On the Deployment of Magic

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?

15 thoughts on “On the Deployment of Magic

  1. As a student in Brandon Sanderson’s university course in writing science fiction, I’ve heard him discuss the same subject. In fact, he formalized it in what he calls Sanderson’s First Law: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” He describes the same considerations you mention here in the story of how he came up with it (linked below). I have personally enjoyed both sorts of magic systems but I have to say I prefer so-called “hard” magic systems when they’re done right.


    • Thanks for the post and the link, Mark. I’m headed over there right now to check it out. One of the things I’ve always liked and admired about Sanderson is his interest in creating internally coherent systems of magic. Have you read Scott Bakker? A crucial plot point in his series hinges on the fundamental difference between competing schools of magic…

      • I haven’t but I have to say I came across your blog recently and I’m loving it. I’ve found a ton of great reading recommendations from both your posts and the comments. I’ll definitely check Bakker out.

  2. This may be obvious, but magic in stories cannot be too powerful, or it would ruin the plot. If Gandalf simply teleported Frodo to Mount Doom, it would be a very short book. Also, magic tends to have some negative side-effects which limit its use by the characters.

    Also, I think its interesting that Galadriel’s mirror and the seeing stones are like low grade versions of the internet, some of Gandalf’s powers are basically fireworks, and Galadriel’s glowing phial is basically a flashlight. I feel a little sorry for the next generation who will not appreciate the magic of our modern wonders.

    From my experience, the Lord of the Rings movies almost perfectly fit my mental images from the books, if not better.

    I just read the Hobbit and am re-reading Return of the King right now.


    • “I feel a little sorry for the next generation who will not appreciate the magic of our modern wonders.”

      That’s an interesting perspective that underscores what makes writing fantasy harder and harder. How do you create wonder in the hearts of people living in an age of miracles?

      • That’s an excellent article, thank you for sharing it. It covered the point I was trying to make and took it several levels beyond.

        We do live in an age of miracles, my comment sounded rather negative.


    Soft magic versus hard:

    I actually prefer Tolkien’s variety of vague, soft-focus magic over the harder, systematically explained variety. Too often, hard magic ends up being the fantasy world equivalent of Geordie La Forge’s technobabble in the worst episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Enterprise becomes stuck in a bizarre space-time anomaly that threatens to destroy it. Strange things happen, and all attempts to escape fail. Somebody begins counting down the minutes until death. Just then, Geordie La Forge has an insight. He delivers a frantic pseudo-explanation in Star Trek engineering gibberish. He presses a lot of buttons with as much dramatic flair as he can muster, there is a light-show climaxing in a big flash, and the crew is saved.

    Both the problem and the solution arise from an arbitrary system, and it’s difficult to care. No matter the depth and coherency of the explanation given, a system of magic usually operates as no more than a thin veil to hide the hand of the writer, moving his pieces around the board. But more often than not, the hand is plainly visible, and the reader can see how desperate it is.

    This isn’t to say that soft magic can’t be just as easily abused. However, it seems more inclined to operate under the logic of the characters involved: as an extension of the character’s will rather than as some kind of invisible, impersonal mechanism, a deus ex machina entirely separate from the characters. For instance, Tolkien’s Tale of Beren and Luthien from the Silmarillion.

    Our warrior hero Beren is confronted with an impossible task: stealing the jewels from Morgoth’s crown. But over the course of the story, most of his problems are solved by magic. Luthien, initially Beren’s damsel in distress, is revealed as Middle Earth’s most powerful sorceress, and she uses her powers to repeatedly save Beren’s ass whenever he has himself in an impossible jam. Although she appears to be just the sort of magical plot-savior I complained about above, in the story itself Luthien’s unexplained powers are a completely organic part of who she is, and they work as more than an authorial escape hatch because magic is a way for her to interact with other characters, an abstraction of the way sword-wielding Beren interacts with others in the physical realm.

    Luthien’s magic is what ultimately accomplishes the impossible task: she sings a song that puts Morgoth in a trance and allows Beren to steal the Silmarils, which seems like egregious cheating on Tolkien’s part. In the telling of the story, though, the song is Luthien’s battle with Morgoth: the two characters confronting each other directly in a way that would be much less potent (a little silly, in fact) if narrated through the arbitrary mechanism of systematic magic. “Then he was beguiled by his own malice…the burden of that crown and of the jewels bowed down his head, as though the world were set upon it, laden with a weight of care, of fear, of desire, that even the will of Morgoth could not support. Then Luthien catching up her winged robe sprang into the air, and her voice came dropping down like rain into pools, profound and dark. She cast her cloak before his eyes, and set upon him a dream, dark as the Outer Void where once he walked alone. Suddenly he fell, as a hill sliding in avalanche, and hurled like thunder from his throne lay prone upon the floors of hell.”

    That, in my opinion, is good magic–Morgoth exposed to his own nastiness and defeated by fear and desire, not by someone rolling an invisible d20.

    Having said that, my favorite magic system is the Charter in Garth Nix’s /Sabriel/ series. The Charter is an invisible alphabet–almost a programing language–that was used to write a description of the whole universe at the beginning of time. Mages who learn to perceive the Charter can read and edit small parts of it, thus creating new rules for reality. But the universe still contains corrosive bubbles of Wild Magic, the primordial chaos of untamed potentiality from which the Charter was created. Charter Mages have no control over the irrationality of Wild Magic and are in perpetual conflict with it–the series’ equivalent of dark magic and light magic, although not necessarily with the strict moral divisions the dichotomy usually implies.

    The point I’m really making, I suppose, is just the obvious one: that magic of either type can stupid and cheap, or interesting and useful. It’s all down to the author.

    • Thanks for the reply, Ben! I actually haven’t read Nix’s Sabriel series, and now I’m itching to get my hands on it. What’s a few more pounds on my TBR pile.

      I agree with you completely about what I think is your central point: magic needs to be tied inextricably to character. It shouldn’t be an add-on, something that can be swapped in and out like ear rings or boxer shorts. This is, I think, why Tolkien’s magic in LOTR works — Gandalf’s magic is almost literally an extension of his self. I really enjoy books in which there’s a cost to the use of magic, because that cost usually leaves its mark on the wielder.

  4. Pingback: Snake-Sticks and Cheap Tricks: Magic versus Miracle | Fantasy Faction

  5. A tangent: I haven’t checked on Brandon Sanderson’s age, but in reading his books some of his magic seems so directly analogous to cell phone technology that I wonder if he isn’t under 40. I’m thinking especially of the spanreeds in the Stormlight Archive books.

  6. I personally tend to prefer a more loose approach when it comes to the amount of details and explanations given in Fantasy. I always had a soft spot for those stories that don’t tell everything and leave instead plenty of space to the imagination like the classic ones by Howard, Lovecraft and Poe. I know it’s silly to go and call in masterpieces from the past and moan about the fact that “they don’t make them like that anymore”, but still, there’s something about them, an air of added mystery which had always exerted a powerful influence on me. Although I am a fan of Epic Fantasy, old and new, and I understand that certain features that work for the short form don’t always apply to its counterpart, I believe Fantasy could do with a bit of “untold” nowadays. Not just in regards of magic, but of storytelling, too. Especially since we live in an age that thrives on an overwhelming amount of information, even if it’s just to go against it!😉

    I hope I haven’t strayed too far from the original topic. Keep up the great work Brian!

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