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Magic, and How it Works

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Senior Member



It's easiest for me to think of magic as not necessarily being one thing with one universal system. Having secret Kung-Fu techniques that allow you to channel chi or hermetic incantations that you more commonly see in video game RPG's are both "magic." So are Jedi powers from Star Wars. Even lightsabers qualify, because it's wondrous but impossible thing which is added for the wow factor.

Therein lies the problem. It's a catchall term for anything wondrous and mysterious. Assuming some universal principal for all magic is problematic and is often assumed when talking about video game settings and the usual run-of-the-mill fantasy.

An example of this approach to magic is shown in Patrick Rothfuss's Name of the Wind. "Magic" isn't just one thing. And few arcanists entertain being called "sorcerers" or "wizards" because that is part of a problematic history of witch-burning and wild rumors of demonic conjuration. They prefer to be seen as harmless scholars and scientists with a code of conduct, rather than be seen as sinister wizards. That isn't to say that "storybook magic" doesn't exist, but that stuff is usually well beyond the mastery of mortal science. And what constitutes "magic" in this setting is actually several different disciplines. Naming is completely different from Sympathy and is completely different from the just plain weird stuff that nobody has made a science of yet. Arcanists also learn a bit of chemistry, mathematics, physics and medicine along the way. Given that most people are still illiterate, the layperson is going to see that all that book-learning as mysterious and odd. And their understanding of these scholars is going to be informed by romantic stories.

League of Legends takes a bonanza approach, in that it draws from many sources. Is mana just some abstract representation? Or is it a real physical thing? (It probably doesn't matter, because magic points is practically an RPG video game tradtion by this point.) Whatever the case, Jedi-like kung-fu rubs shoulders with steampunk mad science and hermetic incantations.


Magic standing in opposition to science is a false dichotomy. And it shows a poor understanding of what either thing really is. "Magic" is a name given to mysterious and awe-inspiring phenomena.

In common fantasy literature, it's treated as technology, rather than something strictly outside of man's control. And this is because of our very modern mindset. We no longer feel victimized by things we don't understand precisely because of how useful and prevalent science has become. The idea of wizards trying to study the unknown isn't weird to us.

The thing is, people used to debate whether we should study things which are unknown or if it was even possible. Medicine wasn't always a reputable field of study because in many places and times, dissecting cadavers was illegal. Today, knowledge of human anatomy is fundamentally important in medicine and art. But at one point, people regarded it as tampering in that Which Man Was Not Meant To Know. And it's that history of the graverobbing scholar that informs our image of the black necromancer secretly studying his dark arts.

Technically, this "magic does not get along with technology" approach was taken in the Garth Nix's Old Kingdom trilogy, but I saw the books as being flawed at best. In this setting, the Old Kingdom follows completely different rules from the rest of the world (which has WW2 level technology while the Old Kingdom is more medieval).

But this is problematic because magic is a technology in the Old Kingdom. So what technologies will or will not work in the Old Kingdom is vague. The rule seems to arbitrarily be "whatever is modern." Guns break down when crossing the border and machine-milled paper rots. Handmade paper works fine. The problem here, of course, is that swords are technology too. So are incantations. And paper is paper, it's always dead tree pulp, no matter whether it's hand-pressed or machine-rolled. And all of it are made according to the best understanding of science that anybody has available.


Magic is commonly in themes regarding how using power has unintended consequences, and that you never really have as much control over anything as you really think. You don't know *every* consequence. And just because you have some knowledge, doesn't mean you have know everything.

Youtube the Fantasia "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sketch to see my point.

This artistic point is sometimes glossed-over because sometimes people don't want to be burdened by moral lessons when consuming fantasy. But even Star Wars couldn't get away from the idea that You Should Not Abuse Power.

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Senior Member


I have one, simple, magical defense against your argument:

This list is ever-expanding. Whenever someone comes up with an example of a new magic and asks for me to put it in, I add it to the list.