Fantasy Magic I – Coming Out of the Cloister

One of the most common tropes in fantasy is that of functional magic. Reading through a selection of classic fantasy I could probably recognise it when I saw it. However, I found when trying to create my own fantasy worlds that it is much harder to invent than recognise, and risk becoming inconsistent. Obviously acts of retro-continuity are the bread and butter of the pantser, but for the plotters out there I thought I would share my thoughts on how it might be done, starting with considering the impact of religion.

A magical system seems to exist on two axes: what can be done and how is it done. While it is possible to create spells by allowing the wizard to solve a problem with magic when you need them to do it and coming up with a reason they cannot when you need them to face a challenge, this can actually create more work than creating the system first; for example, justifying why they can scare someone away with a flash of fire in chapter three but not set a candle alight in chapter eight. This problem can become even worse if, horror of horrors, your novel becomes popular enough that your public want more in the same world.

Add in that most fantasy worlds contain more than one type of magician (whether divided by species, nationality, or other distinction), the complexity of creating the rules of magic after the fact is multiplied.

As many fantasy magic systems are based on real world beliefs, I started with the definition of magic from the Chambers Dictionary. Removing various references to sleight of hand and stage magic, this is:

Magic: the art of producing marvellous results by compelling the aid of spirits or by using the secret forces of nature, such as the power supposed to reside in certain objects as ‘givers of life’; enchantment; sorcery; a secret or mysterious power over the imagination or will….

Similarly the definitions of enchantment and sorcery are:

Enchantment: to cast a spell upon; to compel by enchantment; to act on by songs or rhymed formulas of sorcery….

Sorcery: divination by the assistance of evil spirits; enchantment; magic; witchcraft….

And witchcraft is (unsurprisingly) the craft of a witch:

Witch: a person supposed to have supernatural or magical power and knowledge, esp. through compact with the devil or a minor evil spirit….

So magic is divided into two threads, a secret force over nature or the will, and the interaction with (usually evil) spirits. This strong link between magic and spirituality is shown to be even stronger when we consider that the word magic stems from the Old Persian magus meaning a priest. Therefore both our borrowing of real-world magical practices and our creation of new ones must take into account the religion (or lack thereof) of the world.

For example, many portrayals of jungle tribal magic in fantasy novels have obvious roots in voodoo; voodoo practitioners however, see themselves as good Catholics. If we wish our book to have a refreshing take on the idea rather than a stale (and potentially insulting) transplanting of a real belief, we must separate the magic from the religion.

Ignoring certain technical definitions about monasticism and Christian sects, Chambers defines religion as:

Religion: belief in, recognition of or an awakened sense of a higher unseen controlling power or powers, with the emotion and morality connected with such; rites or worship; any system of such belief or worship; devoted fidelity….

Religion requires a hierarchy or moral stance from the follower, whether as an explicit structure such as the angelic choirs or a looser sublimation of personal desire and benefit inspired by adoration.

To continue the example of basing magic on voodoo we could decide to remove the idea that the loa are superior to humans. We have a magic system where people let themselves be possessed by spirits not because they want to commune with the divine but because… the spirit wants to be physical for a while and offers something in return… the spirit gives the body great resilience… or something else. However, this decision to take away the idea of hierarchy will influence other decisions: it is unlikely a relationship of equals would involve sacrifice, so the tribe have less reason to take prisoners; is the equality of spirits recognised throughout the world, or are there (false) religions who seek to destroy this magic?

Even magical systems that are on the face of it based on a secular world-view often raise questions of religion. The Harry Potter series for example, does not appear to have a connection; however, it does have banned spells rather than just banned acts. Stripping away the act of magic, is there a difference between making someone act using the Imperious Curse and using a mundane method of controlling them? If it is a morally justifiable to stop a child playing on a train track by picking them up and carrying them away then is it unjustifiable to make them walk for safety on their own?

While it is probably not necessary to flesh out the entirety of every religion when creating a magical system, it is useful to consider the basic stance, if only to build believable characters: a magician who is hiding from a purely legal prohibition will suffer conflict over difference applications from one who is hiding because they have grown up believing magic comes from demons.

In the next article I will share some thoughts on the other major social force that is sometimes similar to – but is not – magic: science.

8 thoughts on “Fantasy Magic I – Coming Out of the Cloister

    1. I have read a few of them, but not enough to have his cosmology down pat. I have enjoyed them so far.

      Much of my speculation on how to create a magical system was started by trying to write an urban fantasy story a few years ago. I wanted to avoid the common theme of supernaturals existing in a world that is otherwise the real world.


    1. Thank you.

      I was writing mainly for a fantasy audience; from my lay experience of theology and anthropology the real world is probably more complex, but I think the basics would be the same.


  1. Magic can also be define as a process of personal will that is aimed at changing one’s life. Spirits may or may not be involved.

    “Witch: a person supposed to have supernatural or magical power and knowledge, esp. through compact with the devil or a minor evil spirit….”

    Hey, we’re not all bad….


    1. Defining magic as changing one’s life in accordance with will is equally valid; however you would then have to separate magic from psychology, so – for world-building – it is just moving the posts.

      There is certainly a bias in the common definition of witchcraft, although it does not say all witches are bad.

      I chose to use the dictionary definitions rather than more specialist uses as the dictionary would best reflect how the concepts are perceived by common people, and therefore many readers.


      1. I know, I was just kidding….
        Neopagan witchcraft deals with the psychology of magic too much in my opinion. I think the movement is trying to separate itself from Voodoo, Hoodoo, Pow Wow, or any other misunderstood magical path.


        1. Modern magic in the west, whether reconstructionist or created from whole cloth, has come out of the expansion of religion after Gardner. Not all practitioners are faithful, but many of the famous authors (particularly those on normal bookshop shelves) came to magic during/after adopting a paganism. Even Northern Scandinavian methods, drawn from a culture that valued results over piety, are written about more often as a religion than a mechanism.

          As psychology is the new theology it is not too surprising that the discussions that avoid religion are all about the theory of power rather than the specifics of application.


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