In this post, I want to talk about the place of magic in fiction in general and in my own fantasy setting, Avar Narn, in particular.
First, the general. What does magic represent in fiction? Many things are possible: a convenient plot device or deus ex machina; the power of words (ref. Earthsea and Dresden Files for examples); a dualistic or non-material worldview; the power of the mind and/or will; and, quite simply, the fantastic.
When I studied medieval and renaissance literature at the University of Texas for my master’s degree, one of my areas of interest was in cultural ideas and constructs about magic and the occult. While the age of serious witch-hunting was later than the period on which I focused, there were nevertheless plenty of opportunities for the study of both folk beliefs and scholarly beliefs in the efficacy of magic. One of my favorite books on the subject is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic. Thomas convincingly argues that people increasingly turned to folk magic as the Reformation deprived them of Catholic apotropaic rituals and miraculous healings that had formed a key part of their worldview served fundamental psychological needs.
In my own studies, what occurred to me in the study of real-world attitudes toward magic in the medieval and early modern periods was that magic represented a threat to traditional forms of power. Qabbalistic and Hermetic systems of magic represented the belief that “knowledge is power” stripped down to its barest form, challenging ideas of power through land ownership, military might and birthright. This aspect of beliefs in supernatural powers fascinated me and has undoubtedly informed in part my own approach to magic in Avar Narn.
I do not intend to spend much time talking about how to build a magic “system” for fictional settings–there are plenty of well-written articles, blog posts and other resources on this subject. Instead, I want to examine why a setting might have magic at all.
As you know, good magic systems have a cost associated with them–think of the blood magic of A Song of Ice and Fire or the sanity-sapping occult knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos. Thus, integral to a magic system is dramatic conflict of a type recognizable to any reader–what price are we willing to pay to get what we want? There are few conflicts more visceral or primal than that. In fact, we might consider that conflict to be a core part of any conflict whatsoever.
If willingness to pay the cost of magic is an archetypal dramatic conflict, the ability to pay the cost is also a prime ground for the kinds of conflict that drives stories–think of the destruction of the One Ring or the quest for the Grail. When certain conditions or materials are required for the successful use of magic, this itself can be a primary plot around which to build a story. This, I think is more commonly used in role-playing games than novels, but has a place in both.
In addition to providing ready conflicts to write about, magic tells us something (often much) about the nature of the setting. Magic with a high cost usually results in dark fantasy (think the Warhammer Fantasy universe, for instance), while magic with a low cost might become what we’d call “epic” or “high fantasy” but (in my opinion) more often looks more like a superhero story. In at least most cases, a magic system alone is insufficient to readily categorize the genre of a story (to the extent that such categories are really helpful anyway), but it is nevertheless a great contributor to the atmosphere of a setting. Where magic is rare a reader will take note when it occurs; when plentiful it will have far-reaching effects on economics, politics and the like. If your magic system doesn’t influence the way your world works in some way, it will feel “stuck-on” or compartmentalized and that does not contribute to the willing suspension of disbelief.
What is more interesting to me about what magic tells us about a setting is that the definition of magic is, essentially, a cosmological task. The why, what, how, when and where of magic tells you something about how the very fabric–the “reality”–of a setting works. Magic as a latent force to be manipulated and studied scientifically is quite different from a mysterious magic that cannot be fully understood and is used only tenuously.
With these thoughts in mind, let me tell you about “magic” in Avar Narn.
First, I try to avoid using the word “magic” within the setting. For semiotic ease, I don’t mind talking about that aspect of the system as “magic,” but the characters in the world don’t think of it with that word–it’s got too much fantasy baggage. Instead, the force of magic in Avar Narn is usually referred to metaphorically as “the Power” and its use as “the Gift” or “the Art.” Likewise, Avar Narn stories do not talk about “spells,” they speak instead of “workings.”
Is this a cheap trick? Is an elf by any other name still really an elf? More important, do readers balk when your story has stereotypical elves but you call them something else? I don’t know the answer for sure, but I definitely see this risk here. So, does playing games with the nomenclature of magic hurt or help in the long-run? I’ve made my choice and I’ll live with the consequences.
With all of that in mind, here’s some description of magic in Avar Narn:
Meaning: All of the details of the arcane in Avar Narn flow from the meaning I’ve set for this aspect of the setting. Magic, in this world, is about the power of the will writ large–the ways in which we use our freedom of will for good or for evil (or, as is more often the case in Avar Narn, some gray area quite in-between). Not just the details about how the arcane works, but the very history of its use show how mortals typically twist the good gifts they’ve been give to selfish and self-destructive purposes.
Source: The Power, the source of arcane workings of any sort in Avar Narn, is the stuff of Creation itself, raw possibility that The One (or whichever divine power a person happens to believe in) has made available to some.
Availability: Not everyone has access to the Power, and even among those who do the ability to shape the Power into an actual working is limited for most. Why this is the case is a mystery to scholars–to a certain extent, differences in the effectiveness of practitioners can be explained by the thoroughness of their studies and discipline. Nevertheless, the question of why some have the Gift at all and others do not remains open. Some say that those who wield the Gift have returned to this world in a higher state of being after gaining some modicum of enlightenment in past lives, but the tendency of so many practitioners to fall to corruption through their use of the Power undercuts this idea. Regardless, I’m not willing to explicitly explain this–nor do I need to, as having multiple theories and no concrete answer feels more realistic.
