Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Do You Believe in Magic?


Oooh, this is fun, is it working?

The e'er delightful SQT has kindly invited me to bore you all to floods of tears with a post comparing various systems of magic in Fantasy books. Gracious, you are no doubt by now thinking, what an awful lot of time he must have on his hands. And you'd be right. But inspiration will not be denied, and thus, inspired by SQT's post on the general subject of magic, I thought I'd get a little more specific. Our starting point is that we're reading Fantasy literature, here, so we have already suspended our disbelief (like, uhhh, as if a Hobbit could kill a troll, Prof. Tolkien!), so we're not talking about how believable an author's system of magic is, but rather how coherent and interesting it is. I think this might take more than just the one post..

Having trouble sleeping? Read on....

Let's start with two of my favorites, Robert Jordan's 'One Power' and Katherine Kerr's 'Dweomer'; both of which rely heavily on the trad-pagan elements of fire, earth, air, water, and spirit. For my money (of which, gentle reader, there is shockingly little) Jordan's is probably the best worked-out system in contemporary fantasy. In his Wheel of Time series, existence depends upon the turning of the (aptly-named) 'Wheel of Time'. The Wheel is turned by the One Power, a power to which certain
humans can have access - an ability called 'Channelling' which is either inborn, or can be learnt. The One Power is divided vertically into male and female halves (saidin and saidar) and horizontally into the five elements. Channellers (known as Aes Sedai) then weave those elements together to perform various acts of magic - so weaving fire and air makes lightening, whilst air, water, and spirit can heal etc. etc. Jordan has managed to sustain this system over 11 (11!!!) exceedingly long books so far, and system only seems to get more internally coherent. He has established rules for Linking (more than one Channeler working together) Stilling/Gentling (loosing the ability to use the One Power), Travelling (teleporting) and a heap of other magic 'tricks' which makes the operation of magic in his world seem all the more solid and convincing. I find the sex-division of the One Power (the male half is violent and agressive, whilst the female half is all about submission and acceptance - igggh!) more than a little silly, but it seems to float RJ's boat. He's also very good at letting his readers know about comparative strengths of his magic-users, without resorting to anything so crude as a top10 chart (though for anyone who wants to know if Nynaeve could take Lanfear, look here!)

Katherine Kerr's 'dweomer' system in her gorgeous Deverry series seems more connected to the Celtic roots of the five elements than Jordan's 'One Power'. In her system, magic users are able to call upon the powers of a variety of 'wildfolk' (sprites for air, goblins for earth, salamaders for fire, sylphs for water, etc.) in order to wield magic. It's considerably less twee than it sounds. Kerr always does a good deal of historical research for her books - obviously not into the actual existence of magic, but into what Medieval (her rough time period equivalent) people believed about the way the world operated, which grounds her magic system in a bloody, gritty reality. The 'dweomer' is a far less world-shatteringly powerful magic than Jordan's 'One Power' - as Kerr says:

"One thing I most definitely did NOT want in my books was the utterly irrational "ZAP! you're dead, orc!" magic you find in gaming systems." With the 'One Power', you could literally end the world, with the 'dweomer', you can work very hard to alter events and nature - but you can never utterly control them. The split between apocalyptic systems of magic, and more localised ones is something people might want to discuss - which do you prefer? The grand or the modest?

That'll do for now - next, though, I'll take a look at two completely different systems of magic: Steve Erikson's 'warrens' in his Malazan Book of the Dead and R. Scott Bakker's variety of systems in The Prince of Nothing.

Can you possibly wait?

24 comments:

SQT said...

I made it about 6 books into the Jordan series before I finally said "when the Hell is this thing going to end?"

So I'm not fully qualified to comment since I never made it any further.

Terry Brooks blatantly ripped of Jordan's ideas, so apparently there are a lot of fans of Jordan's style and world building. I thought the books were great, until I realized he wanted to drag it out forever. But it is a well realized world if nothing else.

Lee said...

Ummm...I couldn't get thru the post, but I did play with the cursor/mace/weapon/things for awhile.

I think I beleive in faeries now. ;)

SQT said...

Oh Lee, you should've been here a few days ago when the cursor was a fairy, you'd have loved it.

Sanni said...

WOW! Your blog is amazing!

SQT said...

Thank you Sanni!

Crunchy Carpets said...

i have never read the jordan books....Brooks I did...neh.....ok...when I was a teen.

I worry that all these writers of VAST epics tend to blur together.

