© 2005 Ted Scribner

“... this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy.”
- Galadriel, from “The Fellowship of the Ring” by J. R. R. Tolkien.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
- Arthur C. Clarke’s third law.

On a Sunday morning last August, I awoke at Blackheath to find the garden turned to Wonderland by a generous overnight dusting of snow. The sombre greys and greens of the azaleas and rhododendrons had been transformed to glittering white, and the scene looked like a Christmas card. The word “magic” occurred to me then. “Magical” or “like magic” might have been better, as snow in Blackheath is entirely natural, and dictionary definitions of magic rely heavily on “supernatural”.

But “magic” is an emotive rather than a didactic word. It is used more often to evoke feelings than to identify a condition or event. With this aim, it is used to imply meanings outside those given in the dictionary. Advertisers claim it for their furniture polish, ice cream confections and many gadgets that they assure you will dazzle the mind, and one has to suspect that the use of the word pays off. More reasonable is its use in fantasy stories and derivatives such as opera that owe their plots to fantasy or legend.

Being mainly an emotive word it must be used with skill and care when crafting a story. Since, by its nature, magic can be invoked to account for just about any conceivable event, its use must be rigidly controlled by what the author gauges is the limit of the readers’ “suspension of disbelief”. This is usually achieved by confining its use to a very few highly skilled or very gifted artisans, or to make its use so difficult or hazardous that it is only a last resort when non-magic means fail. Magic can be a special skill or power of a particular being (human or otherwise) or a property of some special object.

The indiscriminate use of such an object is limited by giving its magic a narrow scope so that its use is only seldom of benefit, or its power a dark side so that its use may appear to be of unqualified good, but have harmful side effects that become evident later. Sauron’s Ring is in this latter category, and it is a measure of those who come near it, since its ultimately evil nature will in the end defeat anyone who tries to use it for good. Even good magic can cause harm if the user is incompetent. The sorcerer’s apprentice lost control of his spell with disastrous results.

Horror uses magic in a similar way to fantasy but science fiction usually presents it disguised as technology. As is implied by Arthur C. Clarke’s “third law”, if the technology is sufficiently advanced it can’t be distinguished from magic by people whose understanding is insufficiently advanced. Many science fiction stories presuppose a scientific and / or technological development well beyond the present day, and currently impossible concepts (eg faster than light travel, cheap hydrogen fusion power) may as well be considered magic posing as advanced technology, but science fiction readers generally prefer to avoid calling them magic.

Science fiction is typically set in a future of greater understanding via science and greater power via technology. Fantasy is often set in a past where, in a still more ancient past (a “golden age” from which much important heritage has now been lost) great store of knowledge and wisdom abounded. This may have come from a once great race of human or superhuman beings, or from “the gods themselves”. Its heritage was “art” or “skill” rather than science or technology, but a rule analogous to Clarke’s law meant that it was, to all intents and purposes, magic. In “The Lord of the Rings” we have the palantiri, the three elven rings and the craft of stonework that gave us Orthanc and other towers. These are monuments to the past, and their like may never be made again.

Speculative fiction writers are nothing if not resourceful, and variations on the nature and use of magic abound, so that a short article can hardly do the subject justice. As one example, the writing of Larry Niven covers both science fiction and fantasy. Some of his science fiction “inventions” are currently well beyond any known technology and may be inexplicable other than by magic. Yet Niven is noted for “hard” science fiction, and for providing material with which physicists and engineers like to play around, working out methods of operation and calculating operational parameters (eg the physics of Ringworld and the Smoke Ring - see Andrew Love’s essay “Physics in Science Fiction”, currently on my website at )

Yet Larry Niven also writes fantasy, and he has a unique method of explaining magic. Elaborate spells, magical objects and mysterious concoctions exist, but are all qualified by the notion that magic only works with the consumption of an entity called “mana”. There was plenty of mana around many centuries ago, back in the ages where most history was not recorded and folk stories are all that remain. This “mana” has now been used up so that magic no longer works. The analogy with a past “golden age” is apparent.

Magic’s function is to allow the undoable to be done, the unbuildable to be built and the inescapable to be escaped. It is the pumpkin coach that took Cinderella to the ball, the kiss that turned the frog into a prince, the willing belief (or suspension of disbelief) in fairies that saved Tinker Bell’s life. Without it, fantasy would lose much of its charm and those magic casements would just be ordinary windows, looking out on our ordinary world, instead of on “perilous seas in faery lands”. 


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