Musing on Magical Items

So, how much is too much when it comes to magical items?

Swords, Scarabs, Dragons, and Rings

Swords, Scarabs, Dragons, and Rings

Over the last few years, I’ve encountered a real resistance among some readers, writers, and editors of Fantasy fiction to novels that include magical swords, amulets, rings, and the like.   These works are spoken of with a sneer and are much less likely to get attention when the time comes for award nominations.  Oddly, this resistance includes “fan” awards, even when the books in question are topping the bestseller lists.

As for dragons…  I’ve been on panels where panelists have proudly and loudly announced that their forthcoming Fantasy novel is a “dragon-free” zone.

But I wander off my point.  (But then, these are Wanderings, right?)

So, where did this resistance to magical items come from?  Why has the idea arisen that the inclusion of such makes a piece less magical?

Certainly magical items belong to Fantasy  from its earliest roots in mythology.  Many of the Norse gods possessed magical items.  Some had more than one.  Thor, for example, not only had his hammer Mjolnir, but also an iron mitten that let him catch the hammer when he threw it at a target.  (The hammer apparently had boomerang properties).  Thor also had a magical belt that increased his strength two-fold.  Oh, yeah, let’s not forget his war cart, which was drawn by billy-goats and flew through the air.

Greek myths also contain  magical items.  These are not limited to those like the Chariot of the Sun, which can be “excused” as a pseudo-scientific explanation for natural phenomena.   Nor are they restricted to divinities.  Mortal heroes often bear magical weapons.    Perseus is equipped with not only Athena’s mirror-bright shield, but with Hermes’ own magical sword.  As if this is not enough, the nymphs of the north loan him magical sandals that  let him fly, a cap that makes him invisible, and a bag that swells to contain whatever is put into it,( so he’ll have a neat and tidy place to store Medusa’s head).

I could go on and on…  There are magical harps of the British Isles.  The amulets and charms of the Egyptians.   The magical armor and weapons with which almost every culture equips its gods and heroes.  Sometimes, the ability to use these items is taken as proof that the bearer is, in fact, worthy to be a hero.

So, again I ask, why are such so often scorned when they appear in Fantasy fiction?  Why does giving the protagonist a magical sword immediately slide the tale down the literary scale?

Over the last week or so, inspired by Alan and my discussion of  Fantasy fiction that draws from Welsh sources (TT 5-02-13), I’ve been re-reading  Lloyd Alexander’s  Prydain Chronicles.   (The first book is The Book of Three, if you’re interested in trying them.)  Here we have a magical sword, a glowing sphere, and a magical harp…   There are magical tomes, potions and lotions, and a very potent amulet.  Indeed, the only item in the magical bag of tricks that is missing is a ring.

Despite this, I have heard the books praised by the hardest of the hard-headed as really good Fantasy fiction.  Nor do I think that the Prydain Chronicles “get away” with including magical items because they are “children’s books.”  In fact, as an avid reader of YA fiction, lately I’ve encountered more – not less – aversion to novels that include magical items.  Yes.  Even though Harry Potter included a host of such, the resistance is there.

I could go on and on, but I’ll pause and give you a chance to get a word in.  Do you have a particular favorite among the magical items of Fantasy fiction?  When do you think enough is enough?  Does the inclusion of magical items – especially those classic swords and rings and suchlike – cause you to hesitate to even give the story a try?

12 Responses to “Musing on Magical Items”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Actually, at the moment, I tend to cringe when I see that someone’s come up with a New And Different Magical System which forms the basis for their book (and says as much), because it screams Literary Conceits Filled with Plot Devices. And usually they are.

    As for dragons, I’m also ambivalent. Done right, they’re a lot of fun. Harry Potter’s dragons left me cold, but only because JK Rowling insisted on cramming a separate species of dragon into Wales. Yes, it’s a literary reference to the Welsh flag, but the ecologist in me kicked in. England is too small an island to support a breeding population of some huge, unique, high-energy, flying and flamethrowing predator, and I’m not sure Wales could support a breeding pair of the beasts, let alone a whole species. The biggest weakness in the Potter series (IMHO) was that Rowling seems to have no real sense of number or proportion. Cramming a species of huge carnivores into a tiny, highly settled area is just one example.

    On the other side, I’ve lurked on the ethnographic edged weapons board ( for a very long time. While I’m not an expert on antique swords, I can tell you that many, perhaps most, of the blades on that site, from around the world, either have a magical significance in their own cultures or contain magical marks or features. In other words, magic swords were (and are) the norm in the real world. No, they don’t sing or dance (although there’s an amusing story of how a Javanese keris “teleported” from a locked safe to someone else’s home many miles away). Some swords from the early Renaissance are covered with astrological sigils and signs to make the owner luckier, and at least one athame and genuine druid’s sickle have shown up on vikingsword too. Therefore, if an author wants to be realistic, there’s every reason to engrave sigils, symbols, and runes on those blades, and to tie an amulet to the hilt or scabbard.

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I think the danger is over kill. Harry Potter worked because the use of all these magical items was fluid, sensible, and almost expected (even though you didn’t know about it till it happened). Sometimes I think writers try to go for heavy magic, and end up just tossing in a magical whatever to serve a need without thinking it through and making it work. Kind of like too much high-tech gadgets in a sci-fi. Sometimes you lose the flow of the world by tossing in some grand technology from no where.

