Friday, 13 March 2015

What is Magic?

“The supernatural can be very annoying until one finds the key that transforms it into science," he observed mildly... "Come on, Ox, let's go out and get killed.” Master Li Kao [1]

Nearly everybody believes in magic at some level; be it through prayer, destiny, superstitions, or lucky charms. But these things cannot exist without a support network of ideas that are even harder to accept. If you believe in magical concepts, or if you are writing a story that includes them, this post may be of interest to you.

We all have a sense of what makes something seem magical, but the term is rarely formalized. Most scholarly articles[i] focus on the traditional uses of “magic” ritual or “magical” thinking. Wikipedia describes many of the major genres of “magic”, but I have not found a good source that seeks to categorize magic by its mechanisms (i.e. the way it ‘works’)[ii],[iii]. This is probably because magic in the real world is, after all, a cultural phenomenon, not a scientific one (i.e. it doesn't work). In fantasy settings, however, magic is assumed to actually function.

In a previous post I suggest that an author can make a more rich and satisfying world by understanding their magic more fully. Here I attempt to formalize magic by its mechanisms and I posit a few assertions about the requirements for certain magical concepts, if they were to work together in a ‘realistic’ sense. If you have bought into the notion that systematizing the magic in your world is worthwhile, or if you simply want to explore magical thinking, then read on.

can something be “supernatural”?

The foundational thing to establish (sooner or later) is the nature of your universe. “Magic” is a difficult term because it implies an appeal to, or control of, the supernatural. But what does “supernatural” mean? How can anything actually be beyond the laws of Nature? If the “magic” in your world is repeatable and manageable (not just a random series of burps in the laws of the Universe) then it must have its own rules and, therefore, be a part of Nature. To the lay-person, these rules might be so unintuitive that they seem to violate Nature’s laws, but this won’t be true for those who can actually manipulate these mysterious forces.[iv] This is even true if the magic is based on an appeal for intervention from the spirit world.

Most fantasy settings are based on traditional substance dualism[v], being built of material and spiritual energies. Dualism may be intuitive to us because virtually every society is steeped in it (even if we don’t all believe in gods or ghosts, we all know what they are). In the real world the material world is the dominion of science texts, but the ‘spiritual’ side of the coin is not well-defined. Instead, unmeasurable claims are commonly thrown together into a ‘spirituality’ junk drawer wherein karma sits next to numerology and past-life regression (all of which are entangled by a misrepresentation of quantum mechanics). You may find it helpful to sort this mess by establishing the rules by which your ‘spiritual’ world works (yes, I am suggesting that you create a ‘science’ for your metaphysics)[vi]. If you follow this through, you will run into the inevitable conundrum that, if the spiritual world can be harnessed or manifested in the material world, then it is no longer strictly “spiritual” and your fantasy world is no longer dualist (this is often known as the ‘interaction problem’ [2] [3]). That’s ok; you are probably trying to create a world in which the powers of gods, spirits, etc. are unequivocal, so you actually want all types of energy to be transferrable (therefore conflatable?). Just learn the physics of each realm (if you can call them separate) and figure out how they intersect.

Ways in which magical concepts might function:

A consideration of the ‘physics’ of your world is important because the magical genres commonly categorised by their tropes can now be considered in light of the ways in which they function. Here are a few considerations:

conjuration (creating energies and material)

“Who are you who can summon fire without flint or tinder?” Arthur, King of the Britons [4]

Where does the energy come from to create a fireball or a new object? If we accept that energy is never created or destroyed, but only changes form and locality, then one possibility is that it is drawn from the surrounding environment (and passes through the spell caster?). Your readers might get a kick out of learning that, after Evil Fred casts a fireball, the surrounding terrain has been chilled to freezing because its heat energy was drained and channelled through Fred’s body (and what happens if Fred gets it wrong half-way through the procedure?). Another idea is to have energies exchanged between planes of existence and/or other dimensions. You may then want to consider if those dimensions have a parallel set of physics and if the energy is comparable. If it is simply a negative or alternate version of the spall caster’s world, then explanations can be made simpler. And, of course, if E=mc2 in your world, then even the tiniest material spell component might yield a massive bang.

This category might also include any situation in which the user taps into a nebulous source of energy (e.g. the Force, chi, mana) and becomes a conduit. If the energy is ‘spiritual’, then it might overlap with prayer and ritual. The source of energy could also be fully contained within the user, and only needs to be released (in this case, does its expenditure leave the user exhausted, and is it the same type of energy that keeps a non-spell caster moving, thinking, and feeling?).

prayer (and wishes)

“Valor pleases you, Crom... so grant me one request. Grant me revenge!” Conan [5]

If the practitioner is trying to garner favour with (and favours from) the spirit world, then it is a simple appeal for help. Why the target chooses to help only some of the people some of the time is not clear. Keep in mind, however, that there are other forms of prayer that are not based on appeal, but are more contemplative[vii]. In these, the practitioners may try to harness spiritual power by focusing on an internal or external spiritual source (which overlaps with conjuration), or simply try to garner a feeling of peace by placing themselves in the presence (metaphorical or not) of their spiritual target (e.g. their god). In simpler terms: it may be meditation.

