System = Unmagical?

Time and again, when the subject of magic as used in Fantasy fiction arises, I hear the same criticism.  This is that systemized magic somehow ruins the “magical” feeling  by turning magic into a poor copy of science.  “Gamers” are regularly blamed for introducing this element into Fantasy, a criticism that completely disregards the fact that magical systems are as old as the concept of magic itself.

Magical Glow

Magical Glow

Let’s not forget that many of the “classic” Fantasy writers – Jack Vance immediately springs to mind, as does Michael Moorcock – invented magical systems in their stories.  Their works pre-dated gaming.  Indeed, they influenced gaming.  But I wander off topic…

Magical systems are close kin to ritual magic – that is, a magic where a ritual (or system) is used in the belief that following that system will achieve a desired result.  Ritual magic permeates numerous cultures.  The ancient Egyptians used it not only in those rites associated with death and judgment, but in daily life.  (Do you think only mummies wore amulets?).  Many European cultures possessed their own forms of ritual magic, dating far back into prehistory.  (What do you think cave paintings are?)

Ritual magic is central to many Native American cultures.  My husband, Jim, is an anthropologist who specializes in Southwestern cultures.  Despite the hard-held belief of many New Age practitioners that the Native Americans are simply “close to nature” and “sensitive to the Great Spirit,” magical/religious rituals (there is no real distinction) are integral to the power/belief structures of these peoples.  When Jim’s division moved into a new building earlier this year, a member of the staff – who also happens to be a Comanche shaman – gave the building a traditional blessing.

Perhaps no culture so closely equated magic and system as did  the Chinese.  Moreover, especially to the older Chinese cultures (although plenty of rituals are still practiced today), there was no distinction between science and magic.   When the first Chinese emperor was advised to burn all books except for technical manuals and handbooks (the history of his own lineage was excluded from this general attempt to erase all contradictory history and tradition), divination was included with medicine, agriculture, and arboriculture as what we would today term “hard science.”  (For those of you who haven’t tried them, this event is the root of my “Breaking the Wall” series, which begins with Thirteen Orphans.)

As a writer of Fantasy fiction, I have explored many types of magic.  In my contemporary novels such as Changer and Child of a Rainless Year, I have dealt with more “numinous” or non-ritual magic.  When I designed an imaginary world for my Firekeeper novels, what form of magic was practiced in what region varied according to the culture that colonized an area.  Some of these were ritual magics.  Some were not.

However, when dealing with historical or living magical traditions –  as I did with Legends Walking aka Changer’s Daughter (West African, among others), The Buried Pyramid (ancient Egyptian), and Thirteen Orphans (Chinese) – I did not ignore the elements of systematized or ritual magic.  Rather, I found material within those traditions that was as numinous and mysterious as any vague evocation of magical vibrations could be.

I found the Chinese system particularly fascinating.   Over time, an elaborate system of correspondences evolved, so that every significant plant, animal, number, element, star/planet, and suchlike are linked.  These links are not simple.  For every affiliation, there is an opposition.  Yin and yang means that principles which in Western traditions are distinct are blended, so that within darkness there is a tiny bit of light, within the male there is a touch of the female, within the domestic there must be the wild, and so on…

Talk about complex, mysterious, and full of wonder.  I loved it!

Do you have a favorite magical system?  One you couldn’t stand?  As always, I’m curious!

(Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared on in 2008)

14 Responses to “System = Unmagical?”

  1. Piscis Says:

    I can appreciate both hard-system magic and mystical-mysterious magic in a story, depending on how central magic is to the narrative are and how it’s used in regard to resolving plot points. Great historical examples supporting a more ritualistic ‘system-y’ focus, though!

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    One interesting irony for me is that, while a number of authors have written fantasies using the magical systems they actually practice, not a one of those books became a classic of SFF. They’re still being written, and you can readily find them on Amazon, if you know your magical systems. Modern magic is primarily alt-religion, and as such, it doesn’t seem to appeal to anyone except those who are interested in alternative religions or spirituality.

    The magic that does succeed in SFF generally leaves the religion out of it, and uses magic as the equivalent of technology to make a medieval-ish world feel more modern. You can use sprites as an alternative for cell phones, or spells in place of computer programs, and everything becomes more familiar. In a way this is good, because it makes a fundamentally alien medieval world less alien. The problem, as everyone notes, is that, badly done, it feels clumsy and artificial.

    Another interesting point is that this is also seems to be a modern trend. Michael Moorcock routinely pitched gods of all flavors into their magic, just as traditional magic does. So did Jack Vance and HP Lovecraft. If anything, SFF authors seem to have gotten more squeamish about the whole gods-in-magic thing over the last few decades. I suspect this is due to market research, and wanting to sell books to people who practice Christian Churchianity and don’t want to be caught reading anything that could be construed as alternative religion. Considering the flap over the massively secular Harry Potter, I don’t particularly blame them. Still, this leads to magic-as-alternative-technology, and to a lot of artificiality.

    As for my favorite system, I’ll use a real example I learned from a Chumash shaman: the use of California white sage as “Indian prozac.” White sage is a highly aromatic bush that does contain a bit of thujone, so it could be considered a mild sedative (and somewhat better decongestant). However, if you just chew a leaf, nothing happens. If you’re having a bad day and want to feel better, what you are supposed to do is to say (or at least think) a prayer for peace and sanity, pick a fresh young shoot of white sage, and stroke the leaves until they relax, which takes at least five minutes. After that, you suck the sap out of the stem. The reason this works is that fresh young stems of white sage are soft and fuzzy. It’s a lot like stroking a kitten, in fact. And you have to stroke those leaves for at least five minutes. It’s even better if you focus on what you’re doing the entire time. When you perform this ritual, the white sage has an amazing calming effect. But the critical point here is that the ritual is what heals. That, to me, is the essence of real magic.

