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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Trope Talk: Magic

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Okay, let's talk about magic. Now, magic as a trope is both nebulous conceptually and highly controversial in certain circles,

so this is gonna be a bit tricky to tackle. A good place to start would probably be defining magic.

Which would be nice if it were possible, but nobody's ever managed a definition that's suitably comprehensive.

So let's skip that and just assume we've all got the general vibe of what

magic is. It's you know, magic. You know it when you see it. Someone slings a fireball or draws a glowing doorway in the air,

it's probably magic. If it's in a fantasy world and glows and isn't a mushroom in a cave, it's probably magic.

Let's just move on. Now in fiction, magic almost always shows up in one of five specific forms,

and these forms are: potions, enchantments and curses, prophecies, magic items, and spells.

Each of these have their own literary uses and associated tropes,

along with originating in different cultural and historical sources,

so let's break them down one at a time. To start off, potions.

This is actually really fun, or at least I think it's really interesting.

Potions are such a staple of fictional magic for the most part

because in the real world magic and medicine have been equated for ages,

in large part because the exact cause of illness was basically unknown for a really long time.

People could put together that certain situations could make you sick, like hanging around dead bodies,

but it wasn't clear why, so magical

explanations were proposed, like malevolent ghosts or spirits or vampires or whatever.

And while physical cures were found and implemented mostly through trial and error,

it was usually thought that addressing the hypothetical magical cause was just as important.

Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt would both supplement physical remedies with rituals or prayers

to address the perceived spiritual cause of an illness alongside its physical symptoms,

so the idea of a physical cure having magical effects is

wildly precedented all over the world, resulting in a long-standing presence in fiction.

Alchemy is also probably partially responsible for the aesthetic of this concept,

due to its focus on distillation and purification of materials perceived to have magical properties,

even though whether the practice of alchemy could be classified as magic or not is kind of debatable.

Potions in fiction obviously have all kinds of effects beyond medicinal or alchemical, a love potion being an old favorite. As a general rule,

drinking a potion causes it to install a temporary or permanent enchantment on whoever drinks it. On that note,

let's talk enchantments. Enchantments and curses are basically treated like the same thing.

There's some sort of magical influence that sticks to somebody, either until the time limit is reached

or some condition is met that breaks the effect.

These are wildly popular in fairy tales, where cursed royalty is so common you wonder

how any politics gets to happen at all.

Sometimes there're transformations where someone's cursed into being a monster or an animal or something.

Sometimes, it's the classic "sleep until someone breaks the curse" version.

Modern fiction also features positive enchantments, but they're not so common in most folklore I'm aware of.

Sometimes you'd have fairy tales where babies would be blessed with positive character traits,

but you didn't get so many babies gifted with +5 resistance to fire.

Curses were also wildly popular in ancient Greece, where lead tablets called Katadesmos

would have curses written on them before being stuck full of nails and buried underground

to attract the attention of chthonic deities willing to execute the actual cursing.

Sometimes they were also used for love charms.

Enchantments and curses are also tied together with the overall concept of sympathetic magic,

where by doing something to an object affiliated with a person, you also affect that person directly.

I'd call it a voodoo doll for the sake of simplicity,

but it's a misleading term since voodoo barely uses sympathetic magic

and sympathetic magic was mostly practiced in medieval Britain,

but you get the picture. Speaking of getting the picture,

let's talk about prophecies.

Prophecies in various forms show up in all kinds of media, ranging from serious life-defining codified things

to just the occasional foreshadowing dream.

Prophecies of all stripes are a favorite from classical literature and folklore,

mostly because there is literally no easier way to foreshadow something

than to explicitly tell the audience it's going to happen.

The Oracle at Delphi is an old classic for this one and she's responsible for a number of prophecy related tropes

including the idea of an oracle being granted visions by a god

and/or having visions of the future by inhaling crazy smoke.

Characters having prophetic dreams is another old classic,

usually happening with zero explanation as to how this character is dreaming of the future

and frequently involving some manner of symbolism obscuring the exact meaning of the dream.

Consider Clytemnestra dreaming of giving birth to a venomous snake before being killed by her son Orestes,

or Penelope dreaming of a flock of geese being slaughtered

shortly before Odysseus returns and kills the suitors.

And in the Mahabharata the antagonist, Karna, has a dream where protagonist Yudhishthira climbs a mountain

of skulls to claim a small cup of nectar, foreshadowing their upcoming civil war with a ridiculous body count that Yudhisthira wins.

