An Elegant System Of Magic

The Lord of the Rings is now so synonymous with the ‘mainstream’ fantasy genres that its originality and importance has been all-but-forgotten.

Hi, I’m some internet douchebag, and I’ll be spouting my opinions for the next thousand-words-odd.

Some internet douchebag.

This is not actually me, but it might as well be. Look at that douchebag smile, eh? Image by Victor1558

The Lord of the Rings films especially have contributed to people forgetting about one of the trilogy’s most significant defining features.

The treatment of magic in Lord of the Rings was truly incredible, given how the culture of the time treated the idea. At the time, popular ideas of magic divided broadly into some sort of ethereal stuff that pervaded everything (yo, new-agers!), Satanic powers derived from dark rites (yo, teenagers!), and complex mathematical & pseudo-scientific systems that were intended to form a complete philosophy (different kinds of new-agers!).

This is hugely simplified, but I think that most mainstream belief in magic at the time fell into one of these groups.

So, we had Magic As Fifth Element, Magic As Demonic Power, and Magic As Science — essentially the spiritual successor to alchemy. There was some overlap between them, but that’s not the point.

The point is that The Lord of the Rings was, in large part, based around Tolkien’s rediscovery of an alternate type of magic, Magic As Words. I say rediscovery rather than invention, because although largely forgotten by the English-speaking world, words were still magic in the folk traditions preserved by the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic.

This epic forms a vital link to the Scandinavian epics of the more distant past, which also recognised the world-altering power of words and cunning. These are probably why we still think of ‘runes as power’ magic ‘spells’ and wizards as scholarly, old, grey-bearded individuals.

Wizard, Crystal Ball

This picture is so awesome I feel bad about using it in my blog post. Image by Sean McGrath, some rights reserved.

So what does this mean?

Rather than a mystic idea of innate control over fire, earth, air and water, magic was the preserve of people who were good at persuading others. Magic was in the words of great leaders, poets, visionary seers and desperate pleas of protection etched into keepsakes and talismans.

This idea pervades the novels of The Lord of the Rings, keeping the magic more earthy and real-seeming. These novels in turn kickstarted the fantasy genre as a whole, and managed to influence how genre magic systems worked for a long time. I feel very strongly that this approach to magic was a Good Thing.

Over time, though, the power of words decayed, leaving only the ‘power’ part behind.

Dictionary definition

Words words words. Image by Dustin Askins.

Excellent writers began to talk of tapping into mystic forces that ‘existed’ in some way outside the known Universe (chaos, law, light, dark, ether — Magic As Fifth Element), awful writers whose lawyer-happy legacy-holders I’d never dream of crossing wrote of bizarre and stupid pseudo-scientific magic systems (Magic As Science — obviously), and vampires, demons, daemons and devils began to creep back into mainstream depictions of magic (Magic As Demonic Power).

These writers weren’t and aren’t linguists, as Tolkien was, and therefore couldn’t create such intricate systems to highlight the mysterious, subtle, but ubiquitous power of language. So they used powers that were just as mysterious and ubiquitous, but less subtle. In my opinion, this is a Bad Thing for fantasy, making its worlds too arbitrary in construction and inherently prone to goatse-scale plot holes.

Of course, when non-linguists do genuinely try to create word-based magic systems, you end up with stuff like Wingardium fucking Leviosa, but that’s a kids’ series so I can’t really get too worked up about that.

I guess.

There was recently a brief revival of Words As Magic due to the popularity of roguelikes, which allowed words and strings of characters (runes?) to retain the subtle power they once had, rewarding scholarship and intelligence with useful items and punishing the random use of scrolls and magic with an inevitable death. Even roguelikes seem to be primarily focussed on blowing shit up, now, though, or at least the ones that are widely available are.

Rogue Death Screen Amiga

This is what playing Rogue would look like 99% of the time. Image by Blake Patterson.

I bring all this up because I’ve just started reading a best-selling fantasy novel that is incredibly enjoyable. It’s dumb as hell, but enjoyable.

This vastly enjoyable novel embodies the loss that fantasy novels have undergone.

Without the solid grounding in linguistics, and I’m not kidding here, we have ended up with a main character named F’ryan. Unfortunately, his second name isn’t Pan, but as far as I’m concerned it might as well be.

The magic in the novel is invoked by vague wishes, and it is explicitly stated that it is a force which suffuses everything. This is barely even Magic As Fifth Element. Magic is just something there, unexplained, that means that the rules of the universe can be broken and formed by the author more-or-less at will.

In short, there has been no attempt to pay any attention to the value of words at all, and this in a novel of all things.

I admit that this is a wishy-washy sort of criticism, probably born of the fact that I really like words and get frustrated that some people don’t.

Lobster phone.

Ring ring ring ring, ring ring ring ring, belobstered-phone. Image by Milestoned.

Let me make it more concrete: The reason this is specifically bad for fantasy is that it makes the world of the story seem a mere abstraction. A character can wish for a giant lobsterphone as easily as to vanish, and with just as little emotional connection to the reader. I say ‘seem’, because there are generally secondary rules governing magic. Unlike a tabletop RPG, though, having to explain the rules of the game before you can read a book is almost always clunky and poorly-done.

Words in fantasy should be important.

Won’t someone please write something that makes this clear?

If you don’t, I guess I might have a go, and you don’t want that, trust me…

There are some cool pseudo-scientific things in literature, such as in Perdido Street Station and The Weavers of Saramyr, in which the ideas of superstring theory seem to be invoked — increasingly, magic is seen as playing with the ‘threads of reality’ in some way, which is deeply cool. I just think, you know, that words can play with the threads of reality already. Why not combine the two things? Why not?

Buy all the Moonsorrow please.

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