The methods and limits of magic in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are more than a little opaque. Over the course of the three volumes (as well as the Hobbit and other ancillary texts) we run into all sorts of magic: Sting turns blue when orcs are nearby, moon-runes on the door to Khazad-dûm understand spoken passwords, the palantiri allow users to communicate across vast distances, Gandalf can read “mind and memory” and summon a shaft of white light when battling the Nazgul, Galadriel’s mirror reveals past, present, and future… The list goes on. There are some interesting attempts at a taxonomy of Tolkien’s magic on-line, but for our purposes the point is simple: magic can do all sorts of shit and as a reader you don’t really know ahead of time what that shit is. If Gandalf suddenly told Frodo that he could turn people into warthogs you might think this sounded pointless but it wouldn’t seem all that implausible.
In a way this makes sense. Magic is, after all, magic – almost by definition it should elude human classification, defy mortal attempts at understanding, as understanding inevitably leads to circumscription. I certainly never felt any objection on my many journeys through the Lord of the Rings when a character or object revealed an unexpected magical quality. Quite to the contrary, I loved such moments; they made the world appear richer, more wonderful.
And yet, there is a danger here. As any fantasy reader knows, we want new rules, new worlds – otherwise we’d all be reading police procedurals or cook books or something. If those rules and worlds appear arbitrary, however, we can easily feel duped or betrayed. After all, in so-called “realistic” fiction, suspense is built on a firm foundation of established rules: if a serial killer is chasing a family through the woods we don’t expect the family to be able to turn into falcons and fly away, nor do we believe the killer can teleport in front of them or take over their brains. We know the rules: the family will win if they can outrun, out-hide, or out-think the killer. Hopefully the family’s solution will be something we hadn’t considered (maybe they abandon a crying child in a desperate gambit to lure the killer into a dangerous ravine) but it shouldn’t be something we never considered possible.
Magic in fantasy, however, explodes the definition of the possible. That’s why it’s magic and not just sleight-of-hand. So what’s a writer to do? How does she establish a contract with her readers that allows for the effective building of suspense?
One interesting answer is exemplified by Brandon Sanderson (in the Mistborn series and elsewhere) and Jim Butcher (in the Codex Alera series). In a nutshell, these guys have taken the phrase “systems of magic” and put the focus on system. Not for them a random hodge-podge of special effects. Sanderson’s allomancy (which is just one sort of magic in the book) has carefully documented traits and parameters. I won’t even try to describe allomancy in all its detail (read the books!), but in short, magical powers are tied to the ingestion of certain metals, each of which confers a different power. Sanderson has broken the powers down by metal, distinguishing between pure elements (e.g. iron) and alloys (e.g. pewter). By the end of the series the careful reader will have learned an intricate and carefully balanced system of magic.
Equally carefully detailed is Jim Butcher’s system of “fury-crafting” which is based on a connection between the humans in his world and the elemental denizens of water, earth, wood, fire, air, and metal. A connection with an elemental fury gives the human protagonist certain powers based on the type of element: water for healing, air for speed and flight, etc. The system is more complex and nuanced than this (again, the books themselves are well worth reading), but the point is that the entire magical system is fully articulated.
The cool thing about such articulated systems is that the skillful writer can tie the rules of magic into the unfolding strategies (military and otherwise) of the various characters. The rules of magic literally help to shape the plot. Both Sanderson and Butcher have some striking moments in their books when a character or characters come up with an unexpected yet wholly plausible use of the magical systems. These moments appeal to both our logical minds and to our sense of wonder. How wonderful, for instance, that an air-crafter can bend the atmosphere itself into a lens in the creation of a sort of natural telescope! The fact that there are rules that we can understand allows us to participate in the unfolding drama (What would I do with the magical resources available?) and to fully appreciate the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the protagonists (Holy shit! I never even considered doing that!) Magic, rather than a decoration, becomes a fundamental building block of plot and strategy.
So what about Tolkien? Did he screw the pooch on this one? Of course not. But I think it’s crucial to understand that magic, in his novels, works in a different way and serves a different function. Since we (even those of us who have pored over the Silmarillion) never fully understand how it works, we never see it as an inherent component of strategy or plot. The reason this doesn’t matter is that Tolkien is plenty clear about the locus of his drama: human (or elven, dwarven, hobbit-ish, etc) emotion, the strengths and weaknesses of character. Despite the ubiquity of magic in these pages, it is effectively side-lined. After all, the most powerful good characters (Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, Aragon), those who actually have magic at their disposal, are, by their own admission, ineligible to carry the ring. Likewise, it’s clear that evil magic, however it functions, is inadequate to overpower or corrupt a pure heart and noble intention. We’re effectively told by Tolkien that there will be no sudden surprises. Sauron, for all his efforts, can’t simply take over Frodo’s brain, despite the fact that Frodo has no personal magic powers of which we are aware.
Just as importantly, Tolkien implies that good and evil magics in the world are in some way balanced. Without full understanding of their powers, we know that Gandalf can fight the Balrog on pretty even terms. Galadriel’s magic (although it is waning) can aid the adventurers in their quest to defeat Sauron. The whole thing reminds me of an algebraic equation in which the magic on either side of the equals sign cancels out, leaving us with a focus on what really matters: strength of character and the morality of individual choice.
So, if the magic cancels out, why include it at all? We return once again to that sense of the ineffable, the unfathomable, the amazing that we all look for when we open a fantasy tome. Even in our quotidian lives we have a sense that the world is both wider and deeper than we know; when Gandalf says, after fighting the Balrog, “I have been through fire and deep water,” we’re not sure exactly what the hell that means, but it seems both accurate and awesome.
A future post will be on the relationship between magical systems and the development of character in epic fantasy. In the mean time, any thoughts on the relationship between magic systems and plot/strategy? I have, of course, passed over other interesting magical systems – any favorites that people want to speak up for?