A Sampling of Systems: Magic in Fantasy 101

Magic: it’s a primordial element of the fantasy genre. Readers and writers of fantasy know that the genre is often stigmatized for its mages, sorcery and magical objects, and inherent protagonist-specific talents. Take my father, for example: you’d think an avid science fiction reader wouldn’t toss sci-fi’s brother, fantasy, into the literary ghetto, right? Wrong. Here’s a guy who wonders, “Why can’t ‘Gary’ Potter just bring this Sirius guy back to life if he’s a wizard?” and “Why can’t this Gandolf man just make them appear outside of Mount Doom?” Well, my friends, after a million heated discussions about the rules and structure of magic with a father who spaces out after half a sentence, I bring my research to you. Behold: the wonder of a selection of magic systems!

Name Magic

This isn’t necessarily men in pointy hats standing on mountains and reciting Latin-sounding incantations just for the heck of it, but it is a magic driven by words,names to be specific. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle series, there’s an original language in which everything is given a true name. If a wizard knows something’s true name he or she can control it. A similar technique is used by Patrick Rothfuss in The Name of the Wind. 

Rune Magic

In rune magic old languages holds power, and that power can be transferred to the physical world when a magic user writes down the symbols that properly represent that language. In Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, the magic of the Elantrians stems from symbols called Aons, which only have power when drawn by the Elantrians themselves. For example, they can draw the basic Aon for healing, for example, then add specified markers to the drawing to limit the healing to certain parts of a targeted body.

Object Magic

We’re all familiar with the the classic use of “magical objects”, but even these have rules. The Ring in The Lord of the Rings only has power when connected with its master, Sauron, and Sauron can only reach his pinnacle of strength when he has the Ring. They are interconnected, which is why Frodo keeps hearing “I seeeeee you” from Sauron when he puts the ring on.

Concept Magic

Concept magic is a more recent addition to the fantasy canon. It came into the canon when a bunch of author-dudes got upset at people who don’t think fantasy is worthwhile—like my father—and so decided to blow their minds with a magic system that’s more a philosophy than anything else. Take Brandon Sanderson, the master of magic systems, who invented Allomancy in the Mistborn trilogy. The Mistborn gain powers from various metals, which must be ingested in order for their power to become accessible. Internal powers, like enhanced senses and strength, come from internal metals and powers that can affect things in the environment. In The Black Prism and The Blinding Knife, Brent Weeks implements a magic system based on colour, called Chromaturgy. People who can manipulate colour are called Drafters: “monochromes” can manipulate one colour, “bicrhomes” two, and “polychromes” manipulate three or more. Drafters also harness light in their usable colours in order to create a substance called “Luxin”. Lost yet? It gets better. Different colours of Luxin can do different things: red is flammable, perfectly-drafted yellow is strong, and orange is slick.

Magic isn’t about doing whatever you want whenever you want. In any good book there are rules, limitations, and structures. Many modern fantasy stories use complex magic systems that can be as intricate as explanations of ‘how-that-thingy-teleports-people’ in our science fiction favourites. So the next time your father or aunt or friend asks you, “Why can’t that Vin girl just fly away from the bad guy?”, stand in opposition and reply, “Well, there are no metals for her to Push or Pull in order to give her momentum, and since her opponent is an Allomancer as well, he could just redirect any coins she tried to throw and totally mess up her trajectory.

– Contributed by Alexandra Balasa

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