Magic Revisited: Symbol vs. Tool

Lately, I’ve been working on several projects including posting things here. These include:

 Company Earth/Section 15—An urban fantasy worldbuild and story (about 2400 words, middle of chapter 2)

Kingshaven—An urban fantasy piece (about 2730 words, starting chapter 2)

Great Covenant—An urban fantasy worldbuild

Eight Cities—A fantasy worldbuild connected to the Great Covenant Earth

Kindred Spirit—A fantasy worldbuild and story (about 13,250 words, starting chapter 8)

The Tower—An urban fantasy worldbuild and story (about 1900 word scene)

 I list these here mostly because I’ve been looking up a lot, and thinking, about magic again lately. These six settings all use magic differently to one degree or another. Some are more different than others, whether at a fundamental level or a more superficial level.

 Symbolic Magic versus Magic as a Tool

I’ve come across a variety of blogs and writer (sadly didn’t save any of them) who argue that all magic must have a cost, whether in terms of fatigue or something more significant (life?). Others have suggested that magic should symbolize something, or be a character unto itself.

 An alternate view, and one I prefer, is the idea that magic is simply a tool. In this set up, magic is ultimately no different than a hammer or sword, regardless of how one actually performs the magic. I suppose one reason I like it is that there is still significant room for variation and playing with the idea, and at the same time there is no inherent moral or other symbolic element. And it can still have a cost.

 Rowling presents a good example of this method in which magic, while an important element of her world, is little more than a tool and has a cost, albeit a minor one, in the form of learning time, and sometimes fatigue (or more, as shown in Deathly Hallows with Voldemort’s blood sacrifice protection and the horcruxes).

 High Magic versus Low Magic

As I’ve been working on the settings above, I’ve become interested in this idea. In short, the concept is that there are two (or more) layers of magic: low and high. These can have internal layers as well. So, low magic would be simple, basic magics; the hedge magic or hedge witch idea. It could be roughly equivalent to a secondary school education or an apprentice in a trade. On the other hand, high magics would be advanced, potentially superior (and more costly) magics. They are special, powerful, and require extra training. Perhaps only a certain percentage of the magical community undertakes the necessary education, roughly equivalent to modern grad school or a master in a trade.

 I like this concept because it brings in the idea of abilities and knowledge hidden (because of danger, power, or some other reason) from the majority of mages. In a way it is also somewhat realistic, in that the master or grad degree holder has a higher degree of knowledge and information, or tricks, than the apprentice or high school graduate.

 Old Magics versus New Magics

Another concept I’ve been playing with is old versus new magics, or different ages for different magics. In my own thinking, this has mostly been an evolutionary track, but it could also take the form of lost magics or a host of other possibilities. And the different magics could exist concurrently in the modern era.

 Older magic could be taken as more raw in terms of power or involving less control. Alternatively, the old magics could be potentially more precise and stronger (in a form of declining magical arts). Meanwhile, new magics could be more precise, though perhaps weaker and/or more specialized. Trudi Canavan plays with this idea to a certain extent with her Black Magician trilogy (lost, powerful magic). Esther Friesner works with evolved, rarefied modern magic in Split Heirs. Steven Brust also plays with the concept in the Dragaera books with the differences between raw, powerful, uncontrolled Elder Sorcery and modern sorcery. Ilona Andrews does as well with the Kate Daniels series, through the title character and her father’s family.

 Raw Power versus Skill/Control

I’ve also been thinking about differentiating raw power from control. An individual may have a phenomenal amount of potential power, but little to no control (at least initially); such as the Skywalker clan, supposedly. On the other hand, someone could have great skill and knowledge, but very little raw power. Canavan suggests this possibility throughout her series as well.

 Power Generation versus Spellcasting

If energy is being used by the magician, there is also the question of how power is generated, acquired, or replenished. Some work with ambient absorption, a sort of unconscious recharge based on rest and time (Canavan uses this as do others). Others involve active rituals and even sacrifice (also appears in Canavan, via bloodletting).

 Sometimes, there are magics that exist solely to provide energy and power for the caster—blood sacrifice, organ consumption, draining magic items, tantric magic—while other magics are involved in actual spellcasting, e.g. creating effects with that power. This is something I’ve been playing with to an extent as well. Allyson James’s Stormwalker series seems to use this idea to some extent, ex. sex magic appears to be used solely for the purpose of powering other magics, whether already in place or cast during the act (ref. Stormwalker in which Janet and Mick reinforce her wards on the hotel).

 Enchanting versus Enchantment

There is also an interesting, not really confusion but multiple uses of the term enchantment. Traditionally, enchantment refers to mind affecting magics. Since at least the early days of D&D, enchantment can also refer to the creation of magically imbued items, e.g. enchanted items. I think much of the issue here comes from the real lack of definitive usage of terminology, both historically and in modern usage. This is true, in its own way, of virtually all terminology related to magic—e.g. sorcery, wizardry, magic, witchcraft, necromancy—that are, in some cases, used interchangeably, or for multiple things.

 To clarify this, some have referred to the creation of magic items as “artifice”. However, that term also refers to trickery, cunning, and deception. Recently, I’ve been favoring “crafting”, as in “He carried several Crafted items” or “She was a master of Crafting” versus enchantment (for mind affecting magics).

 Props versus No Props

Some writers, bloggers, and readers believe that all magic should involve complication. This can include the use of rituals, special words, or other devices that make it showy for the story—Rowling’s use of wands, for instance. Others, less commonly, prefer to employ sheer willpower for magic, with little to no “showiness” (Canavan). Some mix a variety of things—Brust, for whom most Dragaeran sorcery requires a simple thought, but witchcraft requires ritual, and advanced sorcery sometimes requires materials, psychic abilities work . . . differently.

 Props certainly limit the usage of magic, but whether props are effective or needed varies widely by world and writer.


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