Places of Power

March 27, 2013

An idea that comes up in a lot of fantasy writing is that some places are imbued with tremendous magical power. I really like the idea of certain places being filled with supernatural energies. This might be for some intrinsic reason; perhaps the location is close to a nexus of magical currents and the surging energies swell out of their ley conduits to fill the air with… something. Or the place may have been inhabited by generations of spirits or magi; now the greatest of the inhabitants may be long departed, but a residue of their wonder-working remains.

I think the first kind of place appeals to me more, and on a deeper level. I prefer to think of great magic as something profound and ineffable, not to be tied to any particular works. However, this expectation actually makes this kind of magical setting rather hard to portray effectively. When authors write about the magic that suffuses a place, it usually seems to be disconnected from the place itself. I mean, I envision the magical effects as simply residing there; they are artifacts or enchantments, located in a particular space, rather than the space itself being magical.

So there aren’t a lot of fantastic places like this whose descriptions really speak to me. The most effective example I can remember of a place of this type appears in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Illearth War. Generally, Donaldson is not very effective at making his mystical places seem mystical unto themselves. The cavern at the Heart of Thunder and the thronehall of Foul’s Creche are supposed to be a-pulse with eldritch energies, but they really just seem to be places where great powers happen to have chosen to take up residence. However, in The Illearth War, several of the characters encounter Damelon’s Door—a narrow opening between a stalactite and the wall of a cave. The right magic is required to pass through; if it is not invoked, then the caverns beyond will become an strange and maddening maze. Intruders may wander forever through among the underground lakes and columned grottoes beyond, without ever reaching their goal. This seemed to me like magic that was really of the place (rather than in it). But this may have worked mostly because the characters do possess the correct formula to enter, so the reader never actually sees what the passages beyond would be like to an uninvited interloper.

For some reason, when it comes to magical places, I tend to feel like my imagination could conjure up so much more than most stories actually deliver. For example, I was rather disappointed by the Chambers of Fire (Sammath Naur) in The Return of the King. There’s just a door (which is always being watched by the lidless eye from the heights of the Dark Tower) and, beyond that, The Cracks of Doom. Based on my early exposure to adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, I had expected that Frodo and Samwise would need to climb all the way to the crater of Mount Doom and descend through the cone into the bowels of the volcano. Moreover, from the illustrations I’d seen, I thought that Barad-dûr was actually located inside the mountain, under the overhang of the upper slopes, so that the ring-bearers would need to sneak past the citadel of the dark lord before finding their way to a maze of lava tunnels, twisting and dividing, which would eventually lead to the heat of the burning Crack. That would have been a truly amazing mountain.

I suppose my inclination to expect (and want) a descent directly from the crater was influence by Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, which I read at a very young age. The hot, smoking craters of high volcanoes have had an eerie appeal to me ever since I followed Axel, Otto, and Hans down into the pipes of that Icelandic mountain. In fact, I used a volcanic crater as the location of a secret entrance in my own writing—although with what I hope was an original twist.

I was similarly disappointed by the Castle Called Mist in Fritz Leiber’s “Adept’s Gambit.” (This was one of the very first stories Leiber wrote about the fantasy alter egos that he and his friend Harry Fischer had created, so it takes places in a fantasy version of the Hellenistic Near East. Leiber, when he was very young, was becoming involved in H. P. Lovecraft’s circle of writer friends, and there are also some unusual Lovecraftian touches to the story. A bit of Googling reveals that there may actually be an even older, longer manuscript of the story with yet more explicit references to the Cthulhu mythos. I’m not certain whether this would be an improvement, but I would certainly be interested to read it.) The castle is supposed to be partially alive and constructed with portals to other dimensions, some quite inhospitable. Unfortunately, while the story is one of Leiber’s best, in my opinion, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser don’t really stick around the place long enough to see much of the interesting magic at work. They take care of their critical business and get on their way. Certainly, that’s a logical thing for them to do, under such perilous circumstances, but I feel like Leiber could have made them spend a little more time up among the mists before they finished all the bad guys off.