Unlike most of the other kinds of magic we've established, prophecies are rarely done on purpose,

but sometimes they've been deliberately constructed and in such cases can function more like curses.

Magic items are another widespread classic with very old mythological roots

Perseus is gifted a helmet that can turn invisible and sandals that let him fly,

the original telling of Aladdin involved a genie stored in a ring,

Kusanagi no Tsurugi could control the winds when swung, and Irish mythology had the

four treasures of the Tuatha dé Dannan,

featuring an invincible spear, a crazy powerful glowing sword,

a cauldron capable of producing however much food you needed, and a stone that would yell when the king sat on it.

Basically household objects with magical properties were

a staple of classical mythology and folklore, and could do just about anything,

but would sometimes feature caveats or limitations,

like a specific number of uses, or only being usable by a specific kind of person or something.

In modern literature not much has changed,

although mostly thanks to Tolkien and Michael Moorcock, evil magic items have gotten very

popular and, thanks to some changes to Arthurian legend, magic swords

specifically capable of choosing kings have gained some serious ground.

And then there's spells. Now the first problem here is that this is a damn nebulous term,

but for this I basically default to the aesthetics of D&D for a rough definition.

A spell is when you wave your hands and something noticeably happens

that is not typically correlated with the waving of hands:

a fireball, a weather change,

the spontaneous appearance of 1d6 die of rats, whatever.

It's magic in its simplest, most boring form: making something weird happen that wouldn't normally happen.

At it's most interesting, this category of magic includes stuff like summoning or spirit control or whatever,

and might include drawing a fancy looking geometric pattern

or magic circles seemingly ripped directly from alchemic texts.

Most of the precedent for this comes from folkloric sorcerer figures with a crazy amount of personal power they used for slinging fireballs or lightning

or whatever, but in modern literature

worlds with magic will often let anyone do spells as long as they know

the magic words or the right shapes to draw. Sometimes spells

only work for a chosen few who have latent power or whatever,

but sometimes it's just a matter of the right words in the right arrangement,

so this generally accepted precedent gives an aspiring fantasy writer a lot to work with.

Bottom line, most magic and fiction is derived initially from

mythological precedents, as well as historically practiced attempts to wrangle the perceived gray area between natural and supernatural.

But this is a lot to deal with, so instead of bundling all of this stuff under the umbrella of magic and leaving it at that,

most fictional magic systems follow specific rule sets that help narrow down what exactly

magic means in this world where magic is real and sets you on fire sometimes.

So let's run down the most common formats for fictional

magic systems and what benefits those models have.

The first of these paradigms is magic as science,

which is frankly an utterly reasonable perspective to hold in a world where

magic is demonstrably a fundamental force of nature.

Science is the study of reality, and in a world where magic is measurably real,

with reproducible experimental evidence and stuff, magic would be science. In these systems

magic and science are considered to be the same thing, or one will be a narrow branch of the other.

This is frequently used to justify magic showing up in a sci-fi setting

but in more urban fantasy or fantastical settings,

it'll usually just be treated as another field of study. Some people go to school for architecture,

some people go to school to summon eldritch horrors from the spaces between realities.

You only declare your major in your second year anyway,

so there's plenty of time to choose.

Bizarrely, even some worlds that seem to treat magic as a science will still distinguish it from science as a

whole, treating it like it's fundamentally divorced from normal sciency stuff, like physics or gravity. Either way,

this magic system will usually have very strict rules in terms of what can and can't be done,

and it might borrow heavily from alchemy

in terms of exact sciency ratios and materials used,

diagrams drawn, or words said dramatically while waving your hands in the air like you just don't care

about the generally accepted fundamental laws of reality.

This magic system is very concrete, although some writers

don't treat it as such and will play fast and loose with the laws of magic science

rather than defining anything too strenuously.

In its most potent form, this magic system has fully fleshed out concrete rules,

like real-world chemistry or physics. But a lot of writers like leaving themselves some leeway,

and won't fully define the rules and limitations of their magic to keep things interestingly ambiguous.

Next up is magic as divine or demonic, a classic straight from the Malleus Maleficarum,

where if you can do magic it must mean you made nice with Satan himself,

or from another perspective, your magic was a gift from a supernatural entity that's generally considered divine.

