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Low or High?: How to Talk About Magic in Fantasy Settings

May 6, 2012

When I was writing the other day on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, my brother took a moment to remind me that, “There’s more magic in the later books [that you haven’t read yet] than there is in the first.” This was something I was vaguely aware of, but then I asked him if this magic ever becomes powerful and widely available. If, for example, in the fourth book suddenly every court has a wizard that can shoot fireballs.

The answer was no, of course, because magic in Martin’s series is different in scope and purpose than magic is in say The Dresden Files. This notion got me thinking on the nature of magic in various stories and settings, but also a problem that comes up from time to time when people talk about fantastical settings. This is the definition of low magic and high magic, and why it’s something every author should think about more.

Fantasy can be broadly lumped around the scale of how magical its setting is, and it’s easy to have the low and high ends of the scale. Low would mean less magic, and high meaning lots of magic everywhere. However, from various discussions with friends over the years, and my own musings, I often find these definitions vague at best, and troublesome at worst. This is because the heart of magic goes far beyond just how common it is in the world but in how powerful it might be, how it might work, and countless other questions.

Therefore there are a large number of axes in effect when we talk about a fantasy setting.

The first, and most commonly discussed is availability. By Availability, we mean how much interaction does the average person actually have with magic. In a high Availability world perhaps everyone has magical ability to some minor specific extent, or perhaps everyone has magical power to a wide variety of aims. On the other end though, you can have settings where very few or virtually zero people have access to magic. There’s also everything in between.

Availability can mean a lot about a fantasy world, and what expectations people in that world would have. In a novel where everyone’s a spell caster, the idea of casting a magical spell to do something should come easily to a character’s mind. In high Availability worlds, every problem is a nail that can be solved with the hammer that is magic. Perhaps there are differences in refinements of how well you use magic, but ultimately everyone will use magic to deal with an obstacle. Of course, on the opposite side of things, in a world with very low Availability, the expectations on what magic can and can’t do may be extremely out of proportion with the reality of magic.

Of course, it doesn’t matter how many people can do magic, if the Power of magic is very low. This is the other really big axis that matters to magic. Magic can be extremely powerful, capable of brewing storms like a stew, and letting wizards tell the laws of physics to go sit down and shut up. Or it can be very weak, barely able to do much rather than light matches, or give an inkling into someone’s emotional state.

Just playing with these two axes can be a lot of fun. For example, a world where magic is widely available but very low in power is going to look very different from a world where magic is both barely available and still low in power. While the ultimate effects of magic haven’t changed, the expectations regarding magic and magic users will have shifted very greatly. Also, on some levels, the ability for mundane authorities to deal with magic wielders gone amok might be very different across the axes.

Further axes, or at least questions, can arise. For example regardless of Power and Availability, how is magic implemented can be very important. Perhaps magic requires specific tools to be constructed regardless of its power and availability, or maybe it is just thinking about the goals you wish to achieve. Implementation might at first seem to correlate between Power and Availability, but then when you think of settings such as Lord of the Rings where magic is somewhat ill defined in terms of its power, but obviously low in availability things get interesting. In LotR, magical items seem to be far more common than actual spells. The world is littered with magical weapons, items with fantastic qualities, and even food that is better than normal food because of its magical properties. Compare this to Harry Potter where magic is largely performed with wand and incantation, and a large number of artifacts as well. As you can see, magic is very different across various novels and other media.

How magic works in your world will affect the sorts of stories that you tell. For example, in A Song of Ice and Fire, magic is both low in availability and (seemingly) low in power, and has weird implementations. Obviously, this explains why A Song of Ice and Fire is about the politics of the day, while magic is pretty much in the trunk of the car. Settings where magic is low in availability are also worlds where a strong sword arm is more likely to prevail over scholarship, though a hero that is both cunning and strong (such as Conan of Cimmeria) might reign supreme. The more limited magic is, the more both mundane and magical threats become more dangerous.

