A/N: I'd like to say that this is my opinion. This isn't necessarily right or wrong, it is just what I've noticed about magic in the fantasy genre. Also, this is not an in-depth explanation about what the magics are. In some cases I'm only touching on a subject before moving on to another, this was due to the fact that I had a space limit on this paper and was trying not to go over the limit, though I did anyway. That said, this is one of the few essays I've enjoyed writing. My English teacher made the mistake of letting us choose our topics for our final research paper. This essay focusing primarily on nature in certain branches of magic. If it goes well I might write another one dealing with other topics on magic.
The Necessity of Rules in Magic
Fantasy, for the most part, is rarely based off of reality. At first glance the entire genre seems devoid of any semblance of what could possibly occur in the real world. Despite this, reality is of great importance when building a world of fantasy. As you can imagine, several complications arise when a world of fantasy is dependent completely on reality. In many ways it is easier for people to bend or twist the laws of reality than break them entirely. A person who sees a ten ton dragon soaring majestically through the skies on gossamer wings might find it hard to imagine a mythical creature of those proportions existing in the real world. Some things can only possibly exist in the minds of authors and daydreamers. For things impossible in the real world, where gravity and aerodynamics make a mockery of titanic dragons, most people take solace in an old tradition of using a chaotic, abstract element that can potentially be credited with anything and everything: Magic.
As previously stated, reality is of vital importance to fantasy. The fantasy world does not have to follow the laws of reality to the letter; merely acknowledge that there are certain immutable aspects of reality that cannot be broken permanently. Such things as: gravity, light, time, or the effects of nature. Ultimately, there has to be some level of reality to form a foundation for a fantasy world to grow in. Only in fertile soil can a person's imagination take wing and soar to new heights, and the most fertile soil for the mind is that which is known. Since people are subject to all forms of reality daily, even if they are unaware of the complexities of it, they are able to transfer this knowledge of the real and build upon to the create the fantastic.
Although magic in the modern world is sleight of hand, misdirection, or the application of technology, it was originally used to describe the supernatural and those things beyond a person's capability to describe. There are thousands of myths and legends that tell of witchcraft and wizardry that are steeped in the culture of the indigenous people of the area. The witch built a house of sweets to lure her dinner; the enchantress transformed the handsome prince into a beast; the wizard cleaved a sword into a stone that only one could draw; the beauty that pricked her finger upon a loom and slept. The world is abound with stories and lore riddled with magic and the supernatural. People have a profound curiosity towards magic that has evolved from belief to disbelief and from disbelief to amusement. By applying a chaotic, abstract idea such as magic to the human mind and the creative passages therein it gives rise to the impossible. Or, simply put, fantasy.
Magic is a defining feature of the fantasy genre, primarily high, low, swords & sorcery, medieval, heroic, and dark fantasy, along with several other lower subcategories of fantasy proper. Trying to define magic is an act of futility because the definition changes depending on the person vainly trying to define it. For the purpose of trying to give some broad definition to a vague element that exists only in the imagination of man. Magic could be described as the act of taking some primordial energy and shaping it to the user's will. In many ways, the human being itself is magic because it can become anything that the mind can imagine. This can stretch to include various forms of the supernatural: conjuration, precognition, summoning, enchanting, projection, or any other mystical art that fits into the broad category of "magic."
In keeping with the need for some semblance of reality, many fantasy authors find that they can make their worlds more acceptable and believable to their audiences by constraining what magic can do and what it cannot do. By doing this, they add an additional layer of reality to their world that deals with a purely fictional topic. Given the abstract nature of magic and that there are no limits to the number of different types of magic that could potentially be thought up, it is absurd to think that all variants of magic will adhere to the same set of rules. Each form of magic my have its own rules independent from others, but there is no law the demands all magic follows the same rules. As Lawrence Watt-Evans, a critic of fantasy, stated in his fifth law of fantasy, "Magic, like everything else, has rules." There is no one correct way to explain the magic system of a world, as many authors choose variants of similar systems that have been used for many years. Generally, there are only a select few people who are capable of using magic and harnessing those mystical energies: wizards, witches, mages, sorcerers, etc. Authors take familiar systems of magic they are comfortable with and add their own personalized touch to it.
