Withering Bolts and Blazing Spears: A Guide to Magic and Childbirth

Anyone who’s played an RPG as a magic user knows that there are subtle ways to handle magic. You can slink around casting Fearful Gaze, Burdening Touch, or Mesmerizing Grasp, trying to charm and finesse your way through the various dungeons, dissolving the swords of bandits, or tricking the kobolds into thinking you’re another kobold, or whatever.

And then there are the not-so-subtle ways. How about some Blazing Spear, assholes? A little Withering Bolt? Eat it, frost atronach! I respect players who take the former route, but when I fire up some magic I want lightning bolts to leap from my fingertips, Emperor Palpatine-style. I want meteors to rain down from the sky. I want shit to burn.

It’s tempting to try to write this style of magic, too. Plenty of writers do it, with varying results. The trouble is, you’re competing head-to-head with both video games and movies. What looks totally bad-ass on the screen might not come across as well on the page.

“But,” I hear an ardent reader protesting, “the way I imagine the Withering Bolt is so much cooler than the way it appears on screen.”

Fair enough. This is, after all, the whole point of novels. Smart writers take advantage of the active role played by their readers’ outstanding imaginations, using those imaginations to supplement their own text. They know when to draw the line with their description, realizing that if you overwrite the scene you’re actually limiting your reader’s ability to visualize it for herself. In this case, writing becomes a sort of collaboration between the reader and the writer, rather than an imposition of the writer’s vision on the reader’s mind, the sort of imposition that we find in movies.

Don’t get me wrong; I love movies. Sometimes I like to be imposed upon. It’s just that movies don’t allow the same latitude for imagination. Everyone who’s seen Star Wars has pretty much the same idea of what Darth Vader looks like.

If we return to novels and the magic that appears inside them, there’s an opportunity lurking here. It’s possible to turn away, at least from time to time, from exterior, physical magic that clamors for elaborate description. If the writer is asking the reader to visualize things for herself anyway, why not occasionally turn the focus from the supernatural event itself to the psychology and struggle of the spell caster?

One of my favorite instances of this approach takes place in Ursula LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan. Without ruining the book for those who haven’t had the pleasure, I can say that Ged, a powerful wizard, is stuck in a very nasty labyrinth, harried by some very nasty forces. He and a young woman, who has become his companion, are trying to escape. On the surface, it doesn’t seem as though Ged’s doing all that much:

“Beside her the man would breathe deep, and hold the breath, again and again, like one making a mighty effort with all the strength of his body. Sometimes his voice broke out, hushed and sharp, in a word or fragment of a word.”

No Exploding Brain. No Rain of Hell-Fire. But we do catch a glimpse of his internal struggle, a struggle made all the more riveting when we discover what he’s actually up to:

“Tenar, I hold the roof up over out heads, this moment. I keep the walls from closing in upon us. I keep the ground from opening beneath our feet. I have done this since we passed the pit […] They are seeking us, seeking our will, our spirit. To quench it, to devour it. I must keep that alight. All my strength is going into that.”

It doesn’t look like much, but the drama is intense. Ged is literally holding the up the earth, and he is pushed to the breaking point, an impressive statement when you understand the extent of Ged’s power.

There’s a scene from Robin Hobb that strikes me as quite similar. Here the King-in-Waiting, Verity, is using his magical Skill to deceive the sinister Red-Ship raiders who have been harrying his coastline and doing unspeakable things to his people. As in the LeGuin novel, he doesn’t seem all that impressive at the outset:

“Verity was sitting in a chair by the window. A summer wind off the ocean blew into the room. It could have been a pleasant chamber, full of light and air on a stuffy summer day. Instead it seemed to me a cell. There was the chair by the window, and a small table next to it. In the corners and around the edges of the room the floor was dusty and littered with bits of old strewing reeds. And Verity, his chin slumped to his chest as if dozing, except that to my senses the room thrummed with his effort. His hair was unkempt, his chin bewhiskered with a day’s growth. His clothing hung on him.”

Only a few pages later do we learn the full extent of his efforts. Every day, every night, almost without time for food or sleep, he is muddying the minds of his assailants. The effort involved is literally killing him, but, as he points out in this argument with the king, the stakes are enormous:

“Perhaps there is a Red-Ship right now, not so far that they cannot see Egg Island, and already the captain of it is discounting the dream of ill omen he had last night, and the navigator is correcting his course, wondering how he could have so mistaken the landmarks of our coastline. Already the work I did last night while you slept and Regal danced and drank with his courtiers is coming undone, while we stand here and yatter at one another.”

In this second case the magic involved (Skilling) is interesting in its own right, but Hobb chooses not to focus on the magic itself. Instead, she shifts our attention to Verity, a man struggling mightily but – and this is the crucial point here – struggling internally. The same is true of LeGuin’s handling of Ged, only more so. In that case, we don’t even really understand what magic is at Ged’s disposal or how it works. It doesn’t matter; the human drama blazes all the more brightly for the lack of a conjured fireball.

I was reminded of this inner intensity almost a year ago as I watched my wife labor with the birth of our son. There’s not all that much to look at: a beautiful woman, her face etched with concentration and pain. At the very end, of course, there’s the jaw-dropping, tear-jerking sight of a child being born, but the real business, the real struggle and doubt and courage, takes place internally in the long hours before, in the mind and heart of the mother.

Of course, we wouldn’t want to get rid of some of the more theatrical bits of our favorite novels. I still want to see demons riven in twain by sky-rending conjurations. I suppose the trick when handling magic is to find the right balance between inner and outer, between character-focused and effect-focused writing. I’m eager to hear what others think of this balance, and of other novels in which it’s been skillfully achieved.

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?