Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and
speculative fiction enthusiast.
What is fantasy without magic? There are many possible
answers to such a question, but the simplest response—one almost simple beyond
stating—is that magic is essential to fantasy. You can’t have fantasy without it. There have been many approaches to depicting
magic over the years, some more rigorous in their delineation of its rules than
others. If you’re very interested in
what makes a good magic system, Brandon Sanderson has some interesting essays
on the subject, and I invite readers and writers to search them out.
The magic system Sanderson uses in his Mistborn
Trilogy is divided into different magical disciplines, one of which, Allomancy,
involves “burning” metals to fuel various magical powers. It’s an interesting
concept. Sanderson’s attention to detail in designing his system is very
apparent. The result contributes to a richly detailed fantasy world in which
the violence of volcanism is reflected in the environment as well as in the
This reflection of magic and landscape is not necessarily
new, but Sanderson does it very well. A similar relationship exists in the
Dying Earth series written by Jack Vance, an excellent collection of
stories and novels set on a far-future Earth. In the first of these books, Marizan the Magician (titled The Dying Earth in other editions),
readers learn that the Sun, in its late stages, is failing, monsters roam freely,
and magic has reasserted itself in the land.
The system of magic he develops in those stories is perhaps
the most influential of any magic system in recent history. It is openly
acknowledged that Gary Gygax borrowed heavily from Vance when designing the
rules for magic use in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. The basic
premise of his system is that a wizard prepares spells by memorizing them,
setting a sort of trigger that can be pulled in the recitation of the spell.
Once the spell is cast, the wizard needs to rest or memorize it again before
re-using it. In fact, this type of magic—as it has developed in gaming—is known
informally as Vancian magic.
While the shadow Vance cast on gaming is unquestionable, he
was also a very influential writer for other writers. Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by
George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, is a truly excellent collection that
honors Vance and his creation.
Elsewhere among the major pillars of magic is the word of
power, as used by another extremely influential writer, Ursula K. Le Guin. In
her Earthsea cycle, a series of six novels beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin tells
the story of a precocious young wizard named Ged who, upon demonstrating rare
facility with magic, is sent abroad to attend a school for wizards. This is
nothing like Harry Potter, so don’t think you’ve read this book before. Le
Guin’s writing and world building are second to none, and there is a strength
in her characters that is impossible to deny.
Magic, in these books, revolves around True Speech, a
primordial language that uses the true names of things and beings to gain power
over them. The word of power may not be Le Guin’s invention, but she does it
Naming magic has roots deeper than I am willing to track and
its branches continue to grow. The latest offshoot happens to be from one my
current favorites, the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, which begins
with The Name of the Wind. I know I’ve
mentioned his books in this blog before, but I really can’t resist here.
Rothfuss is a very ardent student of magic systems, and the joy he takes in
developing his own comes through very well.
Rothfuss combines the use of true names with a system of
“sympathetic magic” that imagines a magic user’s ability to establish links
between people and things while harnessing a source of energy to manipulate
Sure, it takes a bit of irrationality to make it all work,
but if magic were explicable through fully rational means, we wouldn’t be talking
about magic. And if we’re not talking about magic, we’re not talking about