Wednesday, January 17, 2007
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?