The “How” of Magic

February 20, 2013

There are two kinds of wizards. Some rely on innate magical gifts or arcane lore they have committed to memory; their magic arises directly out of their persons. Others make use of magical instruments: wands, amulets, and rings; without these mechanisms, they are practically powerless. Both types are well represented in folklore and fantasy literature, but they can be very different types of characters and fit into quite different systems of supernatural power.

Wizards of the first type tend to seem more august, but not necessarily more powerful. Gandalf is a prototypical example, although he lies at the very high end of the power continuum. His ability to make fire is limited by his stamina and the need for something to burn, but he does not require his staff or any other instruments to get the job done. On the other hand, since Gandalf is a being from outside the normal world, he may not be the best exemplar; however, there are plenty of powerful wizards of this type who are clearly mortal men. Sparrowhawk, the Archmage of Earthsea, uses a form of magic that relies on his knowledge of the true speech. Wizards at the magic school of Roke spent years learning the true names of the plants, animals, and places on the islands of their world, so that they could control and command these things; and through careful observation of the world, powerful mages could discern new words, which they might then put to use.

This kind of magic is, of course, very important in role-playing games—both traditional ones like Dungeons & Dragons and the video game versions. The original magic system in D&D was based on a now-famous concept from Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth. It was a very minor part of the plot, in just a few of the earliest Dying Earth stories. In fact, Vance basically abandoned it in his later books. Yet this rather mechanical way of working magic turned out—mostly by chance, it seems—to be hugely influential. Vance’s system involved wizards studying their books and committing certain spells to memory. A wizard’s power was measured by how many such spells they could hold in their head. Each one could be discharged a single time, freeing up a slot to be refilled with another spell at a later date. This system was parodied in Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic (my favorite in the series). The mind of the protagonist, Rincewind, has no room for any more magic, since a single hugely powerful spell has taken of residence in his brain. (When he finally gets to cast this spell in the sequel, it’s rather a let-down.) Vance’s system was the first one used in fantasy a fantasy role-playing game. Criticized for its lack of flexibility, it has largely been replaced with points-based systems, but in both regimes, it’s a matter of a wizard harnessing their inner skill, not putting some artifact to work for them.

However, many wizards in literature seem to operate with nothing but artifacts—with no ability to conjure at all, if they are bereft of their impedimenta. The mighty sorcerer Thoth-Amon, whose affairs sometimes intersected with those of King Conan, derived all his power from a precious magical ring. Without it, he was just a man—a slave in a bandit lord’s house. But with it, he could summon demons that were untouchable with normal blades and race like the wind across the sea. As told in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” his ring “was of a metal like copper, and was made in the form of a scaled serpent, coiled in three loops, with its tail in its mouth. Its eyes were yellow gems which glittered balefully.” (While rings are very popular in fantasy, as carriers of great power, snakes really were totemic of power in ancient Egypt—upon with Thoth-Amon’s Stygian culture is very loosely based—and elsewhere in the Near East. In the Torah, Moses is instructed to make a magic staff topped with a bronze snake during the Hebrews’ wanderings. This story was probably composed to explain the origin of a real Jewish relic, which later writings describe being destroyed by the zealous King Hezekiah as part of his campaign against cultic influences in Judah.)

When magic works this way, spells can be of two types. Casting a spell may mean invoking the power of magic talisman; this is how Thoth-Amon summoned the demon in the first Conan story. The rituals required may be difficult and recondite, but they are typically not magical in of themselves; in the absence of an item of power, they would be meaningless. Alternatively, there may be no artifacts involved at all. To make a magic potion might require only knowledge of the right ingredients; any crone with a cauldron can be an evil witch in this way, if someone has taught her the recipes. I see this as the magic being spread out throughout the natural world, and the contribution of the magician is in bringing it together. This may require great skill, but an automaton could perform the necessary tasks as well as a human. There is no connection to the soul and consciousness of the brewer.

Naturally, the two views of magic do not represent a strict dichotomy. In fantasy worlds in which wizards draw their power from within, there may still be items of magical might. There is, for example, the ring of power in Smith’s “The Master of Crabs.” The magicians who are battling over the ring have their own innate powers, but possession of the ring could enhance these powers or afford entirely new ones. In a later Dying Earth story, the anti-hero Cugel finds a bracelet with the power to torment and control a stable of imprisoned demons. Whoever wears this bit of jewelry controls powerful magic—but this is a very different magic from Vance’s earlier, memorized kind.