Difficulty: Magic in Avar Narn is difficult to perform properly, even under the most favorable of conditions. Scholars of the arcane believe that this is because the natural state of Creation resists mortal attempts to reshape it through the Power of raw possibility–the more radically a desired effect differs from expectations of natural law and causation, the more difficult it is to achieve.
This means that magic is more often subtle than flashy, more often a component of a larger undertaking rather than a replacement for mundane action. Yes, truly fantastic effects are possible, but often they are simply achievable through other means. Magi with the right training and preparation may make for devastating battlefield artillery, but cannon are cheaper and easier to replace. It is the flexibility of arcane workings that makes magi a force to be reckoned with more than the Art’s raw force.
The Cost: Like any good magic system, the use of the Power is fraught with costs–some minor, some significant. At perhaps the most minor level, the use of the Power is fatiguing on mind and body–sometimes to the point of lasting physical injury. As important, controlling the Power to form a working is difficult at best, and uncontrolled raw possibility bleeding into the world is anything but safe. Not only do practitioners have to worry about losing control of their intended working, but even successful workings may have unintended side effects. Even without immediate side effects, small amounts of the Power bleed into the world from even the most tightly-controlled workings. This is called Flux. If Flux accumulates before it naturally dissipates, it can cause random and unlikely events to occur. From this comes the stories of a magus’s presence spoiling milk or turning candles blue; this reality has done much to generate fear and persecution of practitioners over time.
Additionally, there is what I’m currently calling “the Practitioner’s Dialectic.” The Dialectic is the observation that the emotional and mental state of a practitioner when performing a working will affect the nature of the working, and the types of workings wrought will subtly influence the mind and emotions of the practitioner. One who uses the Power for malicious ends may find himself corrupted into a “natural” state of maliciousness, even if the first steps down such a path were intended to ultimately be for good. In other words, practitioners who use the Power under the idea that the end justifies the means often find that the means become the end. Remember, the use of the Art is symbolic of the use of free will writ large, and the use of free will is recursive–every choice we make sets us on a new path and changes or affirms (if ever so slightly) who we are.
These costs are known in the Avar as the “Fourfold Curse” of the Art–the risk of physical injury, the difficulty of controlling workings and their side effects, Flux and the Practitioner’s Dialectic. In Avar Narn, magic is capable of truly wondrous and miraculous things (although its use is not so wanton or commonplace as, say, a Dungeons & Dragons setting), but the narrative conflict of magic is whether it is worth the cost.
The Practices: There are five Practices of magic in Avar Narn–at least according to the widely used Ealthen system of categorization. These are:
Sorceries: Sorceries are brute force workings, the quick summoning of the Power combined with a raw exertion of the will. They do not create long-lasting effects, are relatively weak compared to other Practices and are messy in application. On the other hand, they are the fastest possible applications of the Power and some individuals (known as “Sorcerers” and “Sorceresses”) are able to wield sorceries without formal training. Other Practitioners view Sorcerers as especially dangerous given their unpredictability and the heightened influence of the Practitioner’s Dialectic on sorceries.
Thaumaturgies: Thaumaturgies are what most people think of when they think of “spells.” A thaumaturgy is the careful formation of the Power into an intended effect. This requires time, focus and skill–thaumaturgies typically employ incantations, hand gestures and at least a whole minute to complete. Rather than simply directing the Power with the will as in a sorcery, a thaumaturgy involves creating mental structures and sequences of thoughts to deliberately and cautiously create a desired effect. These effects are typically relatively short-lived; while noticeably more powerful than sorceries, the wonders created by thaumaturgies often pale in comparison to the power of ritual workings.
Ritual: The most powerful and lasting “immediate” effects are achieved through rituals. Rituals make use of arcane diagrams and occult sympathies to create the structure for a working (rather than requiring the practitioner to form everything in her mind). It takes time to set up a ritual–a magic circle is necessary and the items and ingredients for such an undertaking are usually not readily available. Further, the Flux of a ritual working adheres to the place of the working rather than the worker–this has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Perhaps the most important aspect of ritual workings is that their effects may be created so as to be longer-lasting, persisting for days, weeks or months. Powering such persistence can be quite costly, however, and any effect meant to be permanent–such a Fleshcrafting–requires permanent sacrifice of some sort or another.
Alchemy: Alchemy is the use of occult sympathies, proto-science and the Art to store effects in consumable items. This allows the practitioner to pay the cost of a working in advance and to delay the use of the working until situationally appropriate. Alchemical effects are typically on par in power with sorceries or thaumaturgies but not rituals.
Artifice: Artifice is the set of closely-guarded secrets that involve using the Power as a source of energy for driving mechanical creations. The practice requires magical skill, engineering talent, competency in alchemy and many other esoteric knowledges to perform. Artifice plays an important historical, social and economic role in the Avar, as you’ll see in upcoming stories.
This really only scratches the surface of the details of arcane power in Avar Narn–I’ve found working on magic within the setting deeply fascinating and rewarding so it has developed what I hope is dramatic nuance and complexity that properly limits the effectiveness of magic while making it capable of wondrous things in ways that will be narratively exciting. More to come, on the subject, I’m sure.