    • Sally Says:

      One writer who I think succeeds at combining religion and magic these days is Tamora Pierce–the Trickster books and Beka Cooper books in particular.

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    Sometimes you even find this in the story. For example, poor Firesong k’Treva and his encounter with the very systematic imperial mages in Misty Lackey’s Mage Storms books. ‘Magic is art and intuition!’

    PS: Was looking through your web site, and notice that you’re listing Fire Season as published by Tor. Jim & Tom were good friends, but still…

    PPS: what I was looking for is contact info. Is there still an option for people who don’t do Facebook?

  4. Tom MacCarrol Says:

    Hi. I’ve been finding your entries to be amazingly on-target lately. I’m a little less than two chapters from having my little group of plane-chrash survivors run face-first into one of the most powerful reasons the place they’ve ended up in is not at all like home. If I’m gonna muffle the dice for good and all…to the research shelves!

  5. Laura L Says:

    I remember loving the magical system in Susan Dexter’s Callandra series, where the young wizard in training cast a spell while wearing ‘shining armor’ and almost electrocuted himself – magical energy reacts to iron and steel – causing chaotic results.

    Personally, if there are no ‘rules’ or the magic is very random where ‘only special snowflakes have magic’, then I start asking questions which throw me out of the story…

  6. Chad Merkley Says:

    I think the criticism of systematic magic in fiction has some degree of validity if the system of magic is the central element of the story–in other words, creating a clever system of magic is why the author wrote the story. Does the complexity and detail about the magic get in the way of storytelling elements like character development and plot? I can’t think of any specific examples off the top of my head, but I know I’ve run into them.

    Some counter-examples do show up in Jane’s work, especially in Thirteen Orphans and sequels. The main characters are learning a precise and well-defined system of magic, but they are explicitly told that this is not the only system available. Also, the story centers around the characters’ growth and increased understanding of the situation. L.E. Modessit is another author who’s good at this. He gave himself a few minor magical constraints to follow in the Recluce books, but he doesn’t seem to mind rearranging or redefining aspects of magic in order to tell the story he wants.

  7. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Just a bit off topic, but maybe not.

    I don’t know. Every time I thing about fantasy I sometimes cringe when the talk moves to “proper” this or that. Books like Thirteen Orphans is different. It had it’s base in Chinese culture so of course, you need to follow those rules. But when someone want to write about dragons, there are entire groups who scream bloody murder when they deviate from the established norms.

    I don’t get that. It’s fictional world. So long as the magic works, who cares if an ice dragon breaths fire, or a full moon has no effect on werewolves, or so many of these “rules” are broken.

    So which systems do I like or dislike? Any system that lays out its rules well, and follows them. Firekeeper had a set of rules that were new to me. But they made sense, and behaved according to those rules. Same with Thirteen Orphans. It just needs to make sense.

    Beyond that, if it “breaks the rules”, I don’t care. Unless it supposed to be a certain type of magic. Then it does matter.

  8. Tori Says:

    I like a magic system where there is a degree of difficulty and limitations associated with magic. For instance, the Harry Potter method of magic seems “too easy” to me now. They cast spells willy-nilly all day long! I prefer systems in books like the Abhorsen trilogy where a misplayed musical note can have dire consequences, or the Dresden novels where magic takes a lot of preparation ahead of time, or bites a huge chuck out of the caster’s stamina when used on the fly.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Isn’t this the “deus ex machina” problem? The idea that a wizard could say “deus summone” and a god would pop up and solve the problem. The other end of the spectrum is from a book on modern shamanism, that calls a magic wand “just another kind of shovel.” The idea being it’s a tool that let you do certain things, but it still takes a lot of work.

      The interesting thing is that most fantasy novels (with exceptions) like to substitute emotional work or drama for physical work. They don’t use the “wand as shovel” model, but they tend to avoid deus ex machina solutions as well.

      While there’s some basis for using emotion in real magic (cf a voudoun ritual), I think the real reason for this is that novels tend to be about evoking emotion, so a purely mechanistic magic is less satisfying, even ignoring the fact that most people are physics phobes. Making magic emotionally draining advances the plot in ways that pure physics does not. Pratchett is one good example of this. In his early novels, his magic used a lot more physics than did his later ones. In one early book, if you used your mind to move something, you had to make sure your brain (following Newton’s Law) didn’t get forced out of your head in the opposite direction. In later books, he tended more towards the Law of Narrative Causality and various quantum silliness, where the characters manipulated the outcome of events as if the observer effect from quantum mechanics applied to the plot. His magic became more about playing with the story, and those books are (I think) better known.

  9. paulgenesse Says:

    Good post and I like the way the magic was handled in the 13 Orphans series. I also like the way Brandon Sanderson handled magic in his Elantris book, which was a fantastic way to deal with world building and plot at the same time.

  10. janelindskold Says:

    This is one of those times wish I had time to respond to each and every comment. Thanks both for the compliments and references to authors who have done it right!

    It’s a rich field indeed.

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