On the whole, I think descriptions of magical places of the second type—places that are magical themselves because they have been the sites of many past enchantments—usually work more effectively. The thing is, this kind of magical place seems less majestic—tawdry almost. The magic in the air is just the dross from the creation of earlier wonders. So when I decided to write about such a magical place, I decided to embrace this vision of decadence, and I came up with this:

“The princes and emperors pored over many ancient tomes from their conquered lands. From these books, they learned powerful magics. They forged pacts with elder elementals and summoned cacodemons to do their bidding. The very air about the hidden palace—in the emperors’ laboratories and alchemical storehouses—became infused with magic. Vapors from subtle potions wafted along the hallways. Spilled reagents—substances of great potency—imbued the flagstones themselves with weak enchantments. Even the light became a source of eldritch power. One ancient emperor, a most clever artificer, fashioned an amazing lamp, which burned in his inner sanctum. He caught a tiny demon—an immortal fiend with dull red skin and pink, membranous wings. The emperor eviscerated the devil and bound it to his lamp with enchanted iron bands clamped tightly around the creature’s liver. The bands squeezed an inflammable oil from the organ. The demon writhed in agony as dark, viscous drops fell from the gaping wound in its breast, pooling within a glass hemisphere in which floated a tattered wick. By the eerie light of this demon oil lamp, the masters of Shaz prepared their most potent sorceries.”

I should also say the demon oil lamp owes a specific debt to “that evil, four-horned lamp which he feeds with cobras’ oil” from “The Master of Crabs.” Anyway, I hope you like it.


23 Responses to “Places of Power”

  1. Diapadion Says:

    I’m critical of magic in fiction, pretty much all the time. To write about magic too directly kills many of its effects, and the best of those effects. Magic is fundamentally a thing of mystery.

    I think Lovecraft manages to pull this off pretty nicely in certain, short parts of At the Mountains of Madness (unlike The Shadow Out of Time, which I consider inferior in every way). For example, when he is first describing the geometric city of the Old Ones, although his overuse of “cyclopean” tends to kill the effect as soon as it appears.

  2. Wizard: I’m a wizard, mind you. This place is kept by powerful gods! And spirits of kings!
    Conan: Can you summon demons….wizard?
    Wizard (vehemently): Yes! If you try me, I shall summon a demon fiercer than all in hell!

  3. Martin says, in the interview/article in TNR marking the debut of ‘A Game of Thrones’ third and biggest season, that he tries to keep his physical violence and flesh-things as real and specific as possible, but keeps magical systems vague, ‘otherwise magic is just a [fake] science that doesnt’ work.’ It’s a good point about doing magic right (in my experience, translating Old Germanic charms rather takes the mysticism out of them), but it also leaves fundamental questions open:

    • Diapadion Says:

      This is basically the heart of how I too deal with magic in fiction. I may even believe it should be taken a stretch further than Martin. I’m more than fine with fantasy and the supernatural, but sorcery (magic that can be controlled, wielded with discipline) is something I try to avoid.

      • Buzz Says:

        There are definitely effective works where all the magic is outside of human control. However, I personally really like the character archetypes of the wizard. My general insistence on logical consistency, along with many years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, taught me to think carefully about the consequences of having powerful magic under human control. If you want to have the fantasy universe bear a strong resemblance to the real pre-industrial Earth, that requires that the available magic be sharply limited. This is, I think, one thing that prompts me to write about environments where magic use is a secretive practice often with sinister associations.

        There are successful fantasy worlds where magic seems to be relatively common, yet the society and technology do not seemed to have progressed as much. Earthsea is a notable example, although when I reread the story’s of Ged’s exploits when I was a teenager, I came to the conclusion that the wizards, who could be doing so much to improve the infrastructure and economy yet decide not to, were, collectively speaking, jerks. The author herself eventually came to a similar conclusion, although only partially for the same reasons.

  4. Diapadion, I would hear more of this ‘Lovecraft’ fellow, and when his fantastic material works and when it doesn’t (unless I’m mistaking the titles, I’ve heard ‘A Shadow Out of Time’ referred to very positively as a new, more science-fiction (as opposed to horror) direction Lovecraft was taking at the time he died. …I will say I remember it being very slow (i.e. boring), and don’t really remember that it had anything that could be called a plot, though I guess I could be misremembering that.

