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.