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.