Listen up: I’m going to tell you how to cast a spell.

Take one apple. (Doesn’t matter what kind.) With a knife, peel the skin off the apple, in one long unbroken strip. (This may take you several tries.) Once you have your strip, throw it over your shoulder, and when it hits the ground it will spell the initials of the person you’re going to marry.

What, that doesn’t sound like a spell to you? That’s because it isn’t one. Well, sort of. What’s a spell, anyway? Incantations, weird ingredients, a cauldron that boils and bubbles? Or maybe it’s something out of Dungeons & Dragons, like “magic missile” or “fireball.” What I just described, though — that’s just superstition.

Dungeons & Dragons has a lot to answer for, really. Several of its core ideas about magic are based on reality; when the rules say a spell has a verbal, somatic, and material component, that’s just another way of saying it requires an incantation, mystic gestures, and some eye of newt. All of those things have folkloric precedent. (The “spell slot” thing, not so much.) But the problem with D&D — with many role-playing games, really — is that they turn magic into a system.

Don’t get me wrong; I love RPGs. I play in them, I run them, I’m even writing for one now. But they’re games, and games have rules. They’re also collaborative storytelling methods, and that means rules again, because you need some way to bring a group of people into consensus. You have to say what’s possible and what isn’t, and you need to lay out what’s required to turn the impossible into the possible, and those requirements have to be kind of costly in one way or another, because if they aren’t, then good-bye, game balance. You want people to have fun playing fighters and rogues too, after all. Which means you can’t have your wizard solving every problem with a wave of his hand.

Thing is, real-world magic — by which I mean, the myriad of traditions existing in folklore and history — doesn’t really have rules like that. It isn’t a system. Any given magical tradition is generally a conglomerate heap of ideas, some of which contradict one another, and very few of which seem to follow any clear laws. The Mayans would let blood from their earlobes or tongues or genitalia, soak it up on bark paper, and burn the paper to form a connection to the spirit world. Say that works. Okay, how long does the connection last? Is the duration based on the volume of blood spilled, the length of time the paper burns, the part of the body used for piercing, the status of the person shedding the blood? What kinds of things does that connection allow? Can you speak to spirits, hear them reply, see them, be seen by them? Can they pass through bodily into this world? If they can, are they banished when the spell ends, or do they stay here until something gets rid of them?

We tell ourselves that we need answers to those questions, because our magic system has to make sense. It needs rules and prices and limitations, and the author needs to know what all of those things are. In short, magic needs to be treated like science.

But it isn’t science. A Mayan priest would probably have stared at you if you asked him all those questions. And if that isn’t how he conceived of the cosmos working . . . then is it good storytelling to grab that butterfly and pin it onto a card?

It can be. There are stories and novels out there with highly systematized magic, and some of them are quite good. But that isn’t the only way to explore magic, and in many cases it isn’t a very good representation of actual human belief. So this is the next project for the folklore blogging: to leave behind the relatively tidy fields of different narrative forms, and plunge into the wilds of religion and superstition. What kinds of supernatural things have people believed about the world around them? And what happens when we try to use those things in stories?

As fodder for that, tell me: what are your favorite narrative approaches to magic? Both the systematized ones, and the ones that chuck “system” out the window.



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Spellcraft — 9 Comments

  1. The word I would lay on you is ‘numinous’. If magic is not to be rule-booky and regulatory, it needs to be numinous. When you look at it, you should feel something eerie. Your spine should crawl and you should feel the impulse to hide behind the sofa. Or, alternatively, you should be possessed with joy and begin to dance wildly, in circles. There should be the sense that you are in the presence of something way way bigger than yourself, than all of us. The false gods go, when the true gods arrive. That’s the kind of magic I want to write about.

  2. You’re writing for an RPG? Why did I not know this?!

    Anyway, I do like my rules and systems to magic. Magic as a branch of science has an appeal to me because I am a failed scientist after all.

    One world whose magic systems I like are the Malazan epic fantasies from Erikson. Warrens, odd weird Hold magics, the Deck of Dragons, and much more. All of these systems seem to be internally consistent…and clash wonderfully with each other. This especially gets screentime when practitioners of very different schools of magic meet!

    • Of course, part of the problem is that once we know the rules to Magic, it becomes Science.

      (She says, having taken some tablets of willow-bark extract this day. That was Magic once.)

    • See, “magic as a branch of science” is deeply un-appealing to me. Which you might think is ironic, given some of the things I’ve written — but I tried to strike a balance with the “faerie science” stuff such that its rules were based more on symbolism than math. (And I will be the first to admit that my dragons are not remotely numinous.) The more magic becomes quantifiable, the less I’m interested in it.

  3. The problem is that magic has to be sufficiently rule-like that it doesn’t throw the story off balance. If a character can curse another to death without difficulty, you lack drama. Even if the rule is “Magic is not powerful enough to do anything that can’t be fixed by mundane means”, that’s a rule.

    Or, at any rate, it has to feel sufficiently rule-like. If you convince your readers that neither the hero nor the villain can overwhelm each other by brute magic, that’s enough. Actual rules are one of the best ways to do that.

    • I dunno. Honestly, when I think of stories where magic has been unsatisfying to me in that fashion, all the examples I can come up with are ones that had clear rules, and then broke them. Having one character able to curse another to death without difficulty is dramatic to me — because if the villain has that ability, the protagonists are is deep trouble, and if the hero has that ability, there’s a lot of interesting moral implications to explore. You just have to tell the right kind of story for that situation: it can’t be a normal “bad guy is a threat, good guys have to kill him” conflict.

      • I suspect that the ones that break it egregiously don’t get published — but there are a lot of complaints about new powers as the plot demands.

        And if your villain can curse the hero to death, why hasn’t he do it already? Because he doesn’t know who he is? There’s a limit: he has to identify his target, not just curse the person impeding him.

        • The villain could have personal reasons for holding back (he likes making the hero live a while with the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head), political ones (he needs to accomplish X, Y, and Z before he can kill the hero without non-supernatural repercussions), etc. My point is that “systematic” limitations, i.e. rules embedded in the functioning of the magic itself to keep it from being “too powerful,” are not the only way to handle these issues.