Pondering Magic

First, a bit of administrivia.

I’ve switched the Twitter digest posts to a weekly format, so they they aren’t spamming the blog every day.  So, when you see “Updates for the Week of…” what you’re getting are the snippets of thought I posted over the last 168 hours, starting with the oldest at the top, just to confuse archaeologists because to HELL with archaeologists.1

I silently weep for the loss/breaking of the add-on that collected my shared Google News Reader items into a digest post, with my comments on same.  It was working just fine and then poof. No idea why. No idea who is RESPONSIBLE.

Where were YOU on March 10th?
Where were YOU on March 10th?

Anyway, if anyone wordpressy knows of a good addon I might try that will do what I want (daily digest collections of shared new reader posts), please to be contacting me.

So: Magic. I’ve been thinking about it; the different kinds of it you see in stories.  Specifically, the kinds you don’t see as much of in favor of traditional magic.2

I got started on this due to some work I’m doing with a game project that I forced my way into playing with am collaborating on with some great guys; things that got me thinking about the Tolkeinesque style of… well, not magic, but the way magic is depicted in the fiction.  I’ve talked about this before (though I can’t find the original post), but what I’m specifically referring to is the tendency in Tolkein to play coy with magic in the story — to leave the reader wondering “did he just…” rather than blatantly stating “yeah, he totally did.”  Most of this boils down to describing the effects of magic in equivocal terms, usually how something appeared, from the point of view of other characters.

I tend to do a lot of this in stories I write even when they aren’t in a modern setting, but it really serves well in magical realism — you can get away with a lot of stuff in the story that the POV protagonists simply explain away as something else; maybe because they don’t believe, maybe because they’re afraid to — in either case, because the characters want to explain it away.

“That’s all right,” the man replied, taking a slow drink.  He set down his glass and turned it slowly counterclockwise on the bar, as though it were a dial.  The sounds of the club around them seemed to fade, allowing his quiet words to carry.

My disclaimer: I’m only seeing this equivocal language in hindsight.  I wasn’t aware I did it until recently.

With the last spoken syllable, the door opened, spilling cheap golden light onto the walk and the front of Calliope’s jeep.  The four moved inside so quickly that they barely seemed to cast shadows.

Also in hindsight, it’s not surprising that I do this, especially if I picked it up from reading Tolkein in my formative years (which I did, over and over).

Aside from just being fun, it provides a subtler tone that pays off with a nice shock when the kid-gloves come of and things get overt.

The figure in the doorway turned his head towards her.  He spoke one guttural word that bounced off the dark paneling of the office; Lauren dropped to the ground in a heap.  Her glass hit the floor with a thump and jumped sideways, spilling its contents over the thin carpet; the room filled with the stink of whiskey.  To Calliope, Joshua’s wife looked like a puppet that had just had its strings cut.  Violently.  Her eyes were still open and staring.

After all the oblique stuff, this sort of magic is almost refreshing.  Coupled with the language (short, hard words; short phrases; timed to feel like gut punches), the hope is that the whole thing kind of knocks the wind out of the protagonist (even better: the reader).  It’s no Balrog-and-Gandalf on the Bridge, but it’s servicable.

What else? I also really enjoy fairy tale magic.  

By that, I don’t mean the kind of ‘new fairies’3 that you see in the flavor of the week Dark Urban Fantasy Noir… thing.4

I mean Fairy Tales, where magic is a kind of eclectic toychest collection of whimsical special cases and exceptions that are, nevertheless, accepted as matter-of-course by most everyone involved. The prosaic supernatural.

If you eat the food here, you can never leave.

We’re immortal, except for iron melting our faces off.

Pancakes don’t have calories if you cook them for someone else.

I bow humbly to Neil Gaiman on this one – no other modern day storyteller grasps this kind of magic and how to talk about it on the page better.  The Graveyard Book is the most recent example, but of course there’s Coraline, Stardust, even Anansi Boys (though that one is kind of a blend of fairy tales and old god stories like American Gods… a kind of magical story I don’t have a good name for).   I’m working on something like it with Spindle. We’ll see how that works out.

How about you guys? What’s your favorite kind of magic in stories? How does it feel? What’s it do? How’s it portrayed?

1 – Not really. Those guys are rad. Is ‘rad’ still cool? Is ‘cool’ still cool?

2 – By which I mean standard DnD fantasy fireballs, hurled lightning bolts, and pink-aura Marvel-style precognition. Also, I suppose the sorcery you see in things like good Conan and Fritz Leiber – demon bindings and choking vapors and so on.  I talk about the difference between Fantasy stories and Magical stories over here, and I don’t believe repeating myself will improve the content, so go read it.

3 – Or faeries or feyries or pharies or fehries or however the hell it’s cool to spell it this year.