A prime example of how authors approach similar ideas are verbal spells, a form of magic characteristic of high fantasy. It implies that the magic-user must utter a certain phrase in order to procure the desire effect. In Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea novels the words are part of an ancient language known simply as Old Speech. The premise behind Le Guin's magic system, and the laws that govern it, is that everything in Earthsea has a 'true name.' A magic-user who knows the true name of an object has power over this thing and can control it. This is an important part of Earthsea's magic in that every beach, every rock, every fish, and every person has a name. In effect, this constrains the ability of Earthsea's magic-users by keeping them from exerting their power in foreign areas. While the magic-user might be extraordinarily powerful in his own area where he knows the true name of everything in his domain, if he were to leave his home and go to a new place where he did not know the true names of the area he would be at a loss and not be as effective. Also, the notion that people themselves have true names is important. In Earthsea, true names are hidden for fear that a malignant magic-user would obtain that name and enslave the person through use of their true name.
However, the idea of an object having a 'true name' is not the only manner of verbal spells. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, a widely read series of books that have become quite famous in recent times, uses a similar form of verbal spells. The magic-users in these books use a series of semi-Latin phrases that describe what they wish to do that are referred to as the language of magic. It is entirely possible for a magic-user to cast a powerful spell, so long as they know what the words are.
Knowledge is a defining feature of verbal spells and serves as the most basic law for this branch of magic. A magic-user can only perform a spell that they know. If they do not know a spell, then they are incapable of performing it. In effect, this limits their abilities. For a magic-user who uses verbal spells, knowledge is power. This also serves to differentiate between magic-users and those unable to use magic. Only those who fully comprehend their subject matter can perform amazing feats, while those without such knowledge are mere spectators in these affairs. By doing so, the author effectively creates two separate social classes of haves and have-nots.
It is important to note that verbal spells partially circumvent rules regarding nature. Verbal spells could further be subdivided into projection and conjuration. Conjuration is the process of creating something from nothing, an act that is in clear violation of the natural order. Through application of heat or other reactants it is possible to change the chemical composition of matter. This is possible in the real world and is done on a regular basis in chemistry labs across the world. Projection, on the other hand, is just the act of applying force. Force can be applied through a variety of mediums such as: heat, a change in densities, or the ever present option of magic.
A second type of magic common in literature is the application of will into cohesive energy. Similar to verbal spells in the versatility of its brand of magic, will energy is most commonly seen in conjuncture with projection. Perhaps the best example of this form of energy is the aptly named "Force" from George Lucas's Star Wars franchise. The concept behind this aspect of magic is that the magic-user has a natural affinity for this form of magic and that it is tied into their psychological state of mind. The mechanics of will energy is most often compared to projection, the application of force. Star Wars best illustrated this by focusing on the telekinetic manipulation of objects. Even though the magic-user is manipulating the area around him, his actions are still limited by reality. Although the possibility exists for a magic-user to lift a weight through will energy, the weight will still be affected by gravity, it is still subject to temperature change, the object itself will not have changed in composition or in form. The object is constrained by its nature. If an object is altered, through alchemy or any other means of transmutation, then its nature and its constraints have changed in tune with its alteration. No matter what way copper is manipulated it will still conduct electricity and have a high melting point.
