When we think of magic, usually we think of some kind of system, a tome of rules and principles. But is this the only way or even the best way to use magic in fiction? N.K. Jemisin doesn’t think so and in this well stated article explains why magic should be kept magical. What follows is an excerpt from the article, the link to which you can find at the end of the post.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -Arthur C. Clarke
Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science. -Agatha Heterodyne (Girl Genius) by way of Larry Niven by way of Clarke
La la la can’t hear you. -Me
This is a whine, not a rant. I rant when I’m angry; right now I’m just frustrated and annoyed. It’s hard out here for a fantasy writer, after all; there’s all these rules I’m supposed to follow, or the Fantasy Police might come and make me do hard labor in the Cold Iron Mines. For example: I keep hearing that magic has to have rules. It has to be logical. It has to have limitations, consequences, energy exchange, internal consistency, clear cause and effect, thoroughly-tested laws with repeatable results and –
This is magic we’re talking about here, right? Force of nature, kinda woo-woo and froo-froo, things beyond our ken, and all that? And most of all, not science? Because sometimes I wonder. Sometimes, whenever I see fantasy readers laud a work for the rigor of its magic system — we’ll come back to this word “system” later — I wonder: why are these people reading fantasy? I mean, if they’re going to judge magic by its similarity to science, why not just go ahead and read science fiction? Science fiction has plenty of its own magicky stuff to enjoy (e.g., FTL, “psi” powers). Shouldn’t fantasy do something different, not just in its surface trappings but in its fundamental assumptions?
Because this is magic we’re talking about. It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death — things no one understands, and few expect to. Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It’s the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not. Supposed. To make. Sense. In fact, I think it’s coolest when it doesn’t.
And here’s the thing: fantasy — specifically English-language fantasy since that’s all I’ve been able to read — used to get this. When I read Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea again last year before the Center for Fiction’s Earthsea Big Read, I was struck by the fact that none of the stuff Ged learned at Roke made any sense. OK, it was all about names. To figure out the names of things, wizards basically had to experience enough to understand them, and disengage with their preexisting assumptions — and then, apparently, they had to cross their fingers and wish really hard. Because magic was an experiment whose results were never repeatable, never predictable, and even the most accomplished wizard could only make an educated guess about what would happen any time magic was used. And in fact, magic itself could change as its caster changed. It was an intuitive thing, not an empirical thing, and an intuitive wizard could build a spell out of guesses — or leaps of faith — based on nothing more than gut feelings. Also, feelings mattered. Bring the wrong feelings into a magic-working and it could all go pear-shaped. Le Guin rendered this beautifully, and I loved it, because it felt like magic should feel to me. So did Tolkien’s magic, which had the same all-over-the-place weirdness to it. In LotR, sometimes magic meant forging a ring with a chunk of soul melted into the alloy. Sometimes it meant learning obscure/dead languages, or talking to obscure/dead creatures. Sometimes it meant brandishing a particular kind of stick in a particular kind of way, and shouting really loudly. Sometimes it meant being born with pointy ears, and sometimes resisting magic meant being born with hairy feet. It was organic, embedded, a total crapshoot. And it was wonderful.
Be sure to read the rest of the article by visiting her blog and enjoying the rest of the fascinating articles she has posted there.