The Spell of History: Magic Systems and Real-World Zeitgeists
Systems of magic in fantasy can be as varied as the worlds they inhabit. Some novels feature rigorous, intensely scientific collections of spells, reagents, and forces whose causes and effects can be measured, mapped, and predicted. Others treat magic as whimsical, unpredictable, and fantastic in every sense of the word. In those worlds, a spell can be as likely to blow up in the caster’s face as to go off successfully, or even have a will of its own. And sometimes, magic is just treated as a given. The reader may never learn more about it than he or she absolutely needs to.
Every system of magic is a product of its creator. Robert Jordan gave us saidin and saidar. Margaret Weis and Terry Hickman gave us Solinari, Nuitari, and Lunitari. Brandon Sanderson gave us Allomancy. But systems of magic are also the products of the cultural forces that act on, inspire, or dismay their authors as they create their secondary worlds. And if we do a little digging, we can unearth the zeitgeist that helped give birth to a system of magic, put the two side by side, and learn a bit about how the one can influence the other.
We can start as far back as 1872, when a British professor and minister named George MacDonald penned The Princess and the Goblin, a fairy tale about a princess and a miner’s son outwitting the goblins who live below them. The book went on to influence several of the seminal authors of modern fantasy.
Magic in The Princess and the Goblin falls very much into the “given” category. It’s used very sparingly, and it’s focused around a grandmother who gives the titular princess a magic ring and a ball of thread. Neither the princess nor the reader learns how the magic works. It simply does, and the princess uses it to escape from the goblins when they capture her. Magic, in the world of The Princess and the Goblin, is decidedly unscientific.
When we look into what was going on in Britain in 1872, we get a glimpse at one reason that might be. Despite the Industrial Age revving into full force, the world as mirrored through the pages of British newspapers doesn’t seem to contain a great deal of science either. In 1872, the Empire’s major papers reported on plenty of economic stories and lots of religious ones. They were crawling with foreign affairs pieces, murders, and poisonings. They did not spend much space on science coverage. The Guardian ran a regular short feature called “Art, Literature, and Science” that seems to have focused primarily on art. The Times (of London) covered the occasional scientific expedition or society meeting. That’s about it.
Fast-forward eighty-two years to J. R. R. Tolkien, who began publishing The Lord of the Rings in 1954. There’s a similarly nonscientific system of magic in a very different cultural moment. Magic in Middle-Earth shares a lot in common with the magic of The Princess and the Goblin. It is rarely used and often focused around objects, and while it’s necessary for the story to proceed, the mechanics of the magic itself are not at the heart of it. Gandalf and Saruman occasionally use magic. The One Ring possesses extremely powerful magic. But the particulars of how any of it works are left to the imagination. Magic just is.
1954 was a tumultuous time in Britain. World War II had been over for nine years, but the Cold War was heating up. In the months surrounding the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Times covered a shortage of science teachers, awards for new glider designs, the development of new jetliners and the crashes of old ones, and the advent of nuclear energy and failed attempts to de-escalate the nuclear arms race. On the day the book came out, The Times ran a scathing disapproval of British diplomacy. The world was growing smaller, Britain’s place in it was changing, and you can feel the societal tension crackling in the headlines.
How magic in The Lord of the Rings plays into all that is a little difficult to tease out. One need not reach beyond Tolkien’s feelings on religion and science to find an explanation of his magic. But Tolkien also held strong opinions on the changes taking place in his country, and given the upheaval of 1950s Britain, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to see the simple magic in The Lord of the Rings,or at least its resonance with readers,as a throwback to a simpler age.
Several decades later, the world seems to have grown more interested in the future than the past. On November 12, 1984, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragons of Autumn Twilight came out in the United States, spawning the incredibly successful Dragonlance fantasy franchise. Ronald Reagan had just won a buoyant reelection campaign. Time was running articles on extra-solar planets, plans for the Star Wars missile defense program, and an infant who had received a heart transplanted from a baboon. The advertisements running between the stories (“Introducing the ultimate VCR: The end of an incredible journey”) sported inspirational, glowing imagery and a sense of the magical even within the technological.
Dragonlance, which owes its existence to the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying games, introduced a magic system that was much more scientific than those MacDonald and Tolkien had developed, but still left plenty to the imagination. In the world of Dragonlance, spells take time to memorize and vanish from the caster’s mind once used. They sometimes require reagents. They take a toll on the body, and they’re related to three of the gods in the Dragonlance pantheon.
But that’s about all the reader learns in the early books of the series. How spells do what they do, and exactly what forces are being manipulated, goes unsaid. There’s a great deal of unpredictability and even playfulness to the magic, although it’s better explained than much of what came before it. And the feeling in the news that anything is possible feels well-suited to the lively, anything-might-happen atmosphere of the magic.
A little more than half a decade later, the optimism was slipping. The Soviet Union was cracking and dissipating, communist bloc countries were falling to uprisings, and the American economy was still recovering from the savings and loan crisis. The New York Times covered racial iniquities in schools and terrorist attacks in Peru. And in January 1990, The Eye of the World, the first book in Robert Jordan’s mind-bogglingly massive epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time, was released.
Magic in The Wheel of Time revolves around a mystical font of energy called The One Power, which can be channeled and woven by individuals for various purposes. The results of a given weave of The Power are repeatable, and there’s an element of empirical experimentation present. In one of the later novels in the series, a character discovers how to restore a person’s connection to The One Power by playing with different weaves until she succeeds.
But The Wheel of Time leaves many things unexplained. How exactly The One Power changes from mystical energy into another form is left unexplored, as is why some people can grasp it while others cannot. In The Wheel of Time, magic has measurable, repeatable effects, but it remains incompletely understood, like gravity or the strong force. And in the face of the uncertainty of 1990, it could be that Jordan’s semi-scientific magic system, in which cause and effect made a definite appearance but magic kept an almost spiritual undertone, appealed to readers.
In 2006, the headlines showed a lot of uncertainty again, and the first volume of another fantasy saga, Mistborn: The Final Empire, was released mid-year. In Mistborn, written by Brandon Sanderson, magic revolves around the use of metals. Allomancers can “burn” them in their bodies to gain certain powers. Feruchemists can store magical power in them. And Hemalurgists can steal power from others using spikes driven through the heart. All three types of magic are precise and provide predictable, often physics-driven outcomes, while the metals used in the magic range from the real and common (iron, copper) to the real and uncommon (cadmium, chromium), to the imaginary.
The cultural moment of July 2006 makes for an interesting contrast with Sanderson’s scientific magic. George W. Bush was president. Stem-cell research was on the outs. Headlines and articles in U.S. publications covered flaws in the Dolly sheep-cloning experiments and problems in Einstein’s personal life. One can feel a palpable distrust of, or at least disillusionment with, science in the headlines. In that environment, skeptical readers may have rewarded Sanderson for creating a system they could trust to behave in predictable ways.
Sanderson makes an interesting segue into another genre in which magic and science often intersect: steampunk. He recently jumped 300 years ahead in the Mistborn timeline to write The Alloy of Law, which takes his magic from a more traditional fantasy setting into the middle of a time period roughly analogous to the late 19th century. Though the origins of steampunk reach all the way back to the Victorian Era it so often emulates, the term itself didn’t crop up until the 1980s, and it makes sense to start our investigation of magic in the genre there, with Tim Powers’ seminal novel The Anubis Gates.
In The Anubis Gates, which came out in December 1983, magic and science coexist uneasily. The book’s entire plot hinges around an attempt to bring back ancient Egyptian gods and rejuvenate the dying magic they once fueled. Certain elements of magic in the book involve scientific principles (there’s a reference to a “Newtonian” reaction after the summoning of fire elementals), and others, like magic being negated by a physical connection to the earth, are repeatable and explained.
But the book leaves plenty of magical elements soundly in the realm of the inexplicable, as well. The book’s sorcerers eventually start to gravitate (literally) toward the moon rather than the earth, but the reader never learns why. As in Dragonlance, magic in The Anubis Gates has a deleterious effect on the body, but it’s never quantified. While sorcerers in the book complain about being exhausted by their magic, they always seem to have enough energy left to cast a spell when they need to.
The news in December 1983 was a little less optimistic than that it was when Dragonlance was born a year later, but there was still plenty to feel good about. Coverage of developments in science included new satellite images and improvements in surgical techniques. Advertising imagery was even more futuristic, with car drivers talking to robots and science fiction movies being presented as the best reason to buy a VCR. One article on improved telephone technology ran complete with a picture of a keyboard, a joystick, and an astonished-looking man reflected on a computer screen that showed a wire model of a digital telephone. Given the news and the ads, it seems likely that the zeitgeist that affected Dragonlance had a similar effect on The Anubis Gates.
There’s been a steady stream of steampunk novels, movies, conventions, comic books, and video games since The Anubis Gates, and in 2001 China Miéville, one of the genre’s latest darlings, broke big with the award-winning steampunk/New Weird novel Perdido Street Station. In that book,magic exists side by side with science, and the line between them is often blurry. Both subjects are studied in university, and scientists and magicians often operate in the same fashion with similar results. Magic can be unpredictable, but its results vary in the same ways that results can fluctuate in physics and chemistry when you’re working with imprecise tools. Magicians sometimes use machines to work their magic, and scientists sometimes use magic to improve their machines. In Perdido Street Station, neither the magic nor the science is wholly fleshed out, but neither is completely obscure, and both are subsumed entirely by the overwhelming alienness of the story as a whole.
Early 2001 was a quiet but unsettled time. The U.S. had just been through the polarizing first election of George W. Bush, and its magazines and newspapers were covering the new administration and the pardons Bill Clinton made during his last days in office. In the UK, where Miéville was pursuing a Ph.D., the presses were rolling on an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, