Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Magic

At the beginning of the semester, the Major Authors course studying Tolkien, Donaldson, and Pullman did a little survey in which we asked each other, “What makes a fantasy book?” Many people talked about different races, such as elves and orcs; fantastic creatures, like dragons and wargs; or a group (or fellowship) trying to save the world. One thing that everybody agreed on was that a fantasy book or series has got to have magic. What is interesting is how the three series we have read each have a different outlook on magic.

The Thomas Covenant series mostly takes place in a world that is “leaking” magic. The society was once chest deep in magic, or “lore.” When the main chunk of the story takes place, people have mostly forgotten or lost their magical abilities. Thomas Covenant, who is supposed to be the bearer of a magical ring, doesn’t even know how to use it for most of the series. This trilogy sees magic as being an ancient, mystical, and deadly force that only a handful of people are able to wield.

In His Dark Materials, magic is a religious phenomenon. Almost everything that happens that is “magical” is explained using Dust. A person’s daemon, which we would consider to be some sort of magic (a shape-shifting pet) is actually an outer reflection of the person’s identity and/or soul. But the people in this world also are in awe of the witches, which they regard as magical because of their ability to fly and perform spells, though one which, Serafina Pekkala, explains that her invisibility spell is little more than a psychological trick.

I think one of the coolest outlooks on magic comes from The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbits and Men can’t wield magic, but Elves and the wizards can. These wizards are like the traditional wizards most people are familiar with: They have flashy magic, beards, robes, staves, etc. The Elves, however, are completely different. The Elves have magic so ingrained in their lives that they hardly even acknowledge it’s existence. The Elves have rope, but to other races, it’s magical rope that never breaks, is extremely fine, and can burn the skin of servants of the Enemy (Sauron). The only reason the places the Elves live are beautiful is because of their magic and the magic of the rings they acquired, but they pay no mind to it. When the Fellowship passes through Galadriel’s forested nation, they are in awe of it’s beauty and splendor, and it seems like the Elves take it for granted. I’m not saying this is necessarily bad, but I think it’s cool how it’s just no big deal to them, and it’s so deep in their bones and society that they don’t need all the flash and bang lightshow like the characters in, say, Harry Potter.

These three series represent only a few magical points of view that fantasy writers use. Some are more traditional, like these series tend to be; some, like The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, but magic in a modern setting. I’d like to think that our class was right about magic being a key part of all fantasy books. Whether magic lies in a ring, a wand, or in blood, wherever you find fantasy, magic will surely follow.

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