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New Worlds Theory Post: Magic as Culture

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My original title for this essay was “Magic and Culture.” But that makes those two things sound separate, like they exist side-by-side, and the point I wish to make here is exactly the opposite.

Some time ago I took to Twitter with possibly the most widely-read and widely-spread message I’ve ever posted, in which I said that many magic systems in fantasy have a great deal to say about physics, but almost nothing to say about metaphysics. I do not, of course, really mean physics per se (and it being Twitter, naturally I got numerous people grumping that very little magic pays attention to things like the laws of conservation of energy and mass). But I do mean it in the generally mechanical sense: there’s a lot of concern for where the energy comes from, how much is needed to do certain things, what processes or materials are needed to make it perform as desired.

There’s very little about what such magic means: to the people who use it, and to the people it’s used on.

There’s very little about where magic fits into the world as a whole.

Take, for example, that personal element raised in the previous theory essay. If magic is inborn, what does that mean for the society where it is found? How does the meaning vary based on whether it’s inherited through certain family lines, vs. cropping up unexpectedly in individuals? There are philosophical implications to both of those setups, and the history of humanity suggests that people would not be slow to leverage those implications for their own benefit. We’ve already had aristocrats proclaiming their inborn right to rule, without special abilities backing up their assertion that they are different from, and better than, the common folk. Meanwhile, those common folk would have their own take on the subject, which could be anything from a revolutionary ideology that condemns magic as unnatural and evil to street-corner hucksters promising to bestow the power of magic on those born without it. Or both at the same time. (Probably both at the same time.)

Magic also tends to be intimately intertwined with religion, whether they’re seen as two aspects of the same thing or the former as being in blasphemous defiance of the latter. After all, the division between the “natural” and the “supernatural” has generally not been as sharply drawn as it is in post-Enlightenment times; even very physical processes like healing or fertility often aren’t viewed in simple mechanical terms. (Heck, we still don’t have good explanations for a lot of “mind over matter” effects in biology.) And yet, over and over again, I see settings where people practice magic without the religious establishment having much to say on the topic — which, let’s be honest, are often the same settings where the religion feels like a colorful paint job that also has very little to do with people’s lives and feelings about their place in the world.

But take necromancy, for example. This form of magic deals directly with death and the afterlife, whether by communicating with the dead, by binding their spirits as servants, or by literally re-animating bodies, with or without sentience. It’s huge stuff! It has enormous implications for the vital metaphysical question of what happens to us after we die — a question that religion tends to be intimately concerned with. And even when the spirits of the dead aren’t involved, just their mortal remains, the bereaved tend to have strong feelings about how those remains are treated. They’re unlikely to shrug off the local supplier of corpse servants as simply another craftsman . . . or if they do, then I want to see more narrative attention devoted to why they have such an unusual attitude toward death. It suggests a society that’s fantastical in more ways than just the presence of magic: why leave that hook unused?

Also, many novels lack not only a sense of deeper meaning to their magic; they lack a sense of, well, shallower meaning. Even when magic is restricted to a very few, it can still permeate popular culture: the world’s nine wizards may well be distant and legendary entities, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also feature as stock characters in street theatre. The seven elements whose workings have been meticulously mapped out until they’re almost industrialized will probably also seep into casual language, as proverbs and metaphors and common profanities. My co-writer Alyc Helms and I designed the pattern deck of our Rook & Rose series to be a revered form of magic, central to how Vraszenian society views the world . . . then turned around and figured out a couple of mundane card games people could play with the deck, because they would.

Working magic into the fabric of culture may take additional effort, but it pays off in several directions at once. You make it more memorable and vivid, more real and less of an artificial gimmick shoved into the setting to make the plot go, which helps that whole setting feel deeper and more textured. But also — perhaps surprisingly — you help yourself on the expository front, too.

It may seem at first like the opposite is true. Doesn’t this kind of usage mean you have more to explain to the reader? Instead of just providing a brief run-down of what your necromancer has to do to create an undead servant, now you’ve got to also tell the reader what the religious establishment thinks about it all, what jobs those servants are used for, who has corpse servants vs. who refuses to have them vs. who wants them and can’t afford them, whether there’s a backlash against or mockery toward them, what happens to them when they stop functioning properly, and so on and so forth. So much more to explain!