A sorcerer who is able to bend wolves to his will might be fairly common in settings where magic is common (hell in some settings that might be rare because it’s so weak) but in a low availability/power setting, he could be a danger to a whole kingdom. Wolves are already dangerous killers when they move on instinct, and there’s fewer mundane threats that can be as dangerous to a human than a muscular well-fed wolf. That is, until you consider one nudged to do harm by a human intelligence. Dealing with such a sorcerer might be a cool short story, centered on a cunning and strong hero who will come up with some ingenious plan to beat the villain.

Meanwhile, in settings where magic is highly available and very powerful, the characters will most certainly have a good understanding of magic and access to it. They might be in a race against time against an evil necromancer who is collecting all the moon sapphires so he can open the Gate of Kerosh to create a never ending zombie apocalypse. The heroes may inevitably use some sort of great magical spell of old to stop him, or bind him, or cut him off from his magical power. This is a story that definitely won’t end in a bloody melee, but an intense flinging of spells that come down to a final last-ditch casting.

Of course, all of that is the typical way things can go. The cool things begin when you write/read stories that inject unusual elements into these settings.

A good example is Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera where magic is extremely common, very powerful, easy to implement, and basically pushes itself up to eleven in every category that makes up high magic. It’s a world where men can fly, cities can become volcanoes, and people who specialize in certain magic are particularly long lived (two to three times the average lifespan). Yet, what drives the story isn’t some evil wizard or the like, but politics and interactions between the magical Alerans and the other sentient species that live on their world.

The important part to understanding these concepts, that every fantasy fan should already be familiar with, is of course to subvert them. Or, when you don’t want to subvert them, to at least take the time and really understand where your setting falls in every category, and then understand the mindset of the average person before constructing other characters, especially the main character.

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2 Comments
  1. There actually is a lot of real magic. A priestess to the “Lord of Light” births an assassin made of shadows in book 2. There are also shape shifting assassins of the “god of many faces” that you meet in books 4/5. There are zombies, tree-based symbiotes that let you see the past. etc.

  2. This still strikes me as vague plot-wavy magic. More importantly it sounds limited, perhaps I’ve underestimated the power level but to me it’s starting to sound similar to Lord of the Rings, low availability, mid-to-high power, weird implementations, and beings that are just motherfucking magic.

    Even the average Maester is like “Holy fuck balls, what is this magic?”

    I’m reminded of the Wights in A Game of Thrones. Wights are clearly magical constructs, created by maybe The Others (supernatural beings) or some other magical beings. Yet, even the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and his squire are like, “Oh Gods! Burn it with fire, everything dies in fire, right?!”

    There are arguments to be made for the power level of magic in Martin’s World, especially given what may be revealed in later books and the books still to come, but I think availability is pretty squarely in the low end.

    Compare A Song of Ice and Fire to a world where magic is on the average level of accessible like L.E. Modesitt’s Saga of Recluce. Every major state has mages as part of their armies and police force, with wizards a regular part of court politics, and entire academies dedicated to the study of magic. Books are readily available on the subject to those that are interested and capable, granted the books are…frustrating and unclear, but they’re still there. That’s a mid-level magic world, nothing in comparison to Codex Alera where it’s like, “Oh you need a 100ft tall wall with battlements and spikes?!” 10 Dudes crack their knuckles and blammo 100ft tall wall. Lower in power maybe than Martin’s work, but higher in accessibility is Card’s Alvin Maker, where people are born with the ability to just be really good at stuff, and some have supernatural abilities beyond that.

    This is becoming a speech…

    But the point was not to make an argument especially about A Song of Ice and Fire, but in how we conceptualize magic as a whole. I dislike the assumption that low magic isn’t “real” magic for example. I never suggest that the magic in A Song of Ice and Fire, isn’t magic. Hell, Lembas bread in Lord of the Rings is pretty damn magical when you think about it. A marching song that revitalizes the men at the high point of a forced march as if they had just woken up from a fit sleep would be a very subtle, low magic, that actually might require all the men to be singing. That would be some pretty powerful magic, but very subtle, some might not even say it was magic. It’s still “real,” magic though, even though it’s not flashy or cool. Magic isn’t just fireballs and prophecies, it can be subtle and slight while still powerful. This why you have to think beyond just power and availability, sometimes implementation and let’s say visibility or flashiness is important to think on too.

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