Many fans of Fantasy and Science Fiction bemoan the fact the two share the same aisle in the bookstore, and though both genres share much of the same DNA within the realm of speculative fiction, they are utterly distinct. For the most part it boils down to that Fantasy usually takes place in a world that could never exist, while Science Fiction takes place in a world that does not exist quite yet. That said, today we’re going to take the fiction out of Sci-Fi and examine Fantasy magic with just the underpinnings of science.
But before we do it should be said that Fantasy can exist without magic, say a world in which fantastical beasts exist yet no form of what we would traditionally recognize as magic, but for the most part magic plays a huge role in the Fantasy genre, so much so that many people qualify the subgenres by their level of magic.
So with that in mind let’s scientifically examine the three components of Fantasy magic. And no, they’re not Verbal, Material, and Somatic.
For the purposes of this article, I define magic as: Unnatural change caused by logical, exclusive means.
The word “change” is very important in this definition because, in effect, magic is all about affecting the environment around the magic user. The point of all magic is about creating a result of some sort, of exerting the magician’s will upon his or her environment. Many times, this effect is quite obvious, like a fireball or teleportation. Other times the effect can be subtle, such as enhancing the magician’s own senses to observe the flow of magic around him or her. But no matter what, the desired result of every magical act is to change the environment in some unnatural way.
The “unnatural” aspect is integral in the understanding of Fantasy magic, but relies upon the AUDIENCE’s understanding of what is and is not natural rather than the characters’. This means we’re judging what is and is not magic by our own reality rather than that of the inhabitants of the fantasy world. For instance, in the subgenre of High Fantasy magic is often very prevalent and therefore somewhat normal for the character, who might not even bat an eye at seeing a wizard rocket off into the sky after uttering just a few words. Yet we as the audience inherently identify this as magic because it could not possibly exist in our own reality.
I would posit that what we as the audience identify as “natural” is influenced by our modern understanding of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Biology rears its head when the magic user physically enhances or curses creatures beyond their usual limits, Chemistry in the alchemic potions and transmutation, and Physics any time the wizard breaks any of the classical Laws of Physics. *
This distinction between what is un/natural for the audience vs characters can best be summed up in Avatar: The Last Airbender. ** Although I’m going off my own occasionally suspect memory here, I would bet the word “magic” was never uttered once in the series. To the characters inhabiting this world, levitating hundreds of pounds of stone just by stomping your foot, or shooting off on a ball of air, were both natural occurrences. The effects of the magic users were so common they did not even call it magic, and if asked would probably consider their bending to be so mundane it could be thought of as almost a natural science. Yet we as viewers instantly recognize the impossibility of these actions and therefore can qualify these unnatural effects as magic.
Like science in our reality, we demand that Fantasy magic be consistent within its own framework, which is probably why we refer to them as “magic SYSTEMS” in role playing games. Like a good scientific experiment, we want our unnatural changes to be both VALID and RELIABLE. If you’re not up to date on your experimental methods, valid basically means that the magical effect causes the change in the environment the magician wanted in the first place, and reliable in that the effect is repeatable each and every time. Basically, it’s a mathematical equation in that if the magic user does the same thing each time they will receive the same result; X + Y always = Z and A + B = C. In Harry Potter “accio” always summons an object, while “expecto patronum” always creates a patronus.
The patronus is actually a good example of when a magical logic breaks down and the magic starts serving the plot rather than adhering to its own established rules. The spell was first introduced in the series as the only defense against Dementors, but soon became a sort of catchall of doing whatever the plot demanded; such as passing messages between members of the Order of the Phoenix, or guiding Harry when we needed a little dose of deus ex machina. Mind you, in the grand scheme of the series, this is a minor quibble, but is still a good example of when a magical logic breaks down.
Exclusivity means there is an inherent inequality between magicians as well as between magicians and the mundane populous. Effectively not everyone can do everything, and knowing the word “abracadabra” does not in fact make one a magician. Magic is the domain of an exclusive few, and this exclusivity is so intrinsic that some include it when they categorize Fantasy magic.
For the most part this exclusivity means heredity, in that only certain individuals are born with the ability to harness magic. Harry Potter again provides us a great example with its muggles and squibs, and many other Fantasy series focus on a specific bloodline or perhaps a 7th son of a 7th son.
Even in Fantasy worlds where anyone can learn magic, there is always some limiting aspect. This limiting aspect can be willpower, or basic intelligence, or perhaps access to the esoteric mystical arts in the first place. Dedication and hard work are also good examples of exclusivity, as the recent Dr. Strange movie demonstrates when he wants to know how to master magic and the Ancient One in turn asks him how he became a doctor. “Study and practice. Years of it,” was what he replied, which would connote that anyone in this world could learn magic, just so long as they have the time and resources to dedicate themselves to it. ***
This aspect also means that not all magicians are created equal and explains why some are more powerful than others.
What Magic is Not
A religion, though there are some strong similarities in the rituals between the two. **** Both also seek to influence the environment around them, and in religion prayer and faith are expected to create unnatural changes like magic such as moving mountains or healing the sick.
The difference between magic and religion in Fantasy is who affects the unnatural change in the environment; for magic it is the magician, but in religion it is a deity that intercedes to affect the unnatural change. Dragonlance/ AD&D is probably the easiest example of this distinction in that though the mage and cleric can perform very similar unnatural feats, the magician creates change based on her mastery of magic while the cleric draws her power from the gods. So while magic may spring from the deities in many Fantasy worlds, the use of magic is not predicated upon the belief or worship of the deity, rather the magician’s mastery of his or her esoteric art.
Being as that religion seeks to affect the environment through the intervention of some sort of deity, magical summoning of entities can be sort of a gray area. In the real world, Haitian Vodou is a religion where spirits known as loa are summoned to intercede on the practitioner’s behalf in the physical world. This act may appear very similar to the eponymous Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’s summoning of a fairy to perform supernatural feats, but there is a distinction. In the case of Haitian Vodou, a relationship is cultivated between the practitioner and the loa through worship and gifts; the spirit comes because the spirit chooses to do so, while in the case of magical summoning, the entity is compelled to appear against its will. Sometimes in the case of magic summoning the entity is forced to do the spell caster’s bidding, but oftentimes not, as with Sandman’s summoning by Allister Crowley in the first issue. So while in cases like Sandman and Strange and Norrell, a bargain must still be struck between the magician and the entity, the entity has no choice but to appear due to the magician’s unnatural effect upon its environment.
So there you go: Fantasy magic is unnatural change caused by logical, exclusive means (not derived from a deity). I’m still sounding out this theory of mine, but I think it stands up pretty well. If you have any counterexamples, I’m all ears.
1. I’m guessing the Laws of Atomic Physics seldom comes up in Fantasy magic, but would welcome any examples that disprove this.
2. The wonderful animated show, not the horrendous movie. Obviously. Also, not the 3-D extravaganza!
3. Mind you, they sort of undercut this concept later when she tells him he is a natural at the mystic arts.
4. I come from an Anthropology background and always think of Malinowski here, who said that magic was a means to an end while religion is an end in itself in that it brings the community together towards a shared goal.