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by David Carroll

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#11, 1992

"Any sufficiently advanced form of magic is indistinguishable ... from technology."
Clarke's Third Law reversed
Doctor Who -- Battlefield
Marc Platt

'Sword and Sorcery' fiction is a well named genre, and while it is certainly not a style that encompasses all fantasy, it's what the public envisages fantasy to be. From Lord of the Rings to Sword and the Sorcerer, from Arthurian mythos to Star Wars (you weren't under the impression that SW was science fiction were you, tsk tsk). And while all sorts of interesting comments can and have been made about the sword and its imagery (and by a logical sequence of reasoning, the umbrella...?) I'm more interesting in the magical side of things for the moment. If you consider that I always ended up playing magic-users in AD&D and was a veritable DragonLance junkie for a number of years (since cured) for the sole reason of Raistlin Majere, this may not surprise you. Magic has a fascination about it, a sense of power tinged with danger, a force greater than yourself, but subservient to your will.

And in a series such as Doctor Who, where science fantasy has always been more prevalent than pure sf, it is not surprising there have been several excursions into the trappings of sword and sorcery.

But, really, trappings is all they were -- the swords were there, but the magic invariably turned out to be some advanced alien race playing patronising bastard. That is, until Battlefield came along, and the science in the science fantasy had about as much screen presence as the TARDIS interior. Time for a little trip then -- a short sojourn into the world of mirrors and illusion, of enchantment and summoning and the arcane arts.

It is, in fact, surprisingly easy to come up with a definition of magic, though it's not the one my trusty dictionary gives. 'The pretending art of producing marvellous results by compelling the aid of spirits, or by using the secret forces of nature...' is, however, as good a start as any. Clarke's Third Law notwithstanding, magic is relatively distinct from technology in that technology is, by its nature, a known process. A steam train may certainly have appeared to be magical in the eyes of a plains Indian, but it wasn't. Azal's technology in The Dæmons appeared to be magical but, for precisely the same reason, it wasn't. I propose, however, that the ritual performed by the Master and his followers in summoning Azal was magic. Magic is that which you do not understand but you can still control.

How long you are able to maintain that control is, of course, another matter, and the role of the magician in fantasy has never been a particularly relaxed one. Consider the long term operation of a nuclear power plant when your entire knowledge of what makes the electricity come out one end is the control room procedures manual...

Now this definition of magic is quite a nice one, but it has, as far as I can see, two main problems. Firstly there are a lot of assumptions about culture in the definition that aren't terribly obvious. I do actually understand a fair bit about the computer I am currently using, but I certainly couldn't build one -- and I don't need to know anything about its innards to use it. So obviously any reasonable definition of magic has to take into account the technology I have a cultural, if not a personal, understanding of. This complicates things a little but not to any great extent.

The second problem is slightly more serious. The definition is boring.

To say magic is magic because we don't understand it means we can't explore it -- can't fathom the depth of it's possibilities. We want to know what magic is, how it works, what it can do. We want an internally consistent and 'sensible' definition that still allows us to gasp in wonder every time we see a puff of smoke. And while the wonder is what it's all about, there are more devious ways of getting there than pure ignorance.

If this is all starting to sound a little devious anyway, let's look at an example: the aforementioned Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. As you may or may not be aware the AD&D 'multiverse' is made up of a whole lot of planes all stacked up in complicated hierarchy. As shown in the diagram (over the page) from the Player's Handbook, the prime material plane, where all the normal stuff goes on (and indeed our own Earth is located, in one of the backwaters where magic is sluggish), is 'surrounded' by the positive material and negative material, then the various elemental planes [1]. Surrounding these further are the heavens and hells and the like (with their own layers) and the ethereal and astral planes exist to bind it all together.

Now there is a lot of connections between these planes, little imperfections. The most obvious examples are the undead, whose life-sapping power is derived from a connection with the negative material plane. There are also creatures wandering round connected to the positive material (though I never convinced anyone that you should go up a level when they hit you), and of course there is no end of elementals running amok, and avatars from the heavens and the like, all conveying power from the realm from which they came.

It is my theory that with this literally immense transferral of energy that is happening all the time, it is not surprising that there is a little to spare. Magic-users are those able to manipulate this energy to their own ends, using a combination of verbal, somatic (which is supposed to entail physical movement, arm-waving and the like, though the concept of motion is not contained in the dictionary definition) and material components. These 'spells' are, apparently, very precise and fiddly, and you have to be skilled to get anything to happen at all, let alone making sure it happens in the right way. Now this still fits my earlier definition of magic because there is no sign of the magic-users having any idea why a certain combination of words, movement and materials have the desired effect. They simply memorise the procedure and perform it whenever necessary (or, rather, the energy that flows through the magic-user erases the knowledge of itself and it has to be memorised again. And I tell you, when they get round that particular problem, the rest of the world is in big trouble).

