New Worlds: Folk Magic

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

In discussions of fantasy worldbuilding, you hear a lot of talk about magic systems. About how they need to have rules. And then you wind up with something like Dungeons and Dragons or Brandon Sanderson’s various novels, where the magic is as codified and quantified as a video game.

This bears very little resemblance to magic in the real world.

By that I mean magic as people have believed in it for millennia, magic as it has fit into the structure of real societies. Of course, magic in fantasy novels often does things no real-world sorcerer has ever achieved, like hurling a fireball from their fingertips or turning a vampire into a lawn chair — and there’s nothing wrong with telling stories about invented ideas of magic, any more than stories about invented aliens or other things that don’t fit real experience. After all, we’re talking about speculative fiction; speculation is the point.

But at the same time, there’s a missed opportunity. Fantasy writers often get so caught up in the huge, overt, undeniable things that magic can do, they neglect to think about how it operates at the level of the common people — what an anthropologist would term “folk magic.”

Folk magic is difficult to talk about because it isn’t some kind of unified system whose underlying principles can be laid out in a paragraph or two. Folk magic is nailing a horseshoe above your door for protection (always open side up, so the luck doesn’t drain out). Folk magic is eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day in the hope of bringing prosperity. Folk magic is trying to blow out every candle on your birthday cake in a single breath so that your wish will come true. It’s superstitions and habits people don’t even think about as superstition, because they’re just what you do, and the suggestion that you should do otherwise would be met with confusion and disbelief.

The boundaries around it are so blurry as to be unidentifiable. The term is nearly synonymous with “folk religion,” because a lot of it derives from religion or at least has overtones of same, and they share in common the general principle of lying outside official doctrine. Religion overall is a whole can of worms I’ll have to spend multiple posts unpacking, but one thing stories often forget is that the orthodox form of a faith often bears little to no resemblance to how it’s practiced by common people in the streets or the rural hinterlands. Educated clergy often cringe to see what hash the “ignorant” have made of their rituals; in the worst cases, folk magic becomes a sign of outright heresy and has to be obliterated before its poison can spread. In less extreme cases, it just becomes regional variation, the sort of thing folklorists love to study. People mash together prayers, call on saints for off-label uses, build up folklore that connects some demigod to a particular hill and then people go to that hill because the stories say that if you bury three round stones at the hill’s crest and then sleep there naked overnight during a full moon, you’re guaranteed to get the spouse you want.

Does any of it work?

In a fantasy novel, the impulse is to say “yes.” After all, aren’t we reading and writing fantasy because we want to see magical things happen? But I’d argue the “does it work” question has the wrong end of the stick to begin with. We’re so accustomed to looking at magic from a modern, scientific, post-Enlightenment perspective that it’s difficult to let go of the notion that an experiment must be replicable before it’s significant. The people in that hypothetical village are unlikely to assemble a blind study of hilltop rock burial and naked sleeping, to determine what the success rate is of the demigod granting people their marital wishes and whether this is affected by gossip in the village about the fact that someone is obviously angling for a particular husband because I heard she went to the hill last night. The point of that little ritual is to express intent — I really want to marry this man — and to create a sense of control. Whether or not the ritual works, at least you tried. You took action. Maybe your desired husband hears about what you did and is so touched that he proposes. Maybe doing the ritual gives you the confidence you need to catch his eye at the harvest fair next week. Maybe you’re too shy and he doesn’t like you and family politics mean the whole thing was doomed from the start, but when it all falls through you can reassure yourself with the memory that you did your best.

Folk magic is about belief. It’s a net of delicate little threads that can rarely move the whole plot, but they connect people to each other, to the landscape they live in, to their religion and their history and their fears and their hopes for the future. The presence of fireball-hurling wizards would not, I think, erase the need for that kind of thing in people’s lives; if anything it might make the need stronger, as the common folk now have to fear not only the swords of the nobility and the judgment of harsh laws and the vagaries of the natural world, but the arcane powers of the magical elite. And on a narrative level, it adds a whole layer of texture to the story. A child is sick and her mother tries cures that have nothing to do with modern germ theory or pharmaceuticals; maybe it helps or maybe it doesn’t, but either way it tells you a lot about the mother and the world she lives in, and it makes the mother seem more real. Because when we face problems like that in real life, we cling to any belief that offers us hope and that sense of control. (Yes, even today.)

I welcome any and all recommendations of works that include this kind of thing as part of the story.

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New Worlds: Folk Magic — 2 Comments

  1. My mother’s cousin married a woman from Quebec. She had almost no education and had to teach herself to read as an adult. Among her folk beliefs was if a pregnant woman dropped a ripe strawberry and it landed and squished anywhere on her body, then the baby would have a birthmark on that spot. Therefore don’t eat or handle strawberries when pregnant.

    She had others, but that’s the one I remember.

  2. Nancy Springer, Chains of Gold. I’m reading it right now and it’s all folk and fairy-tale magic; for example, ordinary folk don’t eat elderberries because they’re associated with death.