    • Buzz Says:

      “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow out of Time” could be considered straight science fiction. I agree with Diapadion that the former is quite a bit better. I don’t really know why “The Shadow Out of Time” gets so much praise; for a long time, it was considered of of the authors masterworks, although I get the impression that views have shifted since the 1980s as Lovecraft’s work has become better known again. Both of the story’s narratives are rather slow, but there’s a plot thread running through “At the Mountains of Madness” that doesn’t exist in “The Shadow out of TIme” (except perhaps at the very end). One thing that these later Lovecraft stories have in common is their pioneering blending of fantasy and science fiction; Lovecraft was clearly aware that sufficiently advanced technology and magic were truly indistinguishable, long before Clarke’s famous expression of that fact.

      • “…sufficiently advanced technology and magic were truly indistinguishable, long before Clarke’s famous expression of that fact.”

        Dunno. News to me. Not sure I agree at all.

        • Perhaps I should add that I’m not really sure I buy things like The First’s technology in ‘Lord of Light’ as -actual- technology, rather than plot devices in a (near perfect) epic ‘science fantasy.’ I guess this whole line of thought depends on allowing the second word in that subgenre title to have precedence over the first, or at least to allow it unrealistic wiggle-room that fundamentally changes the nature of things–all of which is to say, is The Talisman of the Binder, or its replacement, truly technology? Demon repellent?

          Of course, with Zelazny shows that he isn’t even trying to bridge the gap convincingly–but it’s exactly my point: there’s a gap to be bridged. Magic is something fundamentally different from technology.

          At least I hope it is. For perhaps I fear that day we cannot see the difference (or perhaps I desperately want it to come?)

          • Buzz Says:

            The way I perceive what’s happening in Lord or Light is that there is something bizarre about the planet that the Star of India (or whatever the original starship). Perhaps it’s the planet itself, or it may be some property of that region of space. In any case, the rules of science just appear to be different there, in a fundamental way. Zelazny is (intentionally, I assume) vague about how the “magic” of the planet works. We don’t learn much about the First’s original conquest or how they came into their godlike aspects and attributes. Yet there are times when the same phenomena are given both technological and magical explanations. This suggests to me that the difference is centrally one of language, not substance.

        • Diapadion Says:

          Clarke doesn’t say they are the *same*. He says that the two are indistinguishable. It is a vague statement, but I agree with it.

          The entirety of Slan (or most of AE Van Vogt, but Buzz can tell you all about that) is a good example of advanced technology acting as if it was magic, in a very bad way. The protagonist uses a new science to basically bend the laws of physics in any way he wishes, and what results is a terrible book. Magic can be (and often is) criticized in a similar vein: if the old wizard has all this power, why doesn’t he do more to help the heroes?

          I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fantasy author provide a satisfying explanation for this. LeGuin comes close in Earthsea, but her notion of wizardly magic is too vague. Raistlin (only while in the red robes) manages it, but the rest of the Dragonlance world isn’t consistent with Raistlin’s model. However, making sorcery into a mere mechanic would kill much of its alure (although I do think many authors could learn something from considering the rules to Mage: the Ascension).

          Anyone have a good example to the contrary?

          • Buzz Says:

            Van Vogt’s standard plot structure involves the introduction of a profound new scientific discovery, which eventually gives the protagonist a decisive advantage in any conflicts. Sometimes the bad guys also have partial access to the same advancement, sometimes not. A blurb written by some other soft science fiction author on the back of one of van Vogt’s novels described this aspect of his writing quite accurately, except that it characterized the made-up scientific advance as “highly believable.”

            It’s the believability that’s really key to whether they story works. Often, the new scientific principles are pretty bad. In Slan, the hero learns how to extract energy by making atomic electrons move faster than the speed of light for brief intervals. In general, whenever van Vogt mentions relativity, it becomes almost painful to read. The worst example I can think of is in Rogue Ship, where various people discover that by controlling special relativity (which can be done purely telepathically), they can gain almost complete mastery over time and space.