I imagine the first discovery of magic was by accident (oops...) and then more and more people experimented and played round with the various combinations, and when something worked they said 'ah ha!', and there's another spell in the tables. Some of the original experimenters are still honoured, Bigby being the obvious example, but I'd guess that, as a career, it was in general either fruitless or short.

In the ordinary AD&D world this experimentation has just about stopped, and everyone is happy about what is available, and no one really wants to play round with such a well-known art when there's chess-board floors out there that are just waiting to do nothing at all. In the world of Krynn, from DragonLance, there seems to be quite a bit of experimentation still going on, and the Sorcerers have their towers in which to swap notes, and that's probably why they aren't quite as popular as they might be.

Bewitched seems to work on a similar principle, energy manipulation with the mind, sometimes using movements and words and the like to bring on the right mental state (though there are some very complicated, and pretty consistently used, rules about what can be done and who can do it). In fact, not only don't you have to use a precise ritual to control your environment, your subconscious can do it all on its own. One of the first things taught to a young witch is the control of these subconscious casting, or 'wish-craft' as it is known.

Here, by the way, is a society that has absolute power over our own -- but because the power is absolute, they couldn't care less. So much for the pretty quote about corruption.

The Witches of Eastwick is another example, though here magic is a natural process of no strict form. 'Sacrifice', it says in chapter 1, 'there must always by sacrifice. It was one of nature's rules'. It is a rule that the three women only discover the real meaning of as the novel progresses, and to their sorrow.

Now this is a fine example of the use fantasy literature makes of magic, and the literature is what BT is all about. But the 'conventional' idea of magic in our culture is something quite different, and here we return to the dictionary definition.

The supposed Witches of Salem, and just about everywhere else, gained their power through the calling up of spirits, who would then do your will. The fine art of this craft lay in actually making sure that the entity in question was properly bound so that it didn't pervert your commands to its own whims, or simply drag you off kicking and screaming behind it. (Of course, superstition combined with the fact that many of the 'witches' made potions that included hallucinogens had something to do with it. They weren't flying... just high).

One of the interesting things about this use of magic is that AD&D is quite comfortable with the custom -- but it's not the magic-users who practise it, it is the Clerics. Be they Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil, the priests call spirits to do their will. It would be nicer, perhaps, if this was actually used in game terms rather than as an explanation for something which then works in exactly the same way as Magic, but hey... this is AD&D we're talking about, accuracy and consistency aren't so much neglected as avoided.

One of the most recent examples of the witch in literature is Anne Rice's The Witching Hour, a beautiful book that manages to have just about nothing happen for a thousand pages and then not end. And here our traditional notion of magic is used, the Mayfair Witches gain their power through the workings of the Brown Man, an entity with his own reason and purpose. It will be interesting to see if this novel will open the flood-gate on the witch as Interview with a Vampire did with our fanged friend.

But hang on, this all sounds a little familiar, doesn't it?

Lady Peinforte was described as a Sorcerer, and while we know she was a dab hand with poisons and the like, the only real 'power' she showed was the creation of the Time Storm, and we all know who did that, don't we boys and girls? Human blood, indeed.

The Cult of Demnos had a very real power in Italy, power they achieved through stealth and fear. But their influence increased rather dramatically once they had the power of a 'conjured' being to give them aid.

And what about Lady Morgaine, anyway? She was a Witch in every sense of the word: the magic was incarnate within her, but when the going got tough she summoned to her the Destroyer, the Eater of Worlds. We don't really know what the source of her power was, but in the end it was what she felt, not what she could do, that defined her character.

Magic is just like technology, it is simply a tool, and the pretty quote about bad workmen still applies. But magic is also fun, we can watch it endlessly, because we are endlessly fascinated by the possibilities.

Now, if I could just spirit away tonight's dirty dishes, we'd be in business...


[1] I was in high school once (strange but true...), with a bad cold and obviously not particularly with it at the time. So when the teacher announced that we would be studying the elements I immediately said, 'oh, like water and fire and air...' And you wonder why I never did too well at science.

(OK, Star Wars is science fiction. So sue me.)


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