Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Although notions of magic differ slightly from writer to writer, there is a remarkable consensus among fantasy writers, especially writers of Genre Fantasy: magic, when present, can do almost anything, but obeys certain rules according to its nature. Generally ideas as to its nature are left undefined. Attempts to write to a system or define the rules – as in Lyndon Hardy's Master of the Five Magics (1980), E Nesbit's Five Children and It (1902), Randall Garrett's Too Many Magicians (1967) and Piers Anthony's Xanth series – can produce shallow and simplistic fantasies (> Rationalized Fantasy). In the more generalized field of fantasy there is a huge, tangled complex of ideas concerning magic and magical practices; many varieties of magic are depicted, several of which tend to occur together, and all of which tend to melt into one another. Good examples of this tangling or melting are Geoffrey Chaucer's "Squire's Tale" (circa 1390), George MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie (1883), Anne Lawrence's The Conjurer's Box (1975), Fritz Leiber's Swords series, Michael Scott Rohan's Cloud Castles (1993) and almost any book by Katharine Kerr or Terry Pratchett. All these make use of magic that involves two or more different assumptions. The most one can do when trying to pin down the use of magic in fantasy is to follow certain lines – certain sequences or vectors – of ideas. These are of two kinds and concern: what magic is seen to be; and what is done with magic.

The primary assumption is that magic is possible in the world of the fantasy, and the exact nature of this ambient magic strongly influences the narrative. The way this influence works is most easily seen in one of the best-known worlds of magic: the Wonderland of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll. Because Carroll was a mathematician, he started the book with ideas of logic (in the form of logic-chopping) and concomitant wordplay. Before the book has gone very far, we have the bread-and-butterfly and Humpty Dumpty busy with words. Alice illustrates also one of the most basic views: magic inheres in a particular Secondary World or universe, but not in our own; Alice returns to mundane life at the end. This world or universe can be in a Polder, as in the Land of Oz, to take another of the best-known examples, where magic is constantly present as a possibility (as also in Pamela Dean's Hidden Land series); or it can be secretly present in our own world, when it is liable to be seen as a dwindling resource – Katharine Briggs's Hobberdy Dick (1955) shows this tendency with great clarity. If the magic is not Thinning in this way, then it tends to be derived from legend or history – as in Pat O'Shea's The Hounds of the Mórrígan (1985). In other cases – like Terri Windling's Borderland series – the magic is probably also based on Legend but is brought in from outside. Emma Bull, in War for the Oaks (1987), took up the same notion of Elven Magic irrupting into the normal world, but the idea occurred much earlier in such books as Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924) and Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), where the place with inherent magic is a land bordering on this mundane one, in a sort of reverse of the Polder situation. In most cases, the magic sort of seeps in.

This segues into the notion of magic as a reservoir of power (as in Jo Clayton's Diadem series or Robert A Heinlein's "Waldo" [1942]), usually in some between-world, which can be tapped, or stored by some individuals (as for instance in Sheri S Tepper's True Game series, where sorcerers act as batteries for magic). In most Celtic Fantasies a trance is needed in order to tap this reservoir – an obvious example of this approach is Patricia Kennealy-Morrison's Keltiad series. The most favoured method, however, is by Ritual and invocation, as in Robert Holdstock's Thorn (1984 chap). Here magic is sometimes taken to inhere in the True Names of things, people and Gods, as in Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea series, or to reside in Runes and symbols, though these can also be used more mechanistically as tools or passwords to unlock the magic, as in the preparation for the grand ritual in Barbara Hambly's Dog Wizard (1993).

From here it is a short step to seeing magic as bound up in Spells that make a certain pattern – often elegant ones, as in Steven Brust's Mandarin elves' workings. This takes us on to worlds in which magic itself is seen as a pattern, usually of glowing threads (as in Ru Emerson's Nighthreads series and Roger Zelazny's Madwand [1981]) which the operator must weave or pull. Magic is seen as even more solid where it is present in autonomous banks of mist – as in Patricia C Wrede's The Seven Towers (1984) and P C Hodgell's Seeker's Mask (1994) – or in waves of a magic backlash – as in Mercedes Lackey's Storm Warning (1994). Even solider is the notion that the magic is present in a person (amoral as in the princes of Zelazny's Amber or almost any Vampire, evil as in J R R Tolkien's Sauron, good as in his Gandalf or in Robert Westall's Cuddy) or a God or a sand fairy. Animals and mythical creatures are particular favourites as vehicles of magic – as in Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse (1946), R A Macavoy's Tea with the Black Dragon (1983), Mary Brown's Pigs Don't Fly (1994) and Peter S Beagle's The Last Unicorn (1968). Most solidly of all, magic can be present in a stone circle or megalith – as in Penelope Lively's The Whispering Knights (1971) – an Edifice – as in Charles de Lint's Moonheart (1984) – a City – as in The Far Kingdoms (1993) by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch – or an object – like Tolkien's Ring. Quite often, two or more of these views are present at the same time.