This really depends on who's making the moral judgement. In this system

magic is a gift from some sort of supernatural entity

and will frequently come with caveats and most importantly, a personality.

Some empowering entities won't let their powers be used in specific ways,

or will take their magic back if they see you misusing it.

Sometimes the specific kind of abilities you get are defined by that empowering entity.

Your fire deity is unlikely to give you plant powers,

your death god probably isn't gonna give you spangly fairy wings, stuff like that.

Sometimes writers will play with this by just having a god of magic in general

that allows magic to exist and empowers magic users for funsies. In this case

the magic is unlikely to have a theme but can still potentially have a personality,

if a magic god is personable enough. The historical precedent

for this kind of system is twofold.

There's obviously a whole witches cavorting with Satan thing, but there's also, well, basically

prayer. Loads of polytheistic religions would feature specific prayers to specific gods

for specific kinds of things,

where which god you asked for help depended both on who you were

and what kind of thing you needed help with. You wouldn't ask

Anubis for help delivering a baby

and you wouldn't ask Isis for help with the heart weighing ceremony.

It's not quite the same as getting empowerment-smacked by a thematically appropriate god,

but it's clear where part of the inspiration came from.

Then there's magic as rare talent, which can overlap with the magic as divine thing,

but just as frequently stands on its own.

In this version people with magic are, for one reason or another,

born with the potential to do magic of some sort, while everyone else

is stuck having to conform to the laws of physics and stuff.

Sometimes the way this works is that people born with magic talent have the potential to

learn all kinds of magic and they've all got access to roughly the same abilities,

albeit with potentially varying levels of personal power or skill,

but some other versions will make it so magically talented people have unique talents,

like someone might be born a seer or

shapeshifter or with pyrokinesis or something. In some stories

the only people born with this kind of ability will be demigods or otherwise only partially human,

but in others it's basically random chance.

Sometimes these models will overlap where you can be born with general magical talent,

specific magic talent, or both.

Anyway, this magic system is one of the looser and easier versions to play with,

since it's basically got one mechanic:

you're either magic or you're not.

This version also has some variants when it comes to magic items specifically:

sometimes magic items have their own magic, like batteries,

and they can be used by anyone, magically talented or not.

Sometimes they don't, and they can only be used by people who are magic.

Also as one final weirdness, this version will frequently have some kind of weirdness filter

where non-magic people are physically incapable of seeing magic,

because this lets the author write an urban fantasy secret world

without having to figure out the effects magic would have naturally had on world history.

Sometimes there's no natural weirdness filter,

but the magic world instead basically has a Men in Black approach

to non-magical people seeing weirdness, and just covers it up wherever it leaks through.

This one usually doesn't make much sense. But, you know, magic.

We'll come back to the issues with this model in more detail later.

The next big one is magic as a force of nature,

where rather than being a thing that pops up in people or gods,

magic is a huge chaotic primordial force, practically oozing out of the planet,

and can only be used by very carefully

channeling it in controlled amounts.

This version of magic is usually pretty temperamental and might have its own will, but if so, it'll be very alien.

What sets this apart from magic as divine is that this version of magic

is bigger than any god, and much less willing to be reasoned with.

Worlds like this might have storms of magic where natural magic is

basically a weather phenomenon that pops up at random, rolls over some unsuspecting town,

and turns everyone involved into trees or something.

Sometimes this version of magic will be treated almost like radioactives:

Potentially very useful if carefully controlled,

but liable to mutate or kill you if you just throw the stuff around willy-nilly. This kind of system

is one of two solutions to the primary problem when writing magic: that if your story has magic,

it runs the risk of being the Swiss Army plot device,

resolving anything and everything that poses a problem in your story. By making magic

a primal incomprehensible force that runs the risk of consuming anything

that uses it carelessly, you handily avoid that particular pitfall

by making magic way too dangerous to be a cure-all for your plot problems.

The other popular solution to this particular problem is the magic as ironclad rule set system

wherein magic has very specific limitations

and cannot be used beyond those parameters, because this puts definite constraints on magic,

and prevents it from being used as the quick fix to any given problem. In this system,

magic is usually restricted into one specific kind of

supernatural ability like the bending in avatar or the system of alchemy used in full metal alchemist.

Practically speaking, this system gives some people the ability to do one weird thing,

and in order to problem solve they have to use that ability creatively,

rather than bending laws of reality to fit what they want to happen.

