What I learned about symbolism and magic

Or, why I may not finish Mistborn despite little being wrong with the book.

Yes, that’s a weird opening gambit, you’re definitely right about that. But I’ve been reading Sanderson’s Mistborn and despite being pretty interesting and adequately written, it’s not quite doing it for me. It took me a few days to realize why. It all starts with the magic…

So if you haven’t read it, Mistborn is the first novel in Brandon Sanderson’s Final Empire trilogy. I was convinced to buy it a few years ago by a guy who worked in a bookshop – he said if I liked The Lies of Locke Lamora (which I do, a lot), I’d also like Mistborn. Fair enough. And it is similar, with a group of criminals coming together to attempt the overthrow of an apparently divine emperor. All well and good enough. But the magic got on my nerves for days, even as I thought it was clever.

The way magic works in this setting is that people who can do magic must ingest a metal attached to said magic, and it acts as fuel. Steel, for instance, lets one push against any nearby metal, either causing the person to go flying away – if the person is lighter than the metal – or the metal to go flying. There are ten or eleven metals, and most people who can do magic at all can only use one. The titular mistborns can use all the metals, and do all the magic. At its face it’s a fairly interesting magical system, a conscious effort to break away from many traditional literary magical traditions. And it doesn’t fall flat on its face, by any means, but it just isn’t working for me.

I realized it’s because there’s no symbolism to the magic at all. Magic is, by its nature, a symbolic enterprise. As you can see outlined here pretty well, magic is often turned into nothing more than a system through which people in stories (or games, as the article focuses on) can do things other than hit each other. That’s what’s happened here, I think. Maybe somewhere in the novel it turns around, and I don’t want to give up, but I go days at a time not reading it, or anything else, since I’m in the middle of this book. Thus far, it’s basically different kinds of mana points being spent on doing stuff to things. There are far too many descriptions of intricate movements and manipulations of the magic, and not nearly enough on telling me why I should care. The now traditional forms of magic – I won’t even try to list them all, but stuff like making fire, causing things to grow, changing shape, flying, teleporting, so on – are all traditional because they have vast symbolic meaning. I presume I don’t have to explain how flying under one’s own volition symbolizes something like freedom or control. I am hard-pressed, when reading, to see the symbolism in eating a bunch of metal and using them to do stuff, mostly metal-based telekinesis. I’m not even saying it doesn’t make sense – it doesn’t need to – but it needs to mean something.

I mean, sitting here, right now, I can think of stuff like independence – that is, just as a person consumes food and creates a closed circuit of food-fuel-action, the metal serves as the magical fuel for one to exert force over the world. But for that to really work everyone would need to have the ability, and like many fantasy novels that are sloppy (even if just a bit), magic is totally inborn in this setting. This if course allows for the Harry Potter scenario, which Mistborn takes advantage of – that being where a hapless and beaten-down protagonist, typically an orphan, turns out to have magic powers. I’m not going to say a word against wish-fulfillment in general, I like that shit too. But this book does go overboard with it. Not only does it use the Harry Potter Scenario, but the break between parts one and two jumps a few months. It begins with the crazy Jesus figure (buried alive, supposedly dead, returned with powers and the ability to throw down the idols – yeah, there’s a lot of religious stuff in this book, and it’s pretty overt. There’s a character whose defining characteristic is that he knows about a lot of old religions and tries to get everyone to convert to one of them) training with the orphan. Part one ends with her knowing nothing. Part two begins with her already incredibly skilled, just not as skilled as her teacher. I’m trying to track a thesis here, but let me take a second to say I got angry and put the book down for a day or two after reading that. It took me over 100 pages to get to the end of part one, the presumable set-up, the act one, and all I got was patent power fantasy as the payoff? Like I said, I don’t want to complain about it in general, but that didn’t work at all as a jump. Look to Star Wars, my friends – the training is usually more interesting than the fights. We all remember the contraption that Jean Claude Van Damme is strapped to that rips his legs asunder until he can do sweet kicks, but not so much any single kick he doles out (except that one at the end of Bloodsport, of course).

OK, what am I harping about here? Did I just want to bitch? No. Like I said, overall I’ve enjoyed the book. But it got me thinking. Long ago I wrote about a critic called Azuma who wrote about the postmodern condition through the lens of the otaku, which he called a “database animal.” Two links there, by the way, not just one, if you’re interested. In short, he said people break up their artistic entertainment into bite-sized pieces, appending everything to an ever-growing database that features comparisons between everything consumed. So the otaku catalogues the different ways characters are moé in a show. The fantasy fan catalogues the different types of characters as well, and the metals of Mistborn come from that method of reading and thinking. It’s basically a less overt way of making power rangers of the characters, coding everyone with a metal and an ability, as well as a personality, of course.

There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, Azuma makes a compelling argument that we all pretty much do this to some extent. This isn’t something you do and I don’t, or that otaku do but western people don’t, or nerds do but no one else does. Very few people answered my question back in September, about what they got out of fantasy. Hint, hint. But part of what I get out of it is the feeling of a symbolic web underlying things, a non-rational but deeply psychological sense of meaning infusing the world. This is somewhat at odds with this kind of “database” reading.

However, this experience has shown me one of the ways the database functions in western fantasy. The “character classes” of figures in novels (and movies and games and such) have looped back. They started as a way to crunch numbers to help shape characters in games, so those characters could work like characters in novels while being balanced in gameplay. But as more and more of us grow up playing those games and reading the books simultaneously, the methods have and will continue to merge. But that’s no reason to forget the reason the magic is meaningful in the first place. And I respect fantasy as a method and a genre too much to think it’s only power tripping. It’s certainly part of it, and I enjoy that aspect to this day. But it’s also other things.

3 thoughts on “What I learned about symbolism and magic

  1. Jonathan Sikora

    One thing I found striking about the magic in Mistborn, and I think which dovetails into your points a bit, is that it isn’t so much magical as it is science. Not, like, actual science, but it all follows a very, very prescribed set of rules. Moreover, other than the initial conceit, they follow pretty much all the normal scientific, physical rules of the real world. Actions have equal and opposite reactions, and effectively using those powers requires an understanding and manipulation of those kinds of facts. This takes away the mythology from magic, and I think plays into the lack of symbolism for you. You get the sense reading that book that if their tech was a little more advanced that people would be figuring out what force precisely is being used for the magic pushing, and that it is a force that you could probably duplicate without a person. You don’t get that same kind of feel with most other magic in fantasy books.

    As a result, though, the book feels a little more like hard sci-fi than a normal fantasy novel does. A large chunk of the book takes your basic sci-fi conceit (this set of powers) and looks at how that could be used and how it affects the people using it. It isn’t as much a story as it is an exploration on how the world would be different if these things were around. I ended up feeling like the magic in the book was more like mutant powers than your typical fantasy magic, and that can be both good and bad depending on what you are looking for.

    1. cuchlann Post author

      That’s a really good point, actually. I’ve been running into a small sub-strata of fantasy stories in the past few years that do what you’re describing — explore fantasy concepts using logical, rather than symbolic, extrapolation. In a lot of other cases I’ve really enjoyed them. I’ll have to give Mistborn another try now and see if I enjoy it more.

      I did notice all the Newtonian laws as applied to magic. That was fun. Magic having “equal and opposite reactions” has popped up from time to time, just rarely so directly. Even in some magical faiths — Wicca, for instance, preaches goodness essentially because of what it claims are forces that will return, like an inversion of Newtonian laws.

  2. Pingback: Fictional Magic, Real Practice pt 3 | Wondrous Windows

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