I start to get mixed up.
I read the Feist one's (most of them) and then started the George RR Martin stories and was getting all the characters and stories mixed up.

I should look at those again.

SQT said...

Feist's Magician series is excellent. I really liked Martin at first, but I'm starting to worry he's another author of the endless epic. I think he's on the 4th book and I haven't heard that a conclusion is in sight. I may hold off on reading any more of his until I know it it'll ever end.

ShadowFalcon said...

Its been ages snice I read Robert Jordan, its time to dig them out.

SQT said...

I just realized I said Terry Brooks ripped of Jordan. Sheeesh, I must proof read occassionally.

Terry Goodkind is the rip-off artist.

Hey there, Skippy said...

I was wondering about that! Brooks's 'Sword of Shannara' came out about a decade before Jordan's 'Eye of the World'.

As for George RR Martin, well; is it ever a good sign that the last book he did (c.800 pages) was in fact only half of the book he wanted to do and so he is still working on the second half of it?

Apparently the next Jordan book is definitely the last; things do seem to be coming together (I've stuck with him out of sheer frustraton: I MUST know what happens!), but he;s very ill right now, so n-one's sure when this final installment will be

SQT said...

Wow, Jordan's actually going to end the thing? I really liked the series initially, so maybe if he winds it up I'll go back and read the whole thing. But whew! That's going to be a lot to read.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I went about 10 books into 'The Wheel of Time' before I came to the same conclusion as Sqt, and gave up.

Jon the Intergalactic Gladiator said...

Never touched the series myself. Maybe I'm even less qualified to talk about it.

Anonymous said...

I like Jordan's magic system and it has been rock-solid thru all eleven books. Don't have a problem with the male female split either it's tied into the world, there are fundamental differences between men and women. He never states one is better or stronger than the other, in fact he says many times both are absolutely essential, working both with and against each other.

Another magic system I like is CS Friedman's fae in the Coldfire Trilogy. The fact that it works for everyone in some degree.

Hey there, Skippy said...

Hello Anonymous,

Jordan does actually repeatedly say that men are stronger in the One Power than women (to geek-out; it first comes up when Rand is fighting Rhavin at the end of 'Lord of Chaos' and Nynaeve has taken Moghedian prisoner). He does also say that the best things done with the One Power are done by men and women working together, but still he insists - bizarrely, as this is supposed ot be fantasy - that men are stronger.

Professor Xavier said...

I just read the Darksword trilogy. It was about magic. Two women wrote the series and it was interesting reading the fantasy genre with a more womanly touch.

SQT said...

I also remember Jordan saying that the men were stronger too. Perhaps anonymous is thinking that with the taint the men are either equal to or weaker than the women.

I'm off to amazon now to check out the darksword trilogy-- it sounds familiar, so maybe I've read it...

SQT said...

I thought it was Weis and Hickman that wrote the Darksword trilogy.

Professor, just so you know, Tracy Hickman is a man, so the series ought not to have too much of a feminine viewpoint.

ES2x13 said...

I'm 'anonymous'. I recall him saying that men are stronger in the power than women, generally. What I was referring to was the power itself, not the wielders. What can be done with one half can be done with the other, just in a different manner. I notice that the more "aggresive" powers like fire are easier for men. I think it was a nice touch to add a 'realistic' detail like that.

Hey there, Skippy said...

I'm not sure I'd call it 'realistic', es2x13, I think I'd probably call it 'cliched' or 'sexist' - I mean, I know plenty of aggresive, fiery women. And plenty of very gentle men, too. The whole thing just seems weirdly stereotyped to me.

SQT said...

Skippy

I think I understand where es2x13 is going. Men are typically more aggresive than women, so the powers that reflect that would come more naturally to men. Just as there are exceptions in real life, there are probably exceptions in Jordan's world. (or room for such) A more aggresive woman might find the power of fire easier than her more passive counterparts for example.

ES2x13 said...

Thanks, SQT. That is what I meant. In general. I try to always remember the exceptions.

I think the true sexism in Jordan's books is the women are all shrill shrews (say that 3 times fast).

SQT said...

Nynaeve always drove me nuts. I got so tired of her snits and the pulling on the braid. Does the man actually know any women?

ES2x13 said...

He must not. For such a detailed world he seriously screwed up the interactions between the sexes. I don't know any women as terrible as Nynaeve (some come close) and no guys who would tolerate that crap. Any man would've been on a horse headed for the next time as soon as he could stay in the saddle. Min seems to be the only realistic woman and Egwene's mom.