The magic as ironclad rule set system is the most mundane-feeling of the major magic systems,

since it basically just augments

normal reality rules with one highly specific weirdness.

There are two major difficulties that arise

when writing magic systems: one, magic runs the risk of being too omnipotent if its limitations aren't strictly defined,

and two, integrating a magic system into world building is hard,

and as a result some very entertaining stories with magic systems tend to fall apart

under any sort of sustained scrutiny. That first problem basically manifests

by turning magic into a plot device that removes the stakes of any given situation.

A character died, but it's cool!

Our local mage tapped into the power of love and straight-up resurrected them,

and the only price they paid was a magical hangover the next day.

Oh no, the Dark Lord summoned an army of the dead,

but the team pyromancer had an emotional episode

and immolated all of them.

When the power and scope of magic is allowed to be controlled by the emotional investment of the character doing it,

the stakes of any given situation tend to rapidly drain away,

since once the magic character reaches a certain threshold of upset,

they tend to just fix everything.

That's not even touching on the systems where magic itself has a will of its own, wherein a problem

can be solved by literal divine intervention if it rubs magic the wrong way.

When your world has this potential magic ex machina problem,

you run into two subproblems,

one, if you solve in-story problems with poorly defined magic, your audience will feel cheated,

and two, if you set that precedent and then throw another problem at your characters

but don't use your established magic ex machina to fix it

because you want this problem to have lasting consequences

your audience will be pissed at the lack of internal consistency.

This is related to the problem I talked about in the character deaths video,

where the presence of even one established means of resurrection makes every subsequent

unresurrected character death feel emotionally manipulative and unnecessary.

The world-building difficulty problem is its own can of worms

and usually manifests more with urban fantasy than with high fantasy, since while fantasy allows for the

construction of a world that can basically look like anything,

most urban fantasy aims to create a world that resembles the familiar modern one.

Introducing magic into the equation makes this difficult,

especially if this magic has supposedly always been there.

That's taking alternate history to a whole new level of complicated.

Most urban fantasy worlds try to solve this problem by making magic part of a secret world

where the magical world is kept carefully hidden and separate from the mundane familiar world,

but even this doesn't necessarily fix the problem,

since how the magical world keeps itself secret is a big problem that isn't always adequately addressed

and even if it is, it doesn't explain why members of the magical world wouldn't mess with the mundane world,

or, for example, take sides in historical conflicts or work to prevent atrocities.

This makes even less sense in worlds where magical talent is statistically rare

but pops up at random throughout the population,

because then that forces you to think about uncomfortable stuff

like, "How would this extremely significant historical conflict have gone differently

if even one member of the losing side had the ability to set their enemies on fire with their mind,"

or face the unfortunate implications that your aloof secret magical world noticed the myriad horrible injustices

of normal human history, several of which they likely had family involved in,

and not one of them decided to use their vast cosmic powers to step in and fix it.

Hell, any historical conflict that was predominantly determined by

technological superiority or random illness goes out the window

if both sides have access to magic, aka the ultimate playing field leveler,

which means, to take an easy example, the US in this world should be unrecognizable

considering how many conquests and atrocities it was built on that would have gone completely sideways

if the losing side had access to healing magic, teleportation, mind control, or even a 1d4 Magic Missile spell.

Basically what I'm saying is Ilvermorny makes no sense.

And not to take another explicit pot shot at Harry Potter,

but how can your secret world stay secret for more than like a month

when members of your secret world are randomly being born into

extended families that aren't part of that secret world?

No way in hell is that kid gonna be able to keep a secret from their own muggle parents,

or have a suitable cover story for when their extended

family grills them on their college apps at Thanksgiving dinner.

It just doesn't make sense. When your secret world is based on an entire subsection of the human population

agreeing to keep a secret, you have to remember the old adage:

"Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead and the third one is

cursed to only speak in spoonerisms."

Jeez, this ran long.

Um, so, the bottom line is, world building is hard

and it becomes exponentially harder to do convincingly

when you're trying to build a world that looks identical to our world

while having completely different mechanics. Magic has a lot of narrative potential

but is hard to make sense of or keep from derailing the plot, and there are ways to restrict its use that keep it

from being completely story-breaking

that mostly boil down to putting down hardline rules, or making magic way too dangerous to use lightly.

Also don't think too hard about the Harry Potter universe if you want to be able to still enjoy it.


The Description of Trope Talk: Magic