In my own fantasy fiction, the distinction tends to be similarly blurry. There may be wizards with power running in their blood, but there are also items of indubitable enchantment, which function for whoever happens to hold them. However, I did once frame a discussion between two characters about the ambiguous magical of nature of some other items. Perhaps they are themselves magical; or perhaps they are fundamentally mundane, but were created by magic and made more perfect than the work of any normal craftsman could be.

In worlds like this, the distinction may be, at some level, merely one of terminology. Is mastering a magical item considered wizardry or something else? While this seems simple (or perhaps irrelevant) to address, the question is often left unresolved or only touched on in an unsatisfactory way. In Asprin’s MythAdventures parody series, the author pokes fun at a huge number of high and low fantasy tropes. (Sometimes the results are hilarious, and sometimes they fall painfully flat.) A few books in, Asprin introduces the character of Massha, who is initially described as a “mechanic”—a different kind of wizard who relies on artifact powers rather than spells. This is initially treated as merely a different approach to magic, but Asprin evidently changed his mind after a couple more books, and decided that Massha needed to learn “real magic” from the series’s main protagonists.

Another example of fuzzy thinking about these questions apparently led to one rather puzzling comment in the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. In discussing the tables used for randomly selecting magical treasures, the author E. Gary Gygax remarked that many of the magical item types would be primarily of interest to mages and similar characters. These were supposed to include staffs, rings, and the powerful category of miscellaneous items. When I first read this, I was already a very experienced D&D player, and I knew that this statement—as least with respect to the rings—made no sense at all. There were very few rings that were specifically suited to magic-users; most of these items could be put to good use by fighters, thieves, rangers, and all the like. Gygax appears to have expected D&D campaigns to accord with a certain version of western fantasy, in that mere possession of a magical ring would mark one as having a wizardly bent. This notion was entirely unfounded in all the games I ever played, because it was not consonant with the actual rules of the game; utilizing a magic ring was not a skill that was related to the skills of Vancian magic.

Not every fantasy story needs to address the question of how magical powers originate. Nor does the answer necessarily need to be consistent from one wizard to the next. Yet in fantasy with a more philosophical bent, this issue often strikes me as an important one, which influences how I see the setting—and how the setting’s wizards likely seem themselves. And when authors ignore the question entirely, they risk making jarring missteps, which can detract from otherwise interesting works.

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4 Responses to “The “How” of Magic”


  1. Interesting encapsulation and overview; I’d never thought of it quite that way before.


  2. Good post–the metaphysical bases of various magics are often unclear, and difficult to conceptualize and nail down. They dynamics are often a little odd, too–if it’s possible to create immensely powerful artifacts, why aren’t people churning them out? Typically, they’re leftover, unexplained, from a former time…with no chance of making a modern equivalent.


    • Now there’s a plan for economic recovery: the previously untapped market of immensely powerful artifacts that everybody’s simply forgotten how to make šŸ™‚

      (nice point!)

    • Buzz Says:

      The idea that magic was much more plentiful in the past is very common, both in fantasy fiction and mythology. It makes sense that myths would tend to develop this way. While there are things in the everyday world that seem magical in varying degrees (earthquakes, lightning, the bodies of the heavens), the physical forms of gods are conspicuously absent. So there is posited (either implicitly or explicitly) to have been an age where magic was more common, and the gods were closer. There might or might not be a new age of magic coming in the future, perhaps at the end of the universe.

      Fantasy writing, including my own, tends to follow this formula. One reason for this is that it’s familiar from myths and folklore; it’s been a convention of the fantasy genre before the genre even existed as such. Another reason is that fantasy is often set is a world that is supposed to approximate some epoch of Earth’s past—culturally or technologically. If too much magic was available, it would change the setting drastically. (This has been a real issue in some Dungeons & Dragons campaigns I’ve been involved in; they featured magical versions of the Industrial Revolution.) Yet a writer generally wants there to be enough powerful magic to tell a good story. A natural way of resolving this tension is if powerful magic exists, but it is hidden away; and even if it is uncovered, it cannot be duplicated.

      Some authors have thought through the implications of the gradual decay of magic rather carefully. Others tend to accept it as a part of the standard fantasy setting without much explicit discussion. My father, when he was reading the Silmarillion, commented that he liked how, in Tolkien’s world, a great work of magic (like the Silmarils, or the Rings of Power) could only be created once; there would not be enough power left in the world to recreate such things. And it’s worth noting that the continued use of the Rings of Elves was a major driver of the elven economy in Middle Earth.


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