Fictional Magic, Real Practice pt1

I’m fulfilling requests now, in a way. Pontifus has asked me about the difference between magic in theory and practice and magic as found in fiction of all sorts, particularly when it’s a plot device. My knee-jerk answer was that there doesn’t have to be an effective difference, but there does usually seem to be. So here’s another of those exploratory posts I know you love so much.

It seems like, first, we should classify the types of magic commonly found as plot devices. I’m almost guaranteed to leave some out, but I’ll do my best. It seems like we have a handful, right? In no particular order (but numbered for ease of reference later):

  1. Sympathetic
  2. Wishing
  3. Energy pool
  4. DnD/Final Fantasy
  5. Occult physics
  6. Symbol centered
  7. Superstition/zero world traditions
  8. Scholarly book learning

OK, that’s a lot all on its own. A few are similar, like “DnD” and “Energy pool.”

So let me define these, I suppose. Sympathetic magic is a thing in anthropology, so it’s a “real” magic practice. Its most common pop culture form is cursing a voodoo doll – you need somebody’s hair or fingernail clippings or whatever, then you put them in a doll, and then you do things to the doll. You use the body parts to make the doll symbolically stand in for the person in question, so anything done to the doll is done to the person. There is a sympathetic link between the symbol and the thing.

Then there’s wishing, which is where the author really poorly defines the magic, probably not because they’re dumb but because it’s not the important part of the story thematically – so every anime where people get mad and want something really bad and then that thing happens. It can sometimes be linked to number three, the energy pool. That’s where someone has access to a finite but large amount of magical energy that can be used to do stuff. Different people can do different things with the same energy.

That’s obviously linked to the next one, DnD/Final Fantasy, wherein magicians had MP of some kind – obviously DnD does it a bit differently, but the idea of a finite amount of magic that can be used in any way is still there. The difference between 3 and 4 can be hard to see; the thing is that 3 allows for there to be one pool that every magician in the world draws from. Four is usually individual. The other difference is that Energy pools allow for more flexibility in writing; rule-based MP systems obviously have strict rules, and are usually found in connection to games in some way.

Occult Physics isn’t as odd as it sounds: it’s the conceit that there are physics humans can’t understand for one reason or another, and if one can manipulate them, one does “magic.” It can be as reified as really saying there are physical forces and really the magician is just a kind of scientist, or closer to tradition where there’s a metaphysical realm, with its own systems to understand, but still “outside” the realm of the mundane.

Next, number six, is Symbol Centered magic. That’s not the same as sympathetic magic, where the practitioner creates useful symbols. In this case the magic system has a symbol of some sort at its center, and the single symbol’s meanings and metaphors are where the power comes from. You might see a lot of meditation in such a system, striving to become closer to, and understand, the symbol. In the real world the esoteric branches of Buddhism would qualify as this, where all the feats of the practitioner stem from his or her understanding of the sutras and the Buddha.

Seven is basically just real world magic practices: superstition and zero world traditions. This is easy mode: an author looks up some kind of magic in the world – Wiccan magic, for instance, or the witch superstitions of Africa – and just uses that as magic. For the author, it’s “easy mode” because the “system” is already made; it hangs together well enough for people to actually believe it. It also has a taste of authenticity, since it’s “real.”

Eight, finally, is Scholarly book learning, wherein magicians read a lot of arcane tomes, learn words of power, usually meant to invoke spirits or enthrall demons to do one’s bidding. I’m not putting invocation and the like in its own category because, one way or another, one must learn somewhere how to handle these powers. The magic is in the studiousness of the magician, not the powers ultimately brought to bear. DnD lays claim to some of this, but the system doesn’t really reference it.

I’m probably going to have someone say it does, so here’s my explanation before I go on: DnD says its magic comes from gods, spirits, devils, and so on. And inside the world that’s true; a cleric has to pray to get her magic back, a warlock has to have his spirit around. But the magic itself actually comes from the back of the players handbook, and the spell slots are what matter. In practice the magic comes from having slots open of the appropriate level. It’s the rare GM that forces players to roleplay praying to get their spells back.

OK, definitions, done! That was long, wasn’t it? Before I end for the week, let me provide some examples where useful:

  1. Sympathetic: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell does this somewhat, though partly through using zero world traditions. Arthur Machen’s work uses quite a bit of sympathetic magic, often accidental in nature.
  2. Wishing: Gurren Lagann, any sentai show where wanting to win badly enough gives the heroes new powers
  3. Energy pool: Wheel of Time, with the two ponds of magic, one for men, one for women (note the arbitrary nature: in eight books, it’s never explained by metaphysical power is different for men and women)
  4. DnD/Final Fantasy: Well, you know, DnD and Final Fantasy. But Mistborn also does this, even down to the “Classes” based on which mystical element one can ingest.
  5. Occult physics: Any Lovecraft-like story with magic in it, much of the science-fantasy of Gene Wolfe
  6. Symbol centered: my first thought here was, again the Wheel of Time, with its yin-yang thing as the symbol everyone meditates on.
  7. Superstition/zero world traditions: my first thought is the odd Locus nominee from the mid-2000s, The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad. It features people using African and Norse traditions in opposition to each other (it’s a satire about race and SF/F, basically). But naturally American Gods features a good deal of “real” magic.
  8. Scholarly book learning: Earthsea first comes to mind, even though not every drop of magic works this way. There’s a lot of “knowing something’s true name” stuff in there, though (however, you’ll notice I’ve made a neat circle here, as using someone’s true name to control them can also be considered a form of sympathetic magic).
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