Elements of Fantasy: Magic and the Mysteries

Another staple of fantasy fiction is magic. Like the gods, magic is not unique to fantasy but comes from ideas found in religion and spirituality. The power of the gods is itself magical: an ability to shape reality according to the (divine) will. Without that, there would be no point in worshiping any deity; no deity could answer a prayer, or have any effect upon the world.

But magic of course is not limited to direct divine action. It can be used by people, too, either by calling upon and channeling the powers of the gods (or devils or super-beings), or by making use of natural forces articulated through the human mind and facilitated by ritual and symbolic action, or both at once. Strictly speaking, we should limit magic proper to this action by human beings or the nearly-human, even though it is the same type of power as what the gods employ themselves.

In religion and myth, any miraculous occurrence that is enacted by a human being is magic. The Bible is chock full of magic, from the miracles of Moses to those of the Apostles. There is also a lot of magic in the Vedas and the Baghavad-Gita, and reference to it in the Quran. Whenever a human devotee of the gods draws upon divine power, channels it through himself, and makes something happen in the world by means of it, magic occurs.

Magic can be drawn from other than divine sources, too. It can come from devils – there’s another idea common in fantasy fiction. This idea is derived from actual magical practice in Europe and the Middle East and North Africa during the Middle Ages. Both Christian and Muslim thinking had the world infested with evil spirits who held power over it, and so a magician could, with proper talent and training, summon these evil spirits and either compel them to obedience using the names and symbols of God (so-called “white” magic), or buy their favor with devotions, sacrifices, or the surrender of one’s soul (so-called “black” magic). Diabolic magic appears in fantasy fiction as well.

Finally, magic can come from no conscious, intelligent source at all, but from natural powers inherent in the universe that respond to the trained and talented mind. That’s the way it works in a lot of fantasy, from the powers wielded by the Elves and other intelligent beings in Tolkien’s mythos to the Force wielded by the Jedi and Sith in the Star Wars saga.

Regardless of the source of magical energy, the idea of magic, the idea that human beings can wield miraculous powers given a talent for it and training, is a constant that appears in many fantasy stories. Magic is, in fact, something that exists in the real world, but fantasy magic goes beyond what can normally be done with real-world magic. Just as fantasy gods are sometimes corporeal entities in the objective world, which they are not in our own normal reality, so fantasy magic has dimensions and powers beyond what real-world magic-wielders can do, or at least beyond what they can do routinely. (If that’s not so, then one has an occult story, not a fantasy.) Fantasy magic doesn’t actually have to resemble real-world magic much at all, and fairly often it doesn’t except in the most superficial ways. And yet, just as fantasy gods, while they need not tell a literally true story, should carry mythic truth, so fantasy magic should also express mythic truth about a part of the world.

Magic always follows rules. It is not lawless, chaotic, or capricious, even when there is an element of chance involved. Exactly what the rules are is, in fantasy fiction, a free-for-all and fantasy magic has ranged all over the map in the details of how it operates. But it always has rules, even if they aren’t always the same rules from one fantasy universe to the next.

Although the rules of fantasy magic vary widely, there are some principles that might be called “meta-rules” which all serious fantasy fiction follows in describing magic.

Meta-rule #1: Magic is an inborn talent. Just as not everyone has what it takes to be a great musician, poet, artist, or warrior, not everyone has what it takes to be a great magician. In some fantasy universes, a little bit of magic may be available to everyone, in others most people are unable to wield magic at all, but the most powerful magic is always restricted to a talented few.

Meta-rule #2: Magic requires training, education, and practice. Although talent is necessary to the wielding of powerful magic, it is not sufficient; even the most talented magician must learn, study, and practice the Art, often for years.

Meta-rule #3: Magic has a cost. In becoming a great magician and using the power, something must be sacrificed. Exactly what the sacrifice consists of varies as widely as the rules and mechanics of magic themselves. It may be the ability to relate to the rest of humanity or see kinship with them. It may be years of one’s life. It may be, eventually, one’s sanity. It may be one’s moral code, one’s conventional view of the world, or even one’s soul. It may be simply that the rest of society looks upon one with scorn, fear, and revulsion. But there is always a price to pay.

Meta-rule #4: Magic is dangerous. The consequences of wielding the power cannot be predicted perfectly. It is always possible to make things happen that one did not intend. The greater the magical power wielded, the greater the risk to oneself and others.

Now here’s where we touch upon mythic truth once more. All of those four meta-rules are true in the real world, not only of magical power, but of all power wielded by human beings. It requires talent, it requires training, it carries a cost, and it’s dangerous. That’s true whether the power is persuasive, artistic, economic, political, technological, or anything else. Magic in fantasy is a mythic metaphor for all forms of power, and cautions regarding it apply to power in general. There are lessons to be learned from this in terms of the accumulation of power by individuals and what they do with it. Magic in fantasy teaches us about the morality of power.

There is another subject related to magic which comes up somewhat less often in fantasy fiction and that is what might be called the Mysteries. The use of that word can be a bit confusing to those who aren’t familiar with it, because a “mystery” in ordinary language means the same as a puzzle. “Mystery” fiction, for example, starts with a crime (normally – sometimes it’s a non-crime, but crime represents the archetype) and presents the reader with clues to the crime in the course of telling the story, finally revealing the truth at the climax. That’s not what I’m talking about here. The Mysteries (capitalized) are not secrets that are concealed but may be told; they are things that can’t be told but must be experienced firsthand. To achieve knowledge of the Mysteries is to undergo a mystical initiation and be transformed.

One finds the Mysteries presented in fantasy fiction less often than magic. Probably the reason for this is that many fantasy writers are neither initiates nor practitioners of magical arts (although a surprising number of us are). (Well, perhaps that’s not so surprising on reconsideration.) One can imagine a “magic” that works like driving a car or playing a musical instrument, according to rules that don’t require any personal transformation. Some fantasy stories do that. But where the Mysteries are presented, it can make for an interesting story.

There are several classic examples of the Mysteries presented in fantasy. The works of the late Roger Zelazny deal with the Mysteries on a regular basis, e.g. the experience of walking the Pattern in the Amber series, or the initiation process described in Madwand. Marian Zimmer Bradley also had her characters passing the Mysteries, both in The Mists of Avalon and in the Darkover series. In all cases, an initiate had to undergo ordeals, expand his consciousness, and be transformed in order to gain magical power; in doing so, he also gained insights into his own nature and that of the cosmos.

The Mysteries, where they are part of the story, are usually a prerequisite to magical power, but they are about more than this. On a mythic level, they suggest the existence of levels of reality which most people never see, being blinded by the shackles of ordinary consciousness. Or, as William Blake once put it, “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.)



Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

5 responses to “Elements of Fantasy: Magic and the Mysteries

  1. Nicely written. Great insight.

  2. Pingback: Fundamentalism, Atheism, and Tunnel Vision | Brian Rush

  3. Interesting article, Brian. I like your four “meta-rules” — I’ve just started up my own blog about writing and reading fantasy. It’s at bstaveley.wordpress.com, if you want to check it out. Cheers!

  4. Pingback: There Can Never Be an Enchanted Blaster | Brian Rush

  5. Pingback: More Thoughts on Contemporary Fantasy | Brian Rush

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