-Arthur C. Clarke (famous 20th century science fiction author)
“’...and you?’ she said, turning to Sam. ‘For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word for the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel...’”
-J.R.R. Tolkien (famous 20th century fantasy author)
Such a simple little word, five letters long, used all the time in many different kinds of literature, for just about as long as there has been literature --- and long before, I’ll bet. And yet it is a word so very difficult to define and characterize --- as we see from the quotes above. Tolkien, in particular, hits the nail on the head. What is magic? It’s a word with such broad uses, it becomes difficult to reach a clear definition agreeable to all. So… how about this (submitted for your approval, as Rod Serling might say):
“Magic refers to an action which defies the laws of physics, chemistry and biology as humans have come to understand them.”
-D. R. Ranshaw, Esq. (wannabe famous 21st century author and raconteur)
There. That helps to tidy things up, doesn’t it? Although I’d be the first to admit it’s a rather dry and scholarly definition that doesn’t really do justice to some of the truly spectacular and wondrous acts we read or, unfortunately more often nowadays, watch on either big or little screens. So today, a few random musings about a concept so integral to so many stories:
-The fact some users of magic employ their powers for good, some for evil brings us to a critical concept: choice. My definition implies that magic is, in itself, neither inherently good nor evil; it is the uses to which it is put which makes it one or the other. Magic can be corrupting because of the tremendous power it bestows, especially if the user does not have the strength of will to resist temptation. When Gandalf is offered the Ring, and its enormous power, he refuses it because he knows what it would mean: temptation on a cosmic scale. And he knows he’s not strong enough to resist that temptation. The issue of choice is vital. Tolkien says that "...nothing is evil in the beginning." But we all choose what we do with powers and abilities given us --- whether we use them for good or ill.
-Despite its importance to some story plots, magic is not usually deployed constantly. In fact, major feats of magic are kept to a minimum. They occur often enough that characters (and readers) remember and respect the power of the person involved. But acts of magic do not happen every time the hero gets into trouble; sometimes, in fact, the hero can get into very serious trouble and be required to get out of it without magical help at all. Why? Several reasons: first, that's the way it has to be. For their struggles to mean anything, heroes have to accomplish things themselves; they can't have things done for them all the time. It would make life meaningless. Characters in a story --- or people in real life --- who have some magical guardian constantly protecting them, routinely dispatching miracles, eventually grow too dependent on that guardian, unable/unwilling to fight their own struggles. Second, magic isn't always practical. Even wizards have limits to their powers. And sometimes, in the heat of events like battles or situations that are extremely fluid, there’s no time to be sitting around crafting incantations. Finally, readers don't want magical miracles taking place every time we turn a page. If heroes are magically rescued from scrapes too often, such feats become little more than deus ex machina (literally, "machine of the gods") that only show the author’s lack of imagination --- can't think of a way to get your hero out of a tight spot? Just zap magic in there! Heroes have to be able to get out of situations on their own from time to time, or they are not heroes.
-Magic in stories can only work in a certain type of environment. The societies involved cannot be too advanced technologically --- science is the enemy of magic, because it is skeptical and tries to analyze/explain away magic in rational, scientific terms.
-Lastly, a rather large caveat: source matters. But… since that involves stepping on some toes, and since I’ve already thrown a number of thoughts your way already, let’s leave that one for next time.
After all, disposing of sacred cows is never a task to be undertaken lightly, is it?