tolkien

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.

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WTF is Epic?

A Google image search for “epic” yields depressing results—mostly “demotivational” posters (“epic fail” and “epic win”), and most of those prominently featuring breasts. (Go internet?) A standard search yields only slight improvements: the primary results are Epic Systems, the movie “Epic” (loosely based on a book by William Joyce), and, eventually, Wikipedia’s epic poetry page.

That gets us closer to a working definition of epic for storytelling purposes. (Today, at least, I’ll spare you the detour explaining Bakhtin’s notion of epic and novelistic chronotope.) What makes for epic storytelling? Is it attitude? Does the fate of the world (or multiple worlds) necessarily hang in the balance? Can we legitimately call one protagonist’s descent and redemption epic if it doesn’t involve saving the world? They’re big questions, and off the cuff I’d suggest that the main ingredient is simply scale. There has to be some sense that the story’s action has far-reaching consequences, whether it’s a ring of power, finding the Buddhist scrolls far to the west, or some evil deity ready to be unchained. Sometimes, if the interior worlds of characters are sufficiently realized, the interpersonal can become epic in scale.

Scale is tricky. Concerning yourself overmuch with it can lead to forest/trees issues in which you constantly lose one or the other. What follows is a discussion of one particular way of mistaking the forest for the trees, the storytelling technique I call “epic by addition.”

Some of you have heard me talk (rant) about this before, and you know which author is soon going to be in my crosshairs. Epic by addition is the attempt to create scale simply by adding more stuff. People, places, monsters…keep adding them until your editor cuts you off.* You can simply introduce new characters out of the blue, or you can build up the supporting cast into stars. The more stars you have, the brighter the sky, right?

Yeah. Maybe not. If you put too many bright stars in the sky, picking out the constellations becomes a chore.

From J.R.R. to G.R.R.

The first author I read to really embrace epic by addition was Melanie Rawn. She had foreigners invade her continent, and chose to trace that invasion through the soap-opera members of convoluted family tree of magic people. The most famous purveyor of epic by addition, though, is G.R.R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire. The series’ narrative spirals out from Winterfell to the Wall to King’s Landing to Pentos to…well, pretty much everywhere. Along the way, Mr. Martin continues to give us new characters, not only including them in the story but featuring them as point-of-view characters. We get each character for a chapter, then jump somewhere far away to check in with the local haps.

I do not think Martin is a bad writer. His prose is generally crisp. Many of his characters are compelling (although few are likable). The books read briskly considering their heroic length. I just wish he’d get on with his story. I feel that I’ve lost track of what that is.

As a thought experiment, imagine The Lord of the Rings—usually acknowledged as the grandfather of epic fantasy—retold in Martin’s style.

The Fellowship of the Ring, I think, changes little. We start perhaps with Bilbo’s view of the party. Or begin (as Tolkien does) by gradually zooming in on Frodo. We might get some Samwise or Meriadoc or Pippin in the flight from the riders and into the Old Forest. Frodo again for the Barrow Downs. Aragorn, probably, for the misadventures in Bree and the hike to Weathertop. Frodo again there, then probably Sam up to Rivendell. We might get Elrond for the grand council, Boromir for Caradhras. Gandalf, almost certainly, for Moria, although you could excuse the Istari from POV duties and stick to Aragorn or Gimli. And so on and so forth until we end, similarly to the original, with Sam finding Frodo at the boats.

The Two Towers…that is where we start to lose it. The surviving members of the Fellowship all get their own chapters. We get one for Eomer, one for Eowyn as she leads the women and children away from Meduseld. Smeagollum gets his own chapter(s). Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas and maybe even Theoden. We get a chapter from Isengard by Saruman, maybe. Or perhaps that one comes from Wormtongue. We interrupt the string of Frodo-Sam-Smeagollum with a chapter from Faramir. (We also mix them all together rather than holding to Tolkien’s Orthanc/Barad Dur split.)

When the War of the Ring really gets rolling in The Return of the King? Can you imagine? We’d get chapters from all the remaining fellowship members. Eomer, Eowyn, maybe Theoden again if we’ve heard from him. Certainly several from Faramir. We’d probably get detailed accounts of battles that are skimmed over, like the ones leading up to Pelennor Fields. We’d hear all about Imrahil of Dol Amroth. If we’re hewing particularly close to Martin’s oeuvre, we likely have at least some politicking about who will lead Gondor. If we embrace epic by addition wholeheartedly, we skip back up to Esgaroth, Dale, and the Lonely Mountain to have a look at how they again fight off an invasion of orcs, and other material from Appendix B. It would almost certainly take two books to deal with it all…

…and it would drown Frodo’s quest. Among all those other momentary protagonists, the struggle of two small hobbits to cross Mordor would be difficult indeed to keep in focus. No matter how exciting it might be moment to moment, no matter how cool the characters, we would not have the same story. That is what bothers me about epic by addition. It muddies the shape of the story. You lose the forest in painstaking descriptions of individual trees.

Build your world. Set your characters loose in it. Don’t try to fill in all the corners.

*Related pet theory: authors hit a dangerous point when, on the covers of their books, their name is bigger than the work’s title. That seems to be about the time editors begin backing off.