Both of the previous forms of magic rely more on the magic-user's own innate abilities instead of relying on an outside source. The process of the magic is internalized; the power comes from within. Ritual magic, typical of swords and sorcery fantasy, requires an external source to input the required energy. In some cases the external source could be a natural wellspring of energy, a patron deity, or simply taking in energy from the surrounding areas. The principle behind ritual magic is just as the name suggests. The magic-user performs a ritual in order to obtain a certain effect: a preferred weather change, fertility, or enhancing the growing capacity of the soil. On the other hand, the magic-user could be trying to obtain a different effect; raising the dead, a rite of power, enslavement, blights, or other spells usually associated with the classically "evil" magic-users. Ideally magic is perfectly in tune with the natural order of the world. Given that ritual magic can go outside of reality to make deals with a being beyond the earthly scope. If this being can break rules then it has no need to abide by them. Despite the benefactor's otherworldly nature the results of the ritual affects the world through the natural medium. In the instances of changes in weather it is a result of natural occurrences. For example, if a magic-user is trying to bring rain-fall in the midst of a drought the rain clouds would assemble in the exact same way as they would if they had not been gathered by a ritual. Conversely blights could be created by keeping the atmosphere dry and devoid of moisture. From there it would be a simple task of eroding the ozone layer to raise the heat of the area. Enhancing the soil could simply be adding nitrogen or other nutrients to the soil.
The limitations for ritual magic are built into the ritual itself. Certain words, phrases, along with a rigid order of events have to go into it before the ritual can be completed and the magic can be performed. If any part of the ritual is out of place the entire operation is defunct. By constraining the ease with which ritual magic can be used, the author sets boundaries to it and maintains a level of reality.
In keeping with using an external source for magic two other forms of magic become apparent. Shaman and druid magic are similar in nature but differ in principle. The common conception of shamanism in popular fantasy is steeped in Native American mythology, usually by combining the lore of shamans and skinwalkers, a creature capable of taking the shape of animals. A shaman magic-user is confined by his animalistic totems, usually by taking the form of an animal. By taking the form of an animal, the shaman magic-user faces the same limitations as the animal he is imitating. If an animal cannot do a certain action then the magic-user will also be unable to perform this action.
Alternatively, a druid magic-user does not rely upon animals so much as nature. Rather than using totems like the shaman, the druid magic-user will manipulate plants or other natural elements to meet his desires. Druid magic-users are stereotyped by having them preach about being harmonious with nature. Because of this, they are generally unable or unwilling to commit acts of injustice or harm.
While shamanism and druidism deal with fauna and flora, respectively, they do not cover the four classic Greek elements that characterize elemental magic. Earth, water, fire, and air magic-users manipulate their element in order to cause a variety of effects ranging from a simple exertion of fire to a more complex manipulation of air currents to create a vortex. "Avatar: The Last Airbender," an animated children's show on Nickelodeon created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, offers an ideal example of elemental magic. The world created by DiMartino and Konietzko is populated with different types of elemental magic-users to the point where they are the dominant population. There are severe limitations built upon each mode of magic: certain traits characteristic to each element that cannot be broached, nature's influence, and, again, the imagination of the magic-user. DiMartino and Konietzko chose to show the application of their elemental magic system as only being possible through motion. If the elemental magic-user is incapable of moving, he is unable to perform any acts of magic. However, this is not necessarily a vital role of elemental magic as DiMartino and Konietzko were interesting in showing how the elemental magic of their world related to various philosophies through Chinese martial arts. Nature also plays a key role in the magic system, one that is absolutely necessary to preserve the illusion of reality and maintain the audience's belief in the world's magic system. Some limitations of nature are simply knowing when something is applicable and when it is not. For example, fire cannot exist where there is no fuel or oxygen supply. By breaking one of these common sense rules it shatters the audience's illusion and forces them to confront the fact that there is no substance behind the magic. Most authors choose to bend these rules rather than break them altogether. Returning to the fire example, some authors reason that in projecting fire the magic acts as the fuel. Even in this situation where magic takes responsibility for a vital component of the element it is still necessary for oxygen to be present. Going the other way where the magic takes the place of oxygen and the magic-user only needs to provide ample fuel would imply fire occurring in unnatural situations such as fire beneath the surface of water, or in an environment, like space, where fire cannot exist.