Magic can also be viewed as a skill or ability, inborn or not. The most common assumption is that it takes inborn Talent to work magic, as in Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics (1994), though a normal person can sometimes learn to do it mechanically. This ability tends to need an arduous education to develop and nearly always results in longevity, but it may also have to be trained without help (as in Peter Dickinson's The Gift [1974]) or not trained at all, so that the user must proceed by guess (as in Andre Norton's Knave of Dreams [1975] and Tanith Lee's The Birthgrave [1975]). Quite often the exercise of ability can be accidental and magic is then performed by shedding tears, or laughing, or forgiving an injury – as in the anonymous St Erkenwald (circa 1400), where the tears of a bishop inadvertently baptize a righteous heathen. An extension of this line of notions is the magic of innocence, where a child or childlike person can perform magic by simply doing or asking for what they think is right – this occurs in, for example, Susan Cooper's Greenwitch (1974). Where the ability is not inborn, it can be acquired suddenly by magical means (as in Dave Duncan's works) or as the gift of a magical being or object (as in Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle [1907]); or a person can learn by rule of thumb. Magic acquired by rote in this way normally invites disaster, as for the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Lastly, there is the complete lack of magic or ability, as when Gawain tries to use a girdle he thinks is a Charm.

Then, too, magic can be seen as a sequence that runs through white magic, green magic, grey magic, black magic. Here the magic, however present, is seen as a neutral force used for differing ends, from extremely good to very evil, with green magic as a benevolent ecological activity. This same line can be viewed from another angle so that, starting again from the idea that magic is neutral, one has high ritual of a benevolent kind at one end, moves on to low or domestic magics in the centre, and thence arrives at dubious witchcraft and finally Black Masses. Both these conceptions tend to occur together in the same books, as in Diana Wynne Jones's A Sudden Wild Magic (1992) and in Good Omens (1990) by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. But all writers concur that nonhumans like Dragons and Elves use magic either not present on these two scales or, as it were, into the infrared and ultraviolet. Here, it can be seen, views of the nature of magic are beginning to melt into notions about its use.

Transitional between the two is the notion of magic as largely Illusion. A few writers – like Chaucer in "The Franklin's Tale" and Paula Volsky in Illusion (1994) – claim that magic is entirely an illusion of great persuasiveness, but this position is hard to maintain. Most adopt a sequence that runs from pure illusion (in "Don't notice me" spells) through mixed transformation spells, where the illusion can be broken by the victim or an interested party seeing the truth, as in Robin McKinley's Beauty (1978), to true transformational magic, where the change seen is actual; Tanya Huff's Sing the Four Quarters (1994) is an almost perfect example of this entire sequence . . . which sequence melts into mind magic.

Quite a large body of fantasy takes mind magic along two parallel vectors, both concerned largely with practicality and both often present together. First is purely mental working, where the practitioner simply concentrates her/his potent thoughts to a desired end. At the centre of this sequence are the creation of magelight, Shapeshifting, telepathy/mindspeech, telekinesis, precognition and mindreading (> Talents). Belgarath, in the Belgariad series by David Eddings, operates almost entirely on the central section of this sequence. But the sequence also stretches backwards to include memory, where recall of true facts either breaks a spell or brings power – as in Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock (1985) – and forwards to take in knowledge as power. Knowledge of facts in the past, present or future is usually an important feature of mind magic. Innumerable Wizards of the Belgarath type are represented as very learned and often capable of some kind of Prophecy or foreknowledge. The knowledge encompasses spells, weakness of an adversary, or the true names of objects or entities, whose powers may then be used – and so becomes the vector along which we find necromancy and the conjuring of Demons. The second parallel sequence takes the path of the spirit, where the practitioner is often in a trance, dealing with the maze, Labyrinth or spiral of life and death, or dreaming (> Dreams), either to acquire knowledge or to take direct action in a way which will affect the mundane level. Holdstock's Lavondyss (1988) operates almost entirely along this vector. In the centre of the sequence come magical Initiations (as in Monica Furlong's Wise Child [1987] and its sequel), druidism and Shamanism, but it also includes dealings with demons on the spiritual level at one end and fetches, mythagos, spirits, souls and deities at the other. Diane Duane's The Door into Fire (1979) and its sequels make great use of this vector of mind magic, whereas her Wizard series operates almost entirely in the parallel practical kind.

