(Dis)illusion – on magic

When I was young, the pursuit of magic was a daily adventure. I was nearly obsessed with tapping into some unknown ability, like a Jedi, that when unleashed would undoubtedly solve my problems. Of course, my love of fantasy fueled this preoccupation. I saturated my imagination with books that reiterated my convictions: magic was possible, it was just a matter of finding it.

At about the age of twelve, I started writing what could (technically at least) be considered novels (though nothing was ever finished). And magic was everywhere; I remember how intoxicating it was to create a world for the first time, drawing a map, and developing magic. Of course, there were dragons and wizards and sorceresses–what else would there be? But I didn’t question the validity of magic. For me, it was a given–a blessing, always–that some worlds had magic, and though they, too, had their struggles, their worlds were clearly superior to our own.

But something has changed in me. In the last few years, my perception of magic, especially in what I write, has shifted dramatically. What’s weird is that it’s definitely tied to my own feelings on religion (and many fantasy writers have picked up on that similarity). I’m no longer comfortable with magic just getting away with everything. I mean, so, he conjured up that bread–but where did it come from? Sure, he transformed into a bear, but how did it happen?

Above all, it’s a feeling that magic, in all forms, has to come at a price. That it is not simple, or common. Illusion, of course, is sleight of the hand. But real magic? The sort that can heal, can wound, can transform? No, it’s not easy in the worlds I write any more.

Because I feel that magic is, in many portrayals, simply taken too lightly. As author, instead of playing the magic enabler, I’m playing the magic skeptic. Which is the primary reason my first book is laying dormant these days. It’s not a bad book; in many ways it’s really good. It just doesn’t stop to ask the hard questions. Magic is too simple, too straightforward. Magical people are good, and those who deny magic are bad. But it’s about so much more than that.

How about you? Do you find that your perception of magic has changed? In what ways? Does it affect how you read/write?

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5 Comments on “(Dis)illusion – on magic

  1. You and my father have very similar perspectives on this. While he is not a novel writer, he loves creating worlds for fantasy based gaming. One of the most important things to him was making magic rare, have it make sense, and have it come with a cost. It flew in the face of the standard fare that you might expect to find in other places, like D&D for example.

    But, there’s a weird balance to strike when approaching magic like this. Part of the allure of fantasy is the fantastical element of magic, the part that cannot be explained. Getting into the nuts and bolts nuances of the very origins of magic can sometimes rob the reader of that “mystery”. I’ve attempted to do this once before in a world I was working on, and in the end it wound up feeling more like science than something mystical.

  2. @Erik I see what you mean. I think the danger is going in any direction too much, at least without a good explanation. I mean mystery is great, but it’s also got to make sense in the framework of the narrative. I’m just a little tired of magic existing and solving problems “just because.” But I also don’t want to overthink it. 🙂

  3. When I wrote my first fantasy novel (I was thirteen, and it was more of a novella– never to be shown the light of day) I was thrilled with myself, and at the same time, very, very confused. As a long-time fantasy nerd who won’t go out of the genre, I had forgotten to put in any magic. Instead you had a border dispute, a political frame, and a wayward princess who kept a menagerie in her bedroom and pulled lots of pranks. I couldn’t stop shaking me head, wondering where that had come from.

    It’s funny. I’m almost doing the same thing, with another ten years worth of experience tacked on. Ultimately, I think that I do this not because I don’t like magic, but that the creation of circumstance and self-built settings feels so much more powerful. Magic is a weapon of choice… does it really need to be part of the story-proper?

    • @elizaw Yes, I had a few novel attempts that were magic-less (including old Westerns), and it was confusing. It’s one of the reasons I love G.R.R. Martin though. Magic is dangerous business in his books, and though they’re fantasy novels, they’re not typical. He messes with our minds with all the swords and politics, before we realize, “Hey! Where’s the wizard in the pointy hat!” Magic shouldn’t be the cake; it should be the icing.

  4. You sound like me – I fell in love with the idea of magic after reading Tolkien (of course! LOL) but the more I tackled the idea of having a magic system in my own world, I started asking what was the basis of it, what was the thought behind it…and because I also had experience in theatre, had to ask the inevitable question: what was their motive – beyond acquiring something or trying to get out of a situation. I still grapple with that – what does magic mean in my fantasy world. Im also having trouble with the various kinds of races.

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