Magic and Mayhem: Welcome to a World of Pure Imagination
As a fantasy writer, I think it’s important to listen to “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 version of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory every once in a while:
We’ll begin with a spin
Traveling in the world of my creation
What we’ll see will defy explanation
If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There’s nothing to it
According to Peter Ostrum, the actor who played Charlie Bucket, director Mel Stuart didn’t allow the actors to see the famous Chocolate Room set until they filmed the scene, supposedly to ensure that the looks of surprise and wonder were genuine.
I think that scene, and Wonka’s factory in general, is a great microcosm for magic in fantasy. In one sense, it’s meant to be a performance: when an author writes about magic, they want it to appear wondrous, terrifying, or mysterious to their readers. At the same time, making magic systems requires an incredible amount of work behind the scenes to make it all consistent and plausible. Ideally, magic needs to operate like Willy Wonka’s factory: it should create well-ordered miracles.
If you want to apply this Willy Wonka metaphor to fantasy even further, elves are your Oompa Loompas, raw magical energy is chocolate, and the boat ride through that nightmarish tunnel full of centipedes and butchered chicken heads is the story’s underlying theme of cosmic horror.
Okay, the Willy Wonka metaphor is established. Let’s move on.
WHY DOES ANYONE WRITE ABOUT MAGIC?
Let’s get one thing straight: unlike science-fiction, fantasy will never be real. China sure didn’t establish their new SFF award, the Galaxy, to encourage their populace to forge working Rings of Power—they wanted to encourage science-fiction authors create visions of the future.
All the little details of sci-fi, from the communicators to the holographic displays, are slowly turning into reality, while fantasy authors continue to create maps and elaborate magic systems that do nothing but dazzle a certain stripe of nerd. What’s the use of talking about one facet of worldbuilding in a world that doesn’t even exist? Writing about magic in fantasy is, in the view of many people, like writing a dissertation on the use of enjambment in medieval French poetry: an interesting niche, but an ultimately useless thing to spend your time on.
(Sorry to drag you into this, French lit history majors. Send your hate mail to me on Twitter at @DeadmanMu)
Despite all that, I believe in fantasy. I believe in its ability to speak about real things through the language of dreams and nightmares. And magic is a key element of that, the same way flour is a key part of making waffles and four-on-the-floor beats are a key part of disco. To adapt a quote from Alan Watts, magic is really what we talk about when we want to talk about the important things, whether it’s the unknown or the big picture of life. Fantasy, despite a lot of trash, can talk about those things.
Of course, fantasy’s primary purpose remains the same as always: making George R.R. Martin a metric fuckton of cash at every conceivable turn. How much money does a man need to keep himself in button-up shirts and suspenders?
(George R.R. Martin, I’m sorry I insulted your suspenders. Please feel free to send pictures of your suspenders to me @DeadmanMu)
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM MAGIC AND MAYHEM
I’m planning on covering a lot of ground in this column. I’m gonna be looking at magic systems in fantasy lit and real-life anthropology, giving advice on worldbuilding involving magic, and writing up some examples of how to create practical magic systems. But first, I want to establish a couple ground rules.
The first is that magic in fantasy should evoke a kind of reverence in the reader. It should be presented as a source of wonder, terror, or awe, sort of like looking out the window of a plane and seeing a lightning storm below you, or watching a gyroscope effortlessly balance on a piece of string. If you have your own ideas of what’s wonderful or terrifying, insert those instead.
What magic should not be is science. Sure, it can be systematic and organized, but it shouldn’t be analogous to chemistry or physics. If you want to read my full argument over that, read the piece I wrote for Clarkesworld Magazine early last year.
(If you want to argue with me about magic, feel free to send me your arguments @DeadmanMu. I’ll respond within a few days with a rebuttal haiku, after speaking to George and the lit history majors)
In the meantime, if you want my own, private thoughts on fantasy, mathematics, and ergodic literature, go to my blog, the Occult Triangle Lab, because I’m not talking about that stuff here (except when my editor allows).
Okay, that’s it. Stay tuned for the next piece, when I take a look at Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, which deconstruct fantasy magic tropes better than a small team of doctoral students (and with 200% more British humor).