Systems of Magic in Fantasy Literature


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What do you think of this “sniff test” for systems of magic in fantasy literature? It seems to me that, in Tolkien’s subcreated world, truly understanding magic requires a deep understanding of nature and anyone who has this understanding would be very wary about the use of magic.

3 thoughts on “Systems of Magic in Fantasy Literature

  1. I think it is potentially useful for the world-builder or writer, developing a new magic system. But, ultimately, I think knowing all the answers to these questions, as a reader, would tend to be rather dull. Part of the wonder and majesty of the magic of Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the fact that to the reader it is so nebulous. Seeing M.E. through the eyes of the hobbits, we are only privy to their level of knowledge. In LotR we are exposed to what seems magic to the hobbits. And yet when asked by Sam about it, Galadriel is confused. I think for the elves, and possibly Gandalf (ie. the Istari), magic is nothing more than a higher form of wisdom. And if we are to take Tolkien’s faith into account, nothing more than the work of “the Secret Fire” (ie. the Holy Spirit or Providence) at work through them.

  2. I agree completely! The hobbit perspective seems very important because, like us, they seem to confuse magic with a magnification of the will, with making happen what we want to happen. Subcreative magic, however, expands what we think of as will. It is more like a coincidence of the individual will with the Will of nature (and, thus, of the Divine expressing itself through nature). This kind of power can never be used; it can only be received. In a sense, we lose ourselves when we do its work but we are never more ourselves than when we do.

    On our Facebook page, Ivan said that we have to be wary of becoming like those who are “entrenched in the technological worldview of the last century and they haven’t deeply contemplated the relationship of ‘magic’ to shamanism, religion, faith healers, forest hermits, crazy old medicine women, skywatchers, weavers of songs and tales to bind a community or fire the spirit of warriors or heal the hurts of the veterans…” Perhaps there is shallow magic that looks more like what we think of as technology and there is deeper magic that operates according to a rich, dynamic relationship with nature.

    Like Katy in the Facebook discussion. I believe that magic obeys laws and that these laws are crucial to its accurate portrayal. If, however, we think of laws as the way the Cosmos expresses itself, bringing everything that will be into being, then we can see how getting to know the laws is not a matter of rote obedience but a matter of finding our place in creation so “the staff work of Omnipotence” can get on with its job. Tolkien had the Valar sing the world into being for a reason. You cannot know a song by analyzing its notes or repeating its formula. You know it by singing it then know it far better by making your own song according to its inspiration.

    Maybe I should have put this all in my original post but I am not sure that even now I can express it adequately and I needed all of you to get me thinking. Thanks for that!

  3. I understand what you’re saying. Half the time I make a comment or post, there is something I want to say and never truly get to the perfect mode of expressing it…hence for my blog, constant reinterpretations/applications on similar topics.

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