Magic: To Eff or Not to Eff?

Magic: To Eff or Not to Eff?

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.

–Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

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.

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John R. Fultz

Fascinating post, James!

You’ve hit on the real challenge of writing fantasy magic: how to make the miraculous, esoteric, and utterly strange seem not only beleivable, but understandable by the reader (if not by the characters).

Magic, or sorcery, should ideally invoke images and concepts that are beyond the mundane, i.e. that are fantastical. When sorcery borders on the surreal, it’s usually at it’s best. When the writer can DESCRIBE the INDESCRIBABLE that is a feat to accomplish. When the written word itself becomes a kind of SPELL worked upon the reader–that’s when you get magic that really blows your reader’s mind.

Darrell Schweitzer does this amazingly well in his MASK OF THE SORCERER book, as well as his SEKENRE stories, and a good deal of his other fantasy tales. He writes about magical workings and events as if he’s peeling back the layers of reality and driving a needle into your subconscious–or your mind’s eye–and he describes the impossible with phantasmagoric metaphor, simile, imagery, and lyrical fashion. His work is a form of sorcery itself–as good writing always is–bring the ineffable into focus, making the reader envision a transcendental experience through sheer word-power.

R. Scott Bakker has a different approach. His sorcery fills the air like intricate geometries, and his sorcerers (in THE PRINCE OF NOTHING series) mutter incantations like mathematical formulas, working hidden forces of the universe the way Stephen Hawking might solve a metaphysical rubic’s cube in a flash of deadly light. His technique for capturing magic/sorcery in words is more direct than Schweitzer’s but no less powerful…not as surreal, but fascinating and evocative.

A.A. Attanasio is also a true wizard of writing terrific magic/sorcery. In his ARTHOR series (THE DRAGON AND THE UNICORN, et. al.) he writes about mind-boggling magic as if it’s simply quantum physics manipulating the hidden energies of the universe. He makes the preposterous seem logical…his Merlin manipulating the atomic field with an incantation…his gods living in the upper atmosphere on whole continents composing various vibrational planes of reality…his world-dragon sleeping deep within the planet’s core radiating energies that can be tapped and channeled by those with the knowledge and skills…and his demons that are vast, wicked intelligences floating in from the cold spaces of the void. He looks at the natural world and uses a philosophical take on quantum mechanics to create sorcery that just seems…right…but is no less wonderful.

Anyone can do magic. The trick is to do it in a new way instead of recycling the old tropes of spellcraft…to invent a fresh take on sorcery, you sort of have to invent the universe itself (in your story, at least). Then you have to find a style and approach that conveys this to the reader with imagery, philosophy, and above all a sense of wonder…while at the same time entertaining and making the magic serve the story.

Then there’s the classic mastery of Dunsany, who transformed entire kingdoms on a well-turned metaphor, and built new dimensions out of simple figurative language well-chosen. He didn’t worry about how his magic worked–and he didnt’ bother to explain it to the reader–the wonder and magic he created in his fantasies were simply an integral part of the natural world itself. That may be the best place for us all to look when trying to find our own MAGIC.


John R. Fultz


Yes! Wonder is hard.

But, oh, so sweet when it happens, eh?


John R. Fultz

Oh, almost forgot: Pick up a copy of THE DRAGON AND THE UNICORN. First book of the ARTHOR series, but also a standalone read.



PS. Be sure to do a blog review of it!

David Sklar

For me, magic shouldn’t make sense logically, but it has to make sense intuitively. Because if it makes logical sense, then it’s not magic, it’s technology. But if it doesn’t make intuitive sense, then it isn’t anything at all.

I have two favorite writers when it comes to making magic feel real. The first is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who just weaves the impossible into the fabric of his world. For fantasy writers, though, and adventure writers in particular, Marquez is a tough guy to copy, because in his world magic isn’t something you can harness; it’s just always there. So a characer might have butterflies following him around the way a character in another book might have, say, blue eyes or a penchant for scotch. But from all I’ve read, only one of his stories has sorcerers, and they’re so messed up that whether they control magic doesn’t matter because they can’t even control themselves.

The other is Lisa Goldstein, who just soaks her world in magic the way you soak a cake in rum. In Tourists, for example, she creates a country where everyone gets their news from random packs of Tarot cards that are printed every day, even though no one knows by whom. I wish I could give here the quote she uses to open Travelers in Magic, but unfortunately my copy of that book just appears and disappears of its own accord.

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