Back last December on Camestros Felapton’s blog (I don’t remember the specific post) there was a comment about two ways of approaching magic in fiction: “it seems to me that some ways of thinking about magic are ontological/analytical, and some are teleological/practical. How does the magic “work” vs how the magic is used. Which is most important to you as a reader/reviewer/critic? Which is most important to the writers creating these systems? Which is most important to the people who live in the worlds created by the writers? There isn’t a single right answer.”
Stories about how magic works would include, of course, the many stories with magic systems: the Mistborn books, Alan Moore’s tedious Promethea comics (very much about his theories of magic), D&D novels. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry where wizards draw power from an individual’s life force. Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories. A. Merritt’s science fantasies.
The Silver Age Dr. Strange stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (who was probably the prime mover ont he project) are much more about how magic is used. What’s important is that Stephen Strange uses magic to stand between us and the dark forces: Baron Mordo, Dormammu, Nightmare, Umar and Taboo, Tyrant of the Eighth Dimension.
Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books likewise focus on magic in action: the bad guys using it to hurt people, Harry using it to protect them, as in the first book in the series, Storm Front. In Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, what matters is Conan fighting the magic, not how it works.That doesn’t mean “magic has no rules” (the standard complaint by those science fiction fans who dislike fantasy). The Dresden books give us magic rules but the system isn’t the important thing; Ditko’s Dr. Strange stories use magic consistently, they just don’t spell them out. Conversely, stories that emphasize magic systems usually deal with how magic is used: the Lord Darcy stories are all about Darcy and his sidekick Sean using magic to solve crime.
Some stories are a mix of both. In Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, there’s a lot about the rules of magic; protagonist Norman wins because he’s able to analyze them logically and apply them more effectively than his adversaries. However it’s also about how magic is used: stay-at-home wives working sorcery covertly to advance their husband’s careers.
In Southern Discomfort I deal with the rules enough to keep things consistent but I’m much more interested in what magic does. In Questionable Minds, the rules governing psychic power are much more important. In Let No Man Put Asunder, it’s all about how it’s used: there are multiple character operating under different magic system so the rules are a free-for-all (though individual characters’ skills stay consistent).No real deep insights, I know, but I still find Camestros’ comment interesting.
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