Should magic in fantasy fiction have a freakish perplexing quality that stands outside of reason or should it be a kind of alternate science, a para-physics (or para-chemistry or whatever) for a universe with physical norms that differ from ours?
This has been on my mind lately, for various reasons. And (like most people) when I think of the poetics of fantasy, I think of 18th C. skeptical philosophers.
Nothing, at first view, may seem more unbounded than the thought of man, which not only escapes all human power and authority, but is not even restrained within the limits of nature and reality. To form monsters, and join incongruous shapes and appearances, costs the imagination no more trouble than to conceive the most natural and familiar objects. And while the body is confined to one planet, along which it creeps with pain and difficulty; the thought can in an instant transport us into the most distant regions of the universe; or even beyond the universe, into the unbounded chaos, where nature is supposed to lie in total confusion. What never was seen, or heard of, may yet be conceived; nor is any thing beyond the power of thought, except what implies an absolute contradiction.
He goes on to qualify this further, but I think this is where he goes slightly off the rails. The mind can actually handle contradictions pretty well. Arguably, this is a distinguishing feature of human consciousness. (Captain Kirk used to think so, anyway.) What the mind usually does is refuse to recognize the contradiction. The rationalist who doesn’t believe in supernatural forces may still think he’s lucky at roulette. If confronted on the question, he might say something like, “That’s different!”–a rationalization that covers a multitude of difficult situations. It never convinces anyone but the speaker, but it never has to.
But we all do it. It may look like hypocrisy, and lots of times it will be hypocrisy. But I think it’s an important safety factor in how we think. No one can totally understand their environment: there will always be things that are beyond our reach, whether it’s what superposition implies or how the toaster works or why the old Significant Other suddenly seems more Other than Significant. There will always be something. Our ideas about our environment have to be heterogeneous because we’ll never be genius enough to devise a system that accounts for sweethearts and alive-dead cats and toasters and everything else. And if we did, it would probably have contradictions built into it anyway (suggests Gödel).
If magic is the distinguishing feature of an imaginary world (a moot point possibly worth mooting at another time, but take it as a given for now), it should represent this essential cleft in our thinking about our own world. It should have things which are understandable and understood, and things which are not understood, possibly not understandable.
So magic in fantasy novels ought to be effable and ineffable. I think the one caveat is that the ineffability can’t work too obviously in the storyteller’s favor.