little things you’d expect magicians to be doing that are often left out of other settings (keeping track of time, warming up coffee). Magic is not mysterious until the gods get involved (and Brust’s gods roughly approximate entities that are just really, really good at magic).

Tolkien: Things (and People) of Power

Tolkien’s an interesting case. Instances of D&D-esque spellcasting are few and far between—Gandalf throwing lightning in the goblin caves, spells of opening and closing in Moria. Magic in Middle Earth instead comes in two broad forms: that which inheres in artifacts, and that which moves men’s wills. Artifacts, from the Rings of Power to Sting, are the products of knowledge. It’s secret knowledge, too, often described as “cunning” in usage that echoes the Norse and Germanic myths that inspired Professor Tolkien. Those cunning elves (and much more rarely men or dwarves) discover secrets.

Tolkien’s relation of magic to divinity and influence on men’s wills is more idiosyncratic. I don’t recall anything quite like it. Yes, the Witch-King of Angmar knows spells. He’s deadly, though, because his will works on his enemies. The Nazgul are terrifying beyond reason. Saruman’s voice eats away at his listeners’ resistance. Gandalf and Aragorn are pillars of strength that prop up everybody around them. It’s metaphysical rather than psychological, some quality that seems to belong to certain great souls. I feel perfectly reasonable calling it magic.

LeGuin: Names and Words

The Earthsea books feature my favorite writing of magic. Wizards use magic mostly to do the things people would want it to do in a low-technology setting: mend pots, cure goats’ infected udders, conjure wind for ships. Unlike Brust’s stories, though, this is the main function of wizards. (LeGuin isn’t dealing with Dragaera’s hierarchies, mind.) The magic itself relies on true names, the language of the making of the world. In one sense, it’s not far removed from the cunning of Tolkien’s artificers—there are secrets that a prepared mind can use to influence reality. The power of those secrets, though, manifests in words, especially spoken words. Magic is a dialogue with creation. That’s what makes it so convincing to read.

Putting it Together

Many writers combine these concepts. Some concoct new systems. David Farland’s Runelords books, for example, have elemental wizards but also a system whereby a man can transfer his “attributes” to another via runes—“the strength of ten men” becomes literal through magical brands. Whatever rules (or “rules”) you create for magic, the trick is making it seem magical. The more  quantifiable magic is – the more it resembles technology – the less special it feels. (That’s a generalization and an opinion. Some authors have created fanatically-detailed systems of magic, bending fantasy toward hard sci-fi with swords.)

For Ghosts of the Old City, my model of magic is probably closest to Brust’s. Maedoc does magic (a bit)—it’s a manipulation of finite energies that he couples with a family talent for seeing dead people. I muck things up by including alchemy on the side. Alchemy’s my “speed of plot” bit of magic, one that I use sparingly and mostly for patching up my busted protagonists. Importantly, alchemy is necessary for making permanent changes. If the fabric of reality is a bedsheet, magic can put wrinkles in it. The greatest wizards with access to the right sources of energy might be able to fold it. It takes alchemy, though, to make any stitches. Eventually, even the greatest magic-forged wrinkles and folds will lapse back towards flatness. That combination lets me have magic do flashy things when I need it to without worrying about the complications of people running around with magic flamethrowers. Hopefully, it keeps the magic suitably magical…you know, distinguishable from technology.

Books and the Magic of the Unknown

Sometimes the real is magical. A few days before I moved away from Minneapolis, I was walking to the grocery store and stopped at the elementary school playground for a few minutes. A hawk landed on the playground equipment about 12 meters from the bench where  I sat. Then it moved to the top of the swing set, less than 5 meters away. It perched there, preened, and flew off after five minutes or so. This was inner city Minneapolis, a quarter mile from I-35. The moment was an unexpected treasure.

Sometimes it feels like magic is about to be real: the moments you think you’re about to step into Narnia, or fall down a rabbit hole. And sometimes, incredibly, it’s not just a bit of borrowed imaginary scenery. When I was 18, I went to Hay-on-Wye, a town near the Welsh border with England. Hay-on-Wye is the National Book Town of Wales, a small town of about 2,000 with a disproportionate number of used book stores. There might not be as many as there used to be, but at the time it seemed like half the shops in town sold used books. I went into several, but one sticks in my memory. The shopkeep, with all the earnest theatricality of a circus ringmaster, greeted me with “Welcome to Wonderland.” It felt like Wonderland. Looking back rationally, it was just a big, untidy used book shop. The feeling, though…I felt like I had taken that step into Narnia or Wonderland. I didn’t know what I’d find on the shelves, or how far back they went, or if I’d ever need to leave. It felt like a Neil Gaiman story before I’d ever read any of his stories.

Books have that magic, especially when many of them are collected in one place, waiting to be discovered. Going through grad school in the humanities means spending long hours in libraries. It means having an opinion on Dewey versus Library of Congress. It means stumbling into interesting sources (whether or not they’re relevant). It meant, for me, getting to do research at the New York Public Library on 42nd with the lions out front…even if that research involved sitting at a microfilm reader for hurried hours. Libraries were as close as grad school got me to my high school essay about being a wizard when I grew up.

The magic comes from the unknown. That’s a hell of a lot harder to replicate on-line, where you can search for exactly what you need and not find anything else. Access to the digital archive of the New York Times was a godsend for my dissertation. I was able to pull just what I needed and not have to spend time with microfilm. Despite the extra work involved, though, I had a lot more fun looking through the entire 1970s run of the Village Voice on microform. I learned pretty quickly that music reviews were in the mid-50s of each issue. The stuff I found on the way was interesting, though, including coverage of the May 1977 theatrical release of this little movie called Star Wars:

Print ad for the original release of Star Wars, stumbled upon while looking for material on avant-garde music.

Print ad for the original release of Star Wars, stumbled upon while looking for material on avant-garde music. (I think this one is actually from the NYT on a day I was looking at microfilm. Microfilm scanning still leaves a lot to be desired.)

None of the magic kept my eyes from turning an exhausted red by the ends of my Saturdays in the library basement, but the potential of something cool, dissertation-related or not, helped keep me going. When we make up stories, we’re engaging in that same kind of quest. I’ve heard Steven Brust, for example, aver in varied fashion that he writes “to see what happens next.” We read books to see what happens next, too. When writers suck us in, the next page’s unknown can be as magical as a hawk on an inner city playground. Books do that individually or aggregated into a library.

There’s always the chance for magic. Theatrical booksellers aside, that’s what was magical about Hay-on-Wye. It was undiscovered country. It was full of undiscovered countries. They lurked behind every cover.