4 – Super-hot, super-alien, utterly incomprehensible… yet with soft, kissable lips.

12 Replies to “Pondering Magic”

  1. I’d argue that ‘old god stories’ are exactly the same thing as fairy tales. They’re both folklore, explainations to a people as to why the world works they way it does.

    Modern authors have co-opted the methodology of folklore to tell stories that are outside the original scope of those stories that were intended to unite a group and create a feeling of ‘us.’

    I’ll agree that Gaiman is a modern master of this form, but the differences between American Gods and Coraline are more ones of scope than methodology.

    OK, got that off my chest, on to magic!
    The ‘magic’ of the Fae, is more a matter of rules, laws even, working differently for the Fae than they seem to for normal humans. Human mages are those rare humans that can see those seperate rules and take advantage of them. But there’s always a price to pay for following some of the rules, but not all of them. By dipping in and out of the rules of the Fae the mage makes themselves visible to, and vulnerable to the dark forces that enforce the internal rules. And eventually those forces catch up with them.
    SO, I’m a fan of magic that eventually destroys those that tamper with forces beyond their comprehension. This samce concept is seen in Faust and the Cthulhu mythos stories.

    Mess with mystical energies and you can expect a visit from the Fungi from Yuggoth who’ll make off with your brain! And I’m sure I don’t need to remind you why you should always stay in a room with no corners . . .

    The interesting this about this type of magic is that it often acts like your examples. Things happen, we’re told, usually after the fact, that it was magic, but there is usually only a visible manifestation when the transgressor gets their comeuppance.

    Wow, way too much stuff bubbling up for discussion! =)

  2. 1. Thank you eversomuch for reminding me of that movie and scene. Brilliant uber-scary.

    2. I can only assume a drug interaction with the GReader plug-in, as mine continues to work perfectly. You can grab the RSS feed for the items, but that won’t get your comments and I’m not sure if you can get an RSS feed to create a post. (I’m waiting for Google to include comments in its BB GReader.)

    3. Your magic comments (and I mention this only because you mentioned elsewhere Mouse Guard) reminds me of Margie’s comments after the last game that Weather Watching was actually narratively *causing* the weather, as a magical sort of thing, rather than simply predicting it (sort of Heisenberg’s Weather Spell — you either create it or you observe it). I don’t know if that’s the sort of direction you went with the MG stuff, but …

    4. My two concerns with going to a Weekly Tweet Digest (for myself) are (1) Tweets are context-less enough that a few days can render them as head scratchers. Though I suppose that’s true for Daily ones read a few days later, at least there’s the opportunity for heated discussion immediately. And, (2) if I did that, I would struggle a lot more to post something directly every day. Which, of course, is probably a good thing.

    5. And let me just say, that graphic gets creepier and creepier.

    6. Okay, so it appears I’m using DigestPost to make the GReader stuff (as modified here for PHP 5 http://blog.econtech.selfip.org/2009/02/update-to-google-reader-wordpress-plugin/ … ) (could that PHP 5 be the thing that’s changed for you?)

    It looks like http://www.googletutor.com/2008/11/18/new-wordpress-plugin-for-google-reader-shared-items/ does this thing, too. As does http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/recommended-reading-google-reader-shared/ perhaps. You”ve probably poked at those, but in case you haven’t …

    7. Still creepy.

    8. I like this way of handling magic. I mean, I appreciate a good fireball as much as the next guy, but this keeps it from being more like super powers and instead lends it some subtlety.

  3. Pfft. Gaiman’s not the only one. [Cough] Hughart Wynne Jones Pamela Dean Zenna Henderson et al [Cough]. Read more.

    My favorite magic is when it comes out of a story, where to imagine the story without the magic is impossible. Magic as idea, without which there is no story.

  4. Amusingly enough, I had almost this exact same conversation (as your post describes, with excerpts from mine below) (except that all this left out the moral component) with one of my younger sisters last Sunday night.

    We classify magic in a variety of pop culture shorthand, everything from “Jedi Mind Trick” to “Gandalf in the Closet with Glamdring…” and then there’s “Fairy Tale Magic.”

    “What is the difference?”

    “Fairy Tale Magic breaks the rules. See, inherent in the other systems is the idea that there are patterns and limitations that could be codified (even if they’re idiosyncratic: see _Wizard of the Pigeons_ for more details) if necessary. Fairy Tale Magic makes its own rules for the sake of breaking the others. You know, like physics.”

    “Physics is magic?”

    “Shhh. Don’t want to give away all of our secrets.”

    Personally, I like rules. Not laws as provided by Councils and the like, but internal rules. Even fairy tale magic is never so sweet as when its limits are tested. The failure of many stories is when they keep giving magic away, figuring the solution is always “more power” rather than “subtler, smarter use of what we have.”

