Power to the People: Magic in Fantasy
The idea for this column came while I was working on a novel. The novel was an expansion of my story, “Card Sharp,” which features a main character with a magic deck of cards. I’ve written other stories in the universe, but I’d never quite figured out the full system behind the magic. Was it that the cards were magic and anyone could use them? Or was the magic specific to a few individuals and the cards were just the way they accessed it?
My seat of the pants writing style aside, I could see the possibilities of both approaches. So I did what any indecisive writer would have done in my position—I took it to Twitter.
I specifically asked (in < 140 characters), “Do you prefer magic that anyone can use? Or magic that only works for someone special?”
I should preface the responses by saying that the vast majority of my twitter friends are writers or editors (or both). Most of the rest are readers. They’re familiar with fantasy. And still the response was split.
The first responders were overwhelmingly on the side of magic that anyone can use. Pritpaul Bains (@pritpaulbains) said the chosen few example was “played out.” Editor Steve Berman (@thesteveberman) of Lethe Press said, “I dislike the 2nd [chosen few] as it smacks of elitism.” It does seem that this has become a well-worn trope and maybe readers are looking for something new. And it seems that we’ve come to a place where class issues and privilege and access are being explored in fiction, and the special person who has all the power is an ugly reminder of the inequalities in many societies, ours included.
For me, at least, I think there was a change that came from maturity. As a child or a teenager, I loved the idea of the chosen one, or the chosen few, because I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to find out that I had some hitherto undiscovered power or ability of my own. It’s a potent metaphor for someone at that age, still figuring out who they are, what they have to offer, still craving power over their own lives.
As an adult, however, I’m in a different place. Sure, I’d still like to have magical power, but I have a more macro view. Why would I want to prevent others from having it? Surely what matters more is not whether you have the power, but what you do with it.
It’s important to mention a few caveats, though. Real life has variation. Writer Chris Barzak (@cbarzak) answered, “magic anyone can use but that some people use better or with more innovation than others.” Which of course makes sense. The majority of people can draw, or throw a ball, or sing a tune, but there is a variety in skill level. Some people have the capability to sing opera, but not everyone does. And it still takes a lot of practice. @rattlyfleef said, “I like magic that takes WORK, like the martial arts :) Anyone can draw a bow, takes long training to be a crack shot.”
@thefennec brought up an interesting point, though. “Even if anyone *can* there has to be some reason why everyone *doesn't* —danger, high difficulty, secrecy, etc.” Which is, of course, another good point. Magic, in order to be special, should have a cost to use or master. Or else David Levine’s (@daviddlevine) point comes into play: “ ‘Magic that anyone can use’ risks becoming a technology, losing the numinous and mysterious. Magic should be personal.”
Which is important to me. Magic should be special. Wondrous. Magic that functions as technology essentially is technology, just using different means. A system where magic chills your food and flying carpets take people to work, still operates like real world technology. Still, there are levels to this. Let’s say that magic is every day, that people use talismans and amulets, magic rings and hats and other items to do normal, mundane activities. There still could be special uses of magic that aren't typical. There can still be people who are capable of things beyond the norm.
So I started looking at examples in fantasy fiction, of course considering some of the most well known. Unsurprisingly, much of it falls on the “magic for the few” side. Here are a few examples from a much longer list:
- The Lord of the Rings is an interesting case because despite being magical, very little magic is demonstrated in the books. Most of what Gandalf, the chief wizard of note, does is light up his staff. Still, the majority of magic is in the dominion of the Istari, the five Wizards. The Elves have a type of magic, but it’s not something that the rank and file use.
- In the Wheel of Time series, channelers use the magic in the world, but they are rare (despite the number of them in the books) and they must be trained in order to use their abilities.
- A Song of Ice and Fire has very little magic and that seems tied to dragons or to worship of certain deities.
- In the Malazan books, those who can access Warrens are in the minority.
- In David Edding’s Belgariad, sorcery is only practiced by disciples of Aldur and Torak (and are few in number).
- In Blake Charlton’s Spellwright, magic is accomplished through the use of language, but while anyone can understand regular language, only certain people are born with the ability to use magical language (though he has a really cool system of magic and you should check it out).
- In The Dresden Files, only certain people demonstrate magical talent (though training is still important to hone this talent).
So where are all the books with magic that the average person can use? I found a few that come close.
I can’t believe I’m going to use this example, but Piers Anthony accomplishes this in his Xanth books (yes, yes, I read these voraciously when I was a teen). Magic is everywhere, everyone has access to it. Indeed, everyone has a magical talent that is unique to them. But that is what sets Xanth apart. Each talent is unique. Some people can do nothing more than change the color of their hair at will. But others have immense power, say the ability to transform other creatures. I’m not recommending these books (they have a lot of problems) but I think they have an interesting approach. Keeping magic unique and wondrous despite its being so common.
In Steven Brust’s Dragaera, sorcery, the magic that the Dragaerans (elves) use, is quite common. There’s a mechanism in place (the Orb) to allow them to channel their abilities. Dragaerans can use this sorcery for a variety of effects—teleportation, telepathy, and more. Brust balances this, though, because the POV character in the series is Vlad Taltos, a human (or Easterner) living in a Dragaeran world. Additionally, Vlad has his own version of magic, or witchcraft, which has different abilities and different limitations. The end result is a world where there’s plenty of magic but it’s applied very differently.
In the Harry Potter series, not everyone can use magic. There are all those Muggles, after all. But in the bubble of the Wizarding world, everyone CAN use magic. Since the majority of the story happens in the Wizarding world, it feels as if everyone can use magic. Yet, because Harry and the others are still learning, magic retains its sense of wonder. And there continue to be surprises.
In the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, while not everyone can use magic, bending of the elements is a fairly common occurrence. Regular people in the villages and towns use their earthbending, for example, for mundane purposes, though becoming great at it takes work. Of course, there is also a chosen one, Aang, the Avatar, who can master all the four elements, but I think this still counts.
In the Dungeons & Dragons setting of Eberron, low-level magic is quite common and incorporated into society, though not everyone can create it. Here is an example of magic becoming technology. There’s higher level magic as well, and people who can wield it, but not everyone can create the magic.
Can you think of any more? Are you tired of the magic being restricted to the chosen few or do you like it that way? Are we ready for a more egalitarian magic system?
To leave a comment