    As for dragons, I have no idea. Granted I’m in the camp (and I may be the only one) who doesn’t see why dragons have to follow everyone else’s view on dragons. (Types, breeds, powers, limitations, ect). If I want my dragons to be a certain way, so long as it’s consistent, flowing, and works well, does it really matter? It’s not the world of Dragon Heart, or Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, it’s that world. (I feel the same about werewolves, but now I’m starting to wander.) All that said, I don’t understand that aversion to dragons. Maybe it’s gotten too cliche for people. That’s all I can think of.

    Not sure I said much there, but it is an odd topic somehow. Though I will admit, as a fantasy writer myself, Heteromeles has mentioned a few things I intend to keep in mind as I work on my own worlds. Some are notions I never thought of. So for that, I thank you.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      I think you put your finger on it at the end: these things have become perceived as cliches, and nobody wants to admit reading a cliche.

      At least, they are seen as cliches by the dilettantes, who seem to be the ones shouting the loudest, rather than the fundamental building blocks they are.

  3. Paul Says:

    Re magical items: Some of my favorites have been Frodo’s ring, Elric’s sword, and Prince Ibis’ Ibistick. (You don’t remember that last one? You have to have read comic books many years ago!)

  4. paulgenesse Says:

    Personally, I don’t need or want a ton of magic items in books, and prefer just a few here or there. Harry Potter is a different case, and I loved all the magic items in that. Too many magic items makes in more serious fantasy novels cheapens their significance. My favorite magic item has to be the One Ring.

    Paul Genesse
    Author of the Iron Dragon Series

    • janelindskold Says:

      Your comment made me think… Magic items can also lead to magical abilities without cost to the wielder of the sword, wearer of the ring, whatever…

      To borrow one from the other Paul’s list — Elric’s sword. There’s a magic item with a major price.

      How about this? Without cost to the user or at least some limitation on use, magical items just become tech devices and rob the story of its sense of wonder?

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I agree with Louis that Nicholas has put his finger on it. Overkill. Cliches. Whatever…

    Still, I’m struggling with the idea that something must be New and Improved to be considered worthy of consideration.

    Predictability bothers me far more… That leads to what Alan has dubbed Extruded Fantasy Product. However, even predictability must have its appeal — otherwise there would be no market for Romance Novels.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Pixar Rule 19: “Coincidences that get characters into trouble are great. Coincidences that get characters out of trouble are cheating.” Perhaps this rule applies to magic items as well?
      If magic items act to get characters into trouble (because they are costly, because others desire them, because they are cursed, because they are weird, or perhaps because they are sentient and have a feline sense of humor), wouldn’t they be more fun to write?

  6. Sue Says:

    The best magical items of all time — for me — were the knife, fork and spoon of the picnic set in Andre Norton’s “Steel Magic”. That was the earliest fantasy I can remember reading, and those utensils hooked me! There was a magical horn, sword and ring in that book, too, which I didn’t remember until re-visiting it recently. They were just objects to be retrieved, however, and didn’t help generate an interest in magical tools.
    My earliest literary dragons were in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. The idea of having such a super-pet was appealing, and as the story progressed, the science geek in me liked the reference to biology and genetics. Those books definitely stray over the line into science fiction, though; I don’t consider them to be fantasy, and certainly not magical fantasy.
    It wasn’t until I read “The Hobbit” that magic rings and swords and dragons all came together for me. I’d have to admit that Tolkien set the standard against which I judge many fantasy books, and I first read them 40 years ago! In those four decades I haven’t run across very many books that support the use of magical items so comprehensively! I agree with Nicholas in that often times the sword or ring is just tossed in without much thought.
    I don’t automatically shy away from books with swords and dragons. (In fact, cover art that includes dragons catches my eye, because I also collect dragon figures and art.) I guess I’m still looking for quirky, though, because I do tend to appreciate magical items that aren’t what one would expect. (I want to be able to make sculpey bead bracelets with that certain something extra!)

    • janelindskold Says:

      Do I catch an allusion to my “Breaking the Wall” books in that last line? If so, thanks!

  7. CBI Says:

    Context might be important. The first time one reads a story with a magical doo-hickey, one does not react negatively to it, even if the tale is not itself at the 50th percentile. However, for someone who’s read a-hundred-and-plenty stories with a magical doo-hickey, the overall story and writing might have to be tip-top for it not to seem clichéd.

    Heteromeles mentioned how one’s scientific background can interfere with enjoyment of a fantasy story. For me, the lack of energy conservation laws in the Potterverse was, at times, disconcerting. (The Welsh dragon ecological example is a specific application.)

    I think that when reading fantasy, sometimes it helps to remove the filters of current paradigms. In the Potterverse, e.g., energy conservation laws as we know them don’t hold. In fact, that almost seems to be the definintion of “magic” in that sequence. It is as if magic results from obtaining energy from outside the natural universe while using that obtained energy within it. (Perhaps there also needs to be an energy sink involved, to prevent or minimize thermal effects.)

    Thus, Ford Anglia’s can fly, and Welsh Green Dragons metabolize differently than natural critters (perhaps obtaining energy from the magical source), aren’t hyperterritorial, and even (maybe) are not limited to Wales or even the British Isles.

    But back to the questions. I have no favorite magical object, and the mere existence of one in the tale makes little difference to me: it is how it all fits together that is more important.

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