    Anyway, this being a subject I will gladly spend hours upon hours philosophizing, I’ll leave it at that.

  5. MKV: I see what you’re saying about the old god stories, but their magic isn’t – to me – displayed the same way; it’s a different kind of thing – more categorized and logical, less random and whimsical. That’s only my impression, though.

    You’re welcome. I have no idea what movie you’re referring to. :)

    What I meant by the weather watcher thing was that Weather Watcher held that same “I can affect big things” niche in the game as some kinds of magic held in other games… not that it was, itself, magic.

    Point taken. Stings a bit, but taken.

  6. One question that springs to mind; Excalibur vs. a +5 holy avenger? Is it *rarity* that makes magic interesting, or the fact that I sitting right here can’t do it?

    I love the movie version of Stardust (c.f. Michelle Pfeifer as my nemesis in Ironwall), and what makes that special is the main character’s *reactions* to the magic that he sees.

    And, in the end, that’s what makes magic work or not work for me – how the people *react* to it. Is having lighting in a bottle cool, or a yawner? And that’s Gaiman’s genius – showing us want anyone could show us, but through the eyes of how he *want’s us to **see** what he’s showing*.

    So in that way he gets both – a fantastic story element, as well as a lens through which to view the fantastic in the form of his protagonists’ thoughts.

    For us jaded D&Ders, it’s very hard to not have all magic be a yawner, so having the reactions of NPCs set the tone is a great way to remind us of the fantastic of fantasy…

  7. Excalibur vs. a +5 holy avenger? Is it *rarity* that makes magic interesting, or the fact that I sitting right here can’t do it?

    I think that says a lot right there — and it’s not even just the “rarity” but that Excalibur is something that unique unto itself and not just describable as numbers.

    Once upon a time, when running far more conventional D&Dish games, I used to actually provide folks with index cards for the significant magic items they had, just so that it wasn’t Yet Another Mace of Spiffy Clerical Magic. And, at that, the best magic item I ever had (leading to it cropping up across multiple generations of gametime) was an actual intelligent sword … something special, not a simple modifier.

    Parenthetically, that’s why one of the best things about 4e — breaking things down by the numbers, balanced and well-structured — rankles so many. Because if it’s just about the numbers, some of the magic leaves it. Magic becomes mana-powered technology, and there’s no flavor difference between a Rod of Kinetic Smooshing and a .38 Police Special.

  8. You should read moooore. I’m pretty sure Gaiman, if asked, would be flattered but somewhat flabbergasted if you told him that:

    “No other storyteller grasps this kind of magic and how to talk about it on the page so well.”

    And while he’s good, he’s hardly the best – you’re familiar with him, and he writes to your milieu and tastes, and I didn’t spot an “in my opinion” anywhere near the statement. I know it’s not what you want to focus on, but make this kind of blanket statement around me, and I question everything else and don’t listen :P

    I think the reason I find fairy-tale magic interesting is that people in stories, for the most part, don’t know how it works. They’re trying to play by rules – and there are rules – they don’t understand, rules that have nothing to do with what other people tell you is right or wrong.

    But the rules can be discovered, guessed, and manipulated – the fairies can be defeated or won over using their own laws.

    1. A few more thoughts:

      Tim: Rarity and Response, yes. What those two things are determines a lot about what kind of magical story it is.

      Dave: Champions was the first game to say “there’s no difference between a firebolt and an energy blast except the window dressing”, and I loved it — it was a wool-from-my-eyes moment.

      I love all the author suggestions, though I don’t agree with comparing any author to a edited collection of original fairy tales, though: that’s like comparing a house to a hill.

      “I think the reason I find fairy-tale magic interesting is that people in stories, for the most part, don’t know how it works.” Yes. Yes yes. A thousand times, yes.

      Ooh. which iteration of the MG magic stuff did you read? On the wiki or the Burning Wheel Forum? You should read the BW Forum one, because I started with something else entirely, was told my idea would completely break the whole game and actually directly caused world hunger — it was only after a brisk discussion that it got to the final, better version. Creative feedback from your peers is awesome.

  9. It isn’t just fairy tale magic that’s different. Ceremonial magic, witch magic (according to the witch haters), Greek god magic, etc, all are just weird to modern… Western (well, not among a large segment of our population)… scientific thinking.

    It isn’t that fairies were weird and worked by strange rules, it’s that everything was weird and strange. Angels danced on pins, blood sacrifice kept the Sun from going out, witches living in hovels could curse you with a nasty look, Zeus nailed Leda in the shape of a swan, you blessed people who sneezed to prevent their souls from escaping…

    1. It’s almost like the world was a Really Dangerous Place that would Kill You if you Didn’t Understand How it Worked — and you, very often, didn’t.

  10. I just read your Mouse Guard magic info, and I love it. Now I want to play MG AND use the magic hack. *sigh*

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