The mind-magic sequence is criss-crossed by several other major ones. Today one of the most important is that of Music, which in most cases is seen as having the same functions as mind magic – as in Gael Baudino's Gossamer Axe (1990) – with a strong infusion from Celtic sources. Bards are frequent and usually magic-users. But, possibly because of the association of mind magic with Celticism, where the Gods are seen as behind only a thin veil, the powerful vector of cosmic magic crosses this sequence more or less at right angles. Here, always on a vast scale, the Earth, the Sun and often powers immeasurably further distant are brought into play as magical entities. Good Omens, A A Attanasio's The Dragon and the Unicorn (1994) and C S Lewis's That Hideous Strength (1945) use this vector, and also share the inevitable consequence of it: that human beings, being so much smaller and weaker, tend to have a miserable time. Entities at the opposite ends of this scale, who can be good/bad or simply opposed to each other, not only clash but also bring into play gods, Avatars, demons and lesser beings, who use the mundane world as their battleground. Oddly enough, the point where this vector intersects with others is usually over nature magic. Strong feeling for the Land and its products are usually central. Patricia A McKillip's The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976) and its sequels show this admirably, and also show how this sequence tends to entangle itself in another that centres on sympathetic magic.

The sympathetic-magic sequence, which is intersected by mind magic as well, concerns correspondences between the acts of the practitioner and the physical world. Sympathetic magic, where tormenting a wax Doll will torment the victim – or using hair/fingernails for the same purpose – is the central concept here. Writers who wish to put this more mystically invoke the notion of As Above, So Below. This, of course, is the main principle of Alchemy, but the general idea of doing something in one place to have an effect in another also pulls in protective magic, usually concerning the setting of wards, Sex magic (as in Diana L Paxson's Brisingamen [1984]), Moon magic, planetary influences (> Astrology) and seasonal magic. These segue into more purely physical magics such as dancing, acts of worship, healing, nature magic (such as herblore and treelore) and earth magic. This is where this sequence entangles with cosmic magic, as it does very markedly in Tepper's Ginian Footseer series. Also along it we find the land-tie of kings, weather magic, dealings with Elementals, magic Potions and frequent assertions as to the potency of human exudations – tears, sweat, spit, piss and blood – though a sort of civility in most writers tends to confine them simply to tears and blood.

Blood magic forms a potent sequence on its own. Blood is seen by all writers as a great source of power. Dark practitioners will make a sacrifice, animal or human, to obtain this power; but a wizard or Witch will also take blood, without killing the victim, in order to bond a human servant – as in, say, Hambly's The Silicon Mage (1988) – or use her/his own blood to power a spell, as when the witch in Hans Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" (1937) remarks that she needs to add blood to the voice the Mermaid has given her. Vampires are at the centre of this vector. Those of the Dracula type take blood for food and power, while the more recent good vampires – as in Huff's Blood series – either drink only from criminals or, in great need, from a willing friend. This is just a step from the voluntary blood-bonding of blood brotherhood, or the voluntary sacrifice of blood to a spirit or god. At its extreme, this becomes the voluntary sacrifice of the self – as in Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion series. This is the source of the greatest power for good, but also approaches curiously closely to the practices of black magic. Here, what is done with the magic is paramount.

The same applies to a slightly lesser extent to the giving or taking of lifeforce or energy. A demon or black practitioner will drain a victim of lifeforce, while a good magician will frequently link hands with willing donors for greater magical power.

Slightly outside the main tangle of notions are the magic of deities, when they are seen as powerful but not omnipotent – such as the godlings in Rudyard Kipling's "The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo" (1902) – and the action of Fate, as in Kipling's Rewards and Fairies (coll 1910), which acts to bring law to Britain. Manifestations of old and barely understood entities such as the Wild Hunt (as in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising [1973] and Quatermass and the Pit [1958-1959]) seem to defy all efforts to involve them along most vectors.

There are also numerous oddball magics: things reduced in size to fit in nuts; cats produced from cauldrons; sailing in sieves and eggshells; flying brooms; spells cast to animate furniture (as in Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Apple-Stone [1965]); and a myriad one-offs that defy categorization. Many of these derive from Folklore or Mythology and, like the Wild Hunt, seem to find it hard to blend with the magic of most fantasy. But all obey the basic tenet that, as mentioned at the start, magic, if present, can do almost anything. [DWJ]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.