There’s real magic in the world, and there are real magic users who practice the Art. I’m not going to defend that statement to the skeptical; I’ve found it’s not worth the effort, so I will simply present the claim as something I’m sure of, and you can all draw your own conclusions regarding magic’s existence, my own knowledge of it, and my sanity and rationality, as seems appropriate.
There is real magic and there are real magicians, and a hugely disproportionate number of fantasy fiction authors (although by no means all of us) are also real-world magic-users. It’s usually not difficult for me to tell which of my fellow fantasy writers are also my fellow magicians and which are not. Knowledge about magic that I know to be real creeps into their stories, and perhaps even more telling, magic as described in fiction by real mages tends to present no aspects or elements in their fiction that we know to be untrue (although wild and gleeful amusement with radical improbability is another matter).
Does that mean, however, that fantasy magic, when written by an author who is also a real-world magic user, is real-world magic and that’s all? Hell, no! What kind of fun would that be? It’s just that when writing of magic, even though we allow our whimsy, fancy, and sense of what makes for a good tale to take our fantasy magic places we only wish it would go in the real world, the way it functions in our goddess-touched lives always influences the telling, too. So we get, for example, a karmic law operating in magic in which we are impacted by our own spells and malicious spell-casting warps the mind and twists the life of the caster. Or the spell-slinging narrator makes mention of the fact that all of his props, incantations, candles, incenses, drawn circles, and so on are not technically necessary but merely serve to focus the mind, which is the thing doing the real work. Or the author slips in stuff about mystical journeys, the ambiguity of one’s own identity and the paradoxical fluidity of time. Or the powers wielded by magicians start with telepathy, perceptions of distant and future events, accelerated healing, the shaping of chance, and perhaps a bit of weather-working just for fun. (Moreover, these powers are presented accurately. For example, telepathy is shown as a sense of another person’s feelings, sensory experiences and nonverbal thoughts, and not as a telephone conversation without the phone.) From there, the sky (or the rules of narrative) limit how far out magic can reach, but one perceives that these flights into the impossible-as-far-as-we-know (sigh) take off from a launch pad of the familiar.
Now, people are creatures of ulterior motive, with more than one reason for the things that we do. Obviously when a fantasy writer, real-world mage or no, tells a story, his primary motivations are the joy in crafting the tale, along with the hope that readers will enjoy it (and buy it). As for the reason why a real mage would write fantasy as opposed to something else, well, that can be explained as arising from the same font as the parallel fact that a disproportionate share of science fiction writers are scientists or engineers, at least by training: we write of what we love. We write of what thrills us, excites us, and creates in us a sense of wonder.
I’m not denying any of that. I couldn’t, not honestly, since all of this is very much a part of me. But there may be another reason why we do it, and why fantasy has made such a comeback since the mid-20th century as well. In an earlier post, I asked the question: A World With Magic, or One Without — Which is Better?, and did this in the context of a fairy offering an instantaneous boost to the world’s magic with marvelous (and disruptive) consequences. The device was fun, but no denizen of faerie is going to come along and offer us instant gratification of this kind. That’s not how it actually works.
Magic operates in the underpinnings of natural law. (This is my own theory, I hasten to add, much influenced by the theories of modern science and not something to be found in a dusty grimoire or the library of an ancient tradition.) Mathematically, it proceeds by altering the probabilities associated with the outcomes of indeterminate events. It makes things more likely or less likely than they would be without the meddling. It isn’t a form of energy; it doesn’t push, pull, heat, or explode, and it isn’t limited by the factors that limit energy such as distance or mass. (That doesn’t mean it’s unlimited, though. It has its own rules and restrictions.) But saying that it alters probabilities is just laying out the type of mathematical equation that might describe its operation; it isn’t really explaining what it does. What does altering probability mean, exactly? What does it signify that there are such things as probabilities in the world to be altered?
We’ve known since the early 20th century that events at the level of subatomic particles are indeterminate. Many of them can be described only using statistical mathematics. But that isn’t the layer of probability that magicians are (usually) able to influence. Pulling back from the subatomic perspective, and considering events we can see with the naked eye, we find that many of them suppress quantum-level indeterminacy, not by making it disappear but simply by dwarfing it with their vast size. Sure, the orbit of Jupiter is indeterminate, there being a degree of uncertainty about the position and/or momentum of the planet that is at least equal to Planck’s Constant, but considering the minuscule size of that value compared to the size of Jupiter, who cares? But it turns out that there are many events which don’t suppress quantum indeterminacy but rather bring it forward onto a macroscopic scale. These are the events described by the mathematics of chaos: turbulence, strange attractors, fractals, and the like. (Yes, I realize that chaos physicists and mathematicians often describe the operation of their calculations as deterministic and only pseud0-random, but that’s only true when the initial values are input by experimenter choice. In nature, they are input by quantum-level events, which are themselves indeterminate, making the whole edifice genuinely indeterminate and not merely a fascinating mathematical mimic thereof.)
These events are where magic usually seems to have influence, and even here, the influence is limited. But what limits it? Here we run into pure speculation, but one thing we do know is that magicians aren’t the only ones wielding magical power, everyone does, pressing upon the web of chance in conformity with our desires and expectations. There’s a kind of conservatism that moves the mind of most people regarding what’s “normal” and to be expected. In the face of a rapidly-changing reality such as we have experienced over the past few centuries, that conservatism is likely to become all the stronger in reaction. In short, a plausible hypothesis for what limits magic in the real world is that people are willing it into impotence or at least into a degree of subtlety that does not confront them with evidence of it that they cannot deny. There are a number of known facts which support this idea. We can do more, better, and stronger magic in private or among ourselves than we can in front of outsiders. In particular, we often find that when we go to work a spell or use a power with the idea of demonstrating its reality, it fails us to one degree or another, the power returning only when we give up on proving something to the masses and agree in our hearts to keep it secret (or at least deniable).
If this is true, then it could well be that fantasy writers who know about real-world magic have an ulterior (and perhaps even unconscious) motive along with the obvious surface motivation of telling a good tale. By firing the imagination of readers with magic and magic-related phenomena of fiction, fantasy may over time be diminishing the resistance of the collective conservatism to magic itself. It’s not a faerie offering us a magic blue marble to instantly transform the world, but a slower change might be preferable for reasons of safety, stability, and sanity. And the end result may well be the same.