For the most part my worlds don’t include magic. I’m a science fiction guy. I do play with psionics on occasion, because I think it can be cool. On the other hand, I sometimes have my moods. Occasionally, I’ve been known to read a bit of Eddings or Feist, when I’m in that kind of a mood. And it is, of course, impossible to live an entire life without reading Tolkein. Then there’s the Force from Star Wars. In my misspent youth I wasted an inordinate amount of my time, thought, and creativity on the works of George Lucas.
Where does that leave me? It would appear that it leaves me writing about my own particular tastes in how magic, psionics, the force, or whatever you want to call it fits into my worldbuilding efforts.
I’ve played my share of Dungeon & Dragons in my aforementioned misspent youth. The first time I played, nobody in our group was a magic user. Except for the elf, who, naturally, of course, had a bit of hedge magic going on. This may have colored my attitudes towards magic, even in a fantasy milieu. On the whole magic shouldn’t be a first-person event except rarely.
The magic user throwing around fireballs and shooting lightning out of his finger tips has never much appealed to me. I don’t know why, but in looking more closely at my collection of Tolkein I have to think he, at least, felt the same way. Even Gandalf seemed to spend most of his time avoiding the use of magic. More often than not he spent his time sitting, looking at the problem, perhaps using a bit of quiet magical perception to see deeper into things, and trying to solve the problem without the use of magic. Evil folks, Saruman, Sauron and the like, were more explicit in their use of magic and the elves clearly seemed to have some powerful but very low key magic going on in the background most of the time, but none of them seemed to use much in the way of spectacular magic in front of the camera. Most magic seemed to exist as a sort of glamour in the character’s background. Sure Galadriel had an immense and even frightening aura of power, but what did she do?
How about poor Frodo? He had the cool magic ring that made himself invisible. For all that, though, there were a lot of limits there. First off, the cool magic ring was an express lane into the eye of Sauron and his nine scary horsemen of hell. And of course the scariest folks in Middle Earth can all see him clear as light. Wonderful. Also, the ring was a passive magic. Oh yeah and just using it cast you into a scary nether world of greyness, fog and muffled scary sound. Did I forget to mention, scary. Yeah, that could be a theme here. Also, this magic was passive, Frodo wasn’t casting some powerful spell, he was just playing with some toys his uncle found laying around in some cave.
On to Gandalf. We all love Gandalf, and he was a pretty darned impressive guy wasn’t he. He was, in fact one of the world’s great Wizards at… avoiding conflict. Something’s up with Saruman? Smell a rat in Isengard? Yeah… let’s take the really difficult route across the Misty Mountains. Admittedly we’ve shown that the biggest most powerful mage on our side of the fight is utterly terrified of Sauron’s little deputy. More than he’s afraid of avalanches, vicious storms, long falls onto sharp rocks and the joys of frostbite. Ultimately, only a storm powered by Saruman’s magic could turn him back. Did I mention avoidance of magic. Clearly magic is scary. How did Gandalf react when offered the Ring? Yup. He avoided it like You’d avoid talking to a syphilitic schizophrenic. Until magic turned him around, Gandalf preferred dealing with the big nasty mountain storm over a homey traipse through Gimli’s old home town. “Let’s take the route through Moria,” the dwarf said, “I got buds there. It’ll be cool.”
“No way, Jose,” Gandalf replied, “What’s a little snow?,” then of course he turned around when he realized this was a magic storm.
“So we’re going to Moria now?,” Gimli replied, “And who is this, Jose, you keep talking about?”
What was Gandalf’s great exercise of magic power? That would be fighting the Balrog. The one he obviously knew about, that had helped eat all the little dwarves of Moria. He stood fast to buy the rest of the Fellowship time to escape. This sounds like it had been a pretty bad ass exercise of magical power. Gandalf had fought down one of the most powerful demons of Middle Earth. Of course, rather like an early episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, we follow the folks running away and all the cool stuff happens off camera.
Later on, when a changed Gandalf, shows up again we get the story. Sure the story is pretty exciting even as a big lump of explication, shorn of any tension by the realization that, yeah, he’s telling the story of a fight to the death with a demon after the fact, so he probably survived. Well, only just barely, and he may in fact have actually died and been resurrected. That’s a whole lot of magic in one place, eh? It all happened out of sight of the reader.
Let’s look at magic in Tolkein in terms of its effect on the people who are exposed to it. Now, Frodo goes through a lot, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he comes out of the experience a bit… broken. Everybody involved in the experience has been a bit strained and with the possible exception of Gandalf and maybe Sam, no one has been beat on as hard as Frodo, but it’s made pretty explicit that the hardest strain on Frodo has been carrying the Ring. Magic is almost Lovecraftian in Tolkein. Unlike Lovecraft, Tolkein doesn’t just say it’s unspeakable, he shows that it’s there and doesn’t speak about it. When I finally recognized that masterful use of negative literary space my respect for Tolkein as a writer increased immensely. Both Frodo and Gandalf leave Middle Earth at the end. Too damaged by their contact with magic to continue living in the mortal world.
I love that way of dealing with magic, though. That’s how I’d apply magic to a fantasy universe, if I was working on one. Magic is huge and remote and terrifying. Magic is more often a threat than a tool. The main use of magic by the good guys is to counter the use of evil magic. More as point defense than as an offensive weapon or as a means of accomplishing the quest. Magic is also dangerous to be around. Gandalf didn’t wait for the others to pass out of sight before he cast his mojo for nothing. Even observing the magic is harmful to the soul. I think he was schooled in the magical art, apparently a long time back even by elven reckoning, but he had to save the use of magic to the last instant when it was absolutely crucial.
What does magic do? Perhaps every use of magic, beyond simple observational purposes(Saruman and his Palantirs demonstrate how even that can be hazardous) runs the risk summoning something terrible. Perhaps the caster or someone in the vicinity could be possessed by something terrible or perhaps the result could be as mundane as a demon appearing in the room. A cleaner, more literary result, something more in keeping with Tolkein’s example would be that everyone involved would be so moved in some spiritual sense as to be incapable of functioning in this world with any degree of happiness. Closer to Lovecraft’s notion of gibbering insanity than merely summoning some nameless demon who eviscerates everyone in the room.
This is the way I’d do magic, low key, off screen, or utterly unique and worldshaking events at great sacrifice. That keeps my the little part of my rational mind that screams at magic as mere superstition at bay. Now real cultural superstitions about magic and astrology and whatever else are a different subject altogether.