While shaman, druid, and elemental magic revolve around nature, another external form of magic is patron magic. Similar to forms of ritual magic, patron magic is the act of a magic-user obtaining power from a willing supernatural person: divine, infernal, or the sidhe (Seelie or Unseelie). Patron magic is a transaction between two groups. The magic-user asks a patron for assistance in some manner and in return the patron can demand whatever form of payment the magic-user agreed to. The magic-user might ask for a person to regain their health, as in the case of Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, or it may be for less altruistic reasons. Regardless of what service is obtained, the patron will still be able to collect their due. A popular conception is the "deal with the devil" transaction where the patron will gain possession of the magic-user's soul or the soul of their first born child. The patron's payment will vary depending on their moral alignment. The payment serves as the rules for this brand of magic. It also serves as deterrent for most people as they would be unwilling to enter a bargain where they would have to forfeit their souls. In cases where they are willing it, usually serves as a focal point of the story where the protagonist will try to weasel his way out of his debt.
From internalized magic to externalized magic, the final of magic in this paper is alchemy. Alchemy is the transmutation of one element into another. Lead into gold, hydrogen into chlorine, carbon into selenium. Transmutation has long captured the curiosity of mankind due to the desire to easily obtain wealth by converting some cheap substance into gold. Despite the ease of which elements can be transmuted, the limitations are bound to reality as are all other restrictions. Some things in nature are strictly impossible and so cannot be performed through alchemy. A prime example is the transmuting of hydrogen gas into a gold solid. Since this conversion cannot occur in nature it cannot be done through alchemy. The impossibility of this transmutation comes with the fact that the magic-user is trying to convert a gas into a solid. Such a leap from separated atoms to rigidly formed atoms cannot occur in nature. There are three stages of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. While it is impossible to go from solid-gas or gas-solid, solid-liquid and liquid-gas and vice versa are entirely possible.
A second limitation is introduced by the Japanese author Hiromu Arakawa, creator of the Full Metal Alchemist comic. Arakawa turns alchemy into a science where there are complex equations necessary for each transmutation. The alchemy Arakawa imagines is similar ritual magic due to its use of highly formalized circles that describe the process of transmutation, but it differs in the outcome. The limitation Arakawa conceives of is the proportion of which things are transmuted. "To obtain, something of equal value must be lost." While this phrase is a recurring theme in Arakawa's work, it also serves to show that a gram cannot be turned into a kilogram, or microgram, through alchemy. One gram of lead turns into one gram of gold, or one gram of carbon, one gram of nickel. What's important about this limitation is that its mass cannot be increased or decreased through magic.
The laws of science play an important role in determining the limits of alchemic magic, but, again, it is also knowledge and imagination that sets the boundaries of what the magic-user are capable of. The magic-user would have to possess an intimate knowledge of chemical bonding, the various components an object is composed of, and most importantly the magical knowledge of how the original substance will break down and reconfigure into the desired substance.
The magic-user's imagination, along with the limitations of nature, is a recurring limitation in the wide range of magic. If the magic-user cannot imagine a course of action he cannot perform that action. While alchemy is the final form of magic presented in this research paper, it is by no means the last form of magic in fantasy. The fact remains that there are nigh-infinite unique variations of magic that present themselves in different ways and there are no means to classify them. The variations of magic are further complicated by each following their own unique set of guidelines that aren't necessarily dependent on reality, but rather their creator's imagination. It is fitting that the limitations of a magic system be directly proportional to the author's own imagination.
Although it clear that there are no concrete laws in magic, Larry Niven, a famous science fiction author, provides Niven's Law as a powerful observation about the progression of magic. "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." This is actually the inverse of Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law which states that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The idea is that once magic advances to the level where it is improved upon by the native population the way people improve upon science, both become indistinguishable from each other. Between verbal spells, will energy, meshed, ritual, shaman, druid, elemental, and patron magic, along with alchemy, they provide a clear example of how the author imposes their idea of reality upon their fantasy world by making rules for their magic systems to follow.
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