            On the other hand, sometimes van Vogt’s ideas actually work reasonably well. In the short story “Final Command,” features in The Blal (and Other Science Fiction Monsters), the novel advance is an robotic analogue of sex. It works, possibly because it only has to provide a resolution to one particular conflict. In longer works, it’s much more difficult for this kind of writing to be effective. The one example where I think it definitely works is the fix-up novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which many people (including myself) feel is by far van Vogt’s best work. They key in that story is that the scientific advance that allows the hero, Elliot Grosvenor, to beat off four successive alien incursions is a new method of teaching and problem solving; Grosvenor simply knows more details about more things than anyone else, and this lets him see his way to logical solutions that others miss.

          • To the contrary of what, precisely?

            • Diapadion Says:

              An example of a magical system in fiction (or I suppose legend) which effectively explains the limitations of magic users.
              In other words, an example that explains “why doesn’t Dumbledore take a more active role in foiling the baddies?”

  5. Just because extremely advanced technology would be ‘seem astonishing’ does not mean it would either BE magic, or even SEEM like it. I don’t believe I’ve yet seen a substantive defense of Clarke’s assertion (which is all it is, since it’s hypothetical).

    I’d also note the wording: Clark says that “ANY sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So not only is the possibility of ‘seeming’ there, but if any particular technology doesn’t -seem- magical in nature, it can be dismissed as not ‘sufficiently advanced.’ So the statement is unfalsifiable.

    Perhaps what this shows is that there really are two genres in ‘speculative fiction,’ with fantasy being quite clearly delineated from its cousin, and Clarke knowing nothing of it, just as he knew nothing of the wisdom the man with one eye came one evening to speak into the ear of Olaf Trygvasson, the king, words which seemed good to him before Othin disappeared again into the night, and his Christian principles reasserted themselves (though not to the extent of preventing torture or letting his enemies by torn apart by wild dogs).

    I think it unlikely that many pure writers of fantasy would credit this statement, whereas probably a majority of science fiction writers or editors would at least consider it seriously. But as for magic, Clarke clearly didn’t know from &%*&%.

    A charm against Clarke’s kind coming anywhere near fantasy:
    Shield thou now thyself, that thou mayest survive this assault.
    Out, little spear, if thou be herein.
    Stood I under linden, under a light shield,
    where the mighty women made ready their powers,
    and spears yelling they sent.
    I will send another hack to them, a flying arrow in opposition to them.
    Out, little spear, if it he herein.
    A smith sat, forged a knife;
    small the iron, mighty the wound.
    Out, little spear, if it he herein.
    Six smiths sat, wrought battle-spears.
    Out, spear, not in, spear.
    If herein be a hit of iron, work of witches, it shall melt.
    If thou wert shot in skin, or wert shot in flesh,
    or wert shot in blood, or wert shot in limb,
    never would thy life be smitten.
    If it were shot of gods, or if it were shot of elves,
    or if it were shot of witches, now I shall help thee.
    This be to thee as a remedy for shot of gods,
    this be to thee as a remedy for shot of elves,
    this be to thee as a remedy for shot of witches; I will help thee.
    Fled there on the mountain top.
    Be thou healthy; may Woden help thee.

  6. Missing in the hastily rewritten first paragraph is the note that Clarke claims not only that magic and technology could be confused once the latter is ‘sufficiently advanced’ (whatever that meaneth), but that in fact this situation is a NECESSARY consequence of such advancement, even if, say, the logical and engineering principles of such technology are clear and/or its nature is distinctive for appearing to be a product of empiricism, or simply not feeling like magic. So, just saying: it’s a grossly overbroad statement, in addition to being fundamentally wrongheaded technology worshipping, mysticism-ignorant hogwash.

    • Buzz Says:

      I always thought that the key word was “sufficiently,” which leaves the level of advancement required unknown. Thus a more precise statement would be: In any given track of technological advancement, it is possible to progress far enough that the achievements of this technology will be indistinguishable from magic to a observer with present-day knowledge. I suppose that I had never thought much more carefully about the statement beyond this point. However, as you point out, it is entirely possible that some lines of technological advancement will never appear magical. (I briefly entertained the idea that the question might be resolvable probabilistically, using the Kolmogorov Zero-One Law, but I was mistaken.)

      • I agree that your formulation is better, but I guess it seems to me that all it’s doing is hypothesizing that one character doesn’t understand the technology of a given thing, in other words, all it’s doing is speculating about a relative lack of knowledge and how that might affect perceptions.

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