But the cultural side is best explained, not through an infodump telling us about the religious edict handed down in such-and-such year and the list of permitted vs. prohibited jobs, but through active demonstration — which is to say, through scenes and conflicts and so forth. If you just tell me the priesthood condemns corpse servants as abominations, that will carry very little force. Why not show that condemnation in action instead? If the undead are used in menial jobs, your scene taking place in an otherwise generic tavern will come to three-dimensional (un)life as a shambling cadaver delivers the wine, and a half-sentence slipped into the corner of that paragraph can tell me whether this is the only work they’re allowed to do, the destination of cheap and badly made corpse servants or those at the end of their utility, or what.

Such usage even helps you break up the mechanical explanation of how necromancy works, by giving you more opportunity to comment in passing on its requirements, limitations, and more. And having it echo into popular culture — especially into the metaphorical references in dialogue or narration — gives you chances to reinforce or prime the reader’s understanding of the mechanics: “He dragged himself out of bed like a corpse servant whose soul gem had nearly burned out” not only shows us how tired or hungover the character is, but tells us something about the magic of the setting, too.

I will note, of course, that paying attention to the cultural side and working it into the narrative does require a fair number of words. This is a game more easily played in a novel than a short story — though it’s not impossible there, as short stories are also more tolerant of you nodding at interesting details without fully explaining them. (You could have shambling corpse servants in the background of a tale that has nothing whatosever to do with necromancy!) But even though there’s increased effort involved, I think it’s worthwhile to avoid the feeling that the magic system is just bolted on top of a world that otherwise doesn’t seem to have much to do with it.

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4 thoughts on “New Worlds Theory Post: Magic as Culture”

  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking essay. Now I’m trying to think of works that have done this well and made the magic feel culturally grounded. The World of the Five Gods universe by Lois McMaster Bujold is an obvious one. A very different example would be the Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey. Interestingly, they both have magic which is very connected to their religious systems. A less famous example would be the Tuyo series by Rachel Neumeier (highly recommended if you haven’t read her work – she’s exceptionally good at writing believable fantasy cultures, and in the case of Tuyo a friendship that works across a clash of two very different cultures.)

    What books would you recommend for successfully writing culturally-integrated magic?

    1. Yeah, most people probably react to/talk about the Kushiel series as The One With All the Kinky Sex, but when I read them, what I took away was The One With All the Awesome Religious Stuff! The faith of the characters there absolutely feels like a real part of their lives and their society, and yes, the magic is intertwined with that — especially because it’s more on the “magic is” end of the spectrum I mentioned about a year ago, rather than the “magic as a thing you do” end. The characters are largely not casting spells so much as encountering a world in which magic happens.

  2. Compare the number of actual rock stars with kids who are convinced they will make it as rock stars.

    Apply to wizards.

  3. I don’t know if any great examples of it being done well, but let’s muse:

    Deryni books. Definitely interaction with religion: condemnation from the Gwynedd Church of Kelson’s time; magic-entangled ritual from Camber’s time or before; hints of Deryni auras resembling saint halos; Deryni rule in Torenth. (A magic upper class may be the most common “magic culture” in fantasy.)

    Kencyr books. Not entirely clear whether the Kencyr have powers that don’t derive from their hated Three-Faced God. Power and religion shape their whole society.

    Magical Revolution. Nobility usually has magic, and seems to co-opt commoners who develop magic on their own. Magic is viewed as a blessing from the spirits. MC is a crown princess without magic ability, but her own ideas of how to work around that.

    Sarah Ellerton’s comics Inverloch and Phoenix Requiem. Entirely different worlds, but I think both had magic/spirits/society interactions.

    As I said, magic ruling class, or association of magic with nobility, seems fairly common: Darkover (plus hair color correlation), I Favor The Villainess; Farseer/Fitz books.

    Brust’s Dragaera book have a whiff: most Dragaerans (elves) look down on Easterner (human) witchcraft, if they think of it at all. Vlad’s father was an eagerly assimilated Easterner, and allegedly let himself die rather than let his own father or Vlad cure his disease with witchcraft.

    Girl Genius. Mad Science is basically magic. Has shaped society and religion somewhat. (The unbowed existence of the evil blasphemous Heterodynes is said to have weakened faith, like having a 1000 year Mongol invasion.) People do indeed have opinions about their corpses getting plundered for parts.

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