incantation (magic words)

“Hocus-cadabra! Abraca-pocus!” Bugs Bunny [6]

Perhaps it is the long-recognized power of speech (and music) or the more modern idea that objects have resonant frequencies, but the idea that words and sounds have clout is prevalent in religion and magical folklore. If used well, therefore, incantations will feel natural to your reader. But how might these sounds work? Do certain sounds call spirits, who assist. Maybe the frequencies resonate with objects, gateways to other planes (John Harten does a nice job with this concept in Island), or with the spiritual elements (e.g. chakras) of their target(s). The only idea that falls terribly flat, in my opinion, is the use of actual words. For example, in the Harry Potter series, faux Latin is used to cast spells. Why does the universe ‘speak’ faux Latin? Do the materials that comprise a pair of glasses really respond to the words “oculus reparo” by figuring out how they might best restore their function? [7] And why can one person say these words effectively, but not another, even though they all have different accents? To keep my brain from bleeding, please don’t do this in your fiction. Please.[viii]

divination (reading the future, premonitions, prophecies, and the concept of fate)

“That I have missed the mark, henceforth declare
I have no wit nor skill in prophecy.” Teiresias [8]

This one is difficult because it is tied with concepts of free will and the arrow of time. If the future, in general, is already determined (implied by the idea that it can be accurately predicted), then your characters are just acting out scenes in a movie that has already been written. Therefore, they have no free will or responsibility. In any case, actually learning about a person’s future is tricky. How does that happen? In the scenario where everything has already occurred and the characters are simply moving along a timeline, unable to see the already-written future, then the predicting device or some intelligent being must be able to leap forward in time to see the future or it must be able to calculate, with ridiculous accuracy, the likely outcome of all interacting events that will affect the person in question until the moment of interest (in the way that a computer could predict all of the final resting locations of billiard balls if it knew of the force and angle of the break along with the properties of the table, balls, and atmosphere).

A more subtle approach to premonitions is that the future has not yet been determined, but strong forces (e.g. gods) have vested interests in certain aspects of the future. Perhaps these force interfere just enough to cause the hero to unwittingly kill his own father, but this is not an assurance – it will only work to the extent that the gods can affect such matters. In such a scenario, there can still be an undetermined future, but a “premonition” is simply a god making clear its intentions to guide things.

luck (lucky charms and curses)

“In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.” Ben Kenobi [9]

If luck is a randomly achieved outcome that benefits the recipient then, for something like a ‘good luck charm’ to work, the item must be (or be able to call upon) a sentient power that not only understands the difference between good and bad outcomes, but knows how to (and be able to) alter the world such that good outcomes (or bad in the case of curses) are more likely. How might this happen? If we use an example wherein a heroine is caught by a tree branch as she falls over a cliff, perhaps the power (the charm itself?) is very clever and can surmise the outcome of certain actions better than the heroine can. Upon doing so, the power influences the hero or the situation such that the hero is more likely to fall only at the spot where the tree branch is growing. Or, instead of influencing the situation, the sentient power searches through a huge range of parallel or potential worlds and ‘chooses’ one that is in league with the will of the hero (akin to a macro-scale version of a Copenhagen interpretation of reality). Combinations of these ideas also might work well. In any case, the question of why the sentient power decides to keep its influence so secret and subtle is another issue worth considering.

material spell components (stuff that is required to make the spell work)

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog” 2nd Witch [10]

To a modern mind, the use of salts, metals, or certain animal parts may just provide the components for chemical reactions, which makes such ‘magic’ no more mystical than baking. Because this will probably be the mindset of your readers (I am assuming them to have a somewhat modern mind and, at least, a high-school exposure to chemistry), you may want to craft the chemistry of your world to stay a step ahead of your audience, even if you don’t explicitly explain it to them.

Interestingly, the ‘chemistry’ view of spell components is not typical though history. More often, items were supposed to work via principles of sympathy (correspondence and contagion)[ix] wherein they were somehow linked with the desired effect or target (e.g. a comb that belongs to a person might lend power to spells that target them, or a broach shaped like a lion might make a warrior stronger). [11] As with so many other magical concepts, it seems that there must often be a ‘spiritual’ connection for the link to make any sense. How is the formerly mentioned comb connected to the soul of its owner? Does it have a memory or is there some direct link through a spirit plane? Something like the broach being shaped like a lion is much harder to explain. It implies that strength comes from shapes (yet this doesn’t work with all shapes?) or that there is an intelligent observing power that has decided to reward its wearer for some reason, which takes us straight to rituals...

rituals (and rites)

“Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less.” Cleric (with Brother Maynard) [4]

I will consider a ritual to be multiple factors acting in concert and/or in sequence that invoke a ‘spiritual’ realm. This often differs from prayer in that prayer is open ended (e.g. “please let me score the winning touchdown”) whereas ritual seems to fulfil a contract, as if it were an equation (e.g. if I stab an albino cow using an obsidian knife during a full moon, then my crops will grow better)[x]. Especially as items are used in rituals, you might want to consider why that particular item is more effective than any other. It might be as simple as a judgemental spirit world that respects the use of certain resources. Perhaps a deity is impressed by the use a real obsidian knife and a real albino cow, as opposed to cheap knock-offs?

There is always the possibility that a ‘ritual’ does not call on any ‘spiritual’ forces at all, but is just a very complicated manipulation of forces in the material world. This could constitute a ‘spell’ such as a conjuration. Alternatively, it may not be ‘magical’ at all but, to the uninitiated, it may seem like ‘magic’ (and may be assumed to have a spiritual appeal)[xi]. One of the most fascinating real-world examples of this is the cargo cults of Melanesia[xii].

magical items (powerful swords, etc.)

“With my spear and magic HELMET!” Elmer Fudd [12]

These are the bread and butter of the fantasy genre, and putting them all into one sub-heading covers a lot of ground. If we begin by considering the function of the item, then we can decide if it is simply a superior form of technology. Some items may adhere to the ‘natural’ chemical properties of the world (there’s that problem with dualism again), like a ‘magic’ sword that is really just made of an unknown alloy that resists being dulled, or releases energy when it is bent or bruised. Other items may be constructed in such a way that they act as conduits or antennae for exterior sources of energy. In any case, a deeper explanation may include several of the previously discussed sub-headings, and the details would need to be handled on a case-by-case basis.

in conclusion

There are other genres of magic that could be addressed here, but you get the idea: however you include magic in your writing, ask yourself where the power comes from, whether or not it is in endless supply, how that power achieves the function being asked of it, and why the steps that harness or release that power make sense. If you can answer all of these questions, you will find your fantasy milieu to be much richer for it and your readers will take notice.

[i] There are serious professionals who spend their careers studying magical thinking throughout the world – be aware that I am not one of them. I only want to look at the topic from, apparently, a new angle (though this angle is not new with regard to the categorization of prayer). If you are creating a reasonably detailed magical system for your story, I recommend that you read other sources after finishing this blog post.
[ii] In the 1970’s, Gary Gygax subcategorized spells via simplistic ‘schools’: Divination, Conjuration, Abjuration, etc. Though these were not explained in the original AD&D system [13] [14], subsequent versions expanded on them in some detail.
[iii] Even The Golden Bough [11], one of the most seminal and encyclopaedic works on magic, neglects this topic (though I have to admit that I have only read the summarized version, not the full eleven-volume set).
[iv] Brandon Sanderson has some good advice regarding when to explain the rules of your magic system and when to keep your protagonists (and your readers) in the dark so as not to lose a sense of mystical mystery.    
[v] It is hard to imagine other possibilities, though some might suggest that information itself (and/or emergent complexity) is a third possible form of ‘energy’. Many of these ideas are poorly reasoned, such as the Omega Point and the Specified Complexity argument for Intelligent Design but, perhaps, well-recognized concepts such as consciousness could be backed into this corner if they are not already attributed to a the ‘spiritual’ concept of a soul).
[vi] In my own fantasy setting, I started with the standard Theory of Cosmic Inflation and simply posited four spiritual forces that formed alongside (and entangled with) four physical ones, giving rise to a spiritual chemistry. This allowed for the naturalistic formation of gods in a manner parallel to the coalescence of material into stars. All other spiritual concepts then fall out by analogy with the physics and chemistry of the real world (I assume that no real-world ancient religions used this idea because they preceded our current scientific understanding of creation, which was highly influential on my thinking, and that no new religions (such as the ironically-named Scientology) use the idea because people who seek logical explanations for the world do not turn to them, so these religions have no need to be logic-based).
[vii] Unlike other genres of magic, Wikipedia actually does organize this category based on its supposed mechanisms.
[viii] However, I have to admit that the idea that words literally have power (in a universal physics sense, not even with regard to changing peoples’ attitudes) permeates our culture deeply. It may not be scientifically sensible, but it resonates with virtually all of us. As an interesting exercise on this point, ask yourself and/or the most rational people you know to write out this sentence ten times on a piece of paper: “I wish for [fill in name of loved one(s) here] to die in a tragic card accident”. Very few people are willing to do it and even if they do, few feel comfortable doing so.
[ix] To describe the mechanisms for such linkages as “principles”, however, is extremely generous, as there really are no sensible or consistent rules.
[x] As I state in my first endnote, I am no expert on this, so you may want to search further to find a better definition.
[xi] Another example of the Clarke Principal that sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic.
[xii] During World War II, the Allies built airfields on some islands that had technologically primitive societies. When these groups subsequently saw valuable cargo being delivered literally “out of the blue”, they assumed that the items arrived as a result of the military drills (rituals) that the allied troops performed on a regular basis. Long after the allies departed, groups of islanders attempted to summon cargo deliveries by imitating the allied troops’ behaviour, dress, and equipment, including the setting of an appropriate summoning site by building facsimiles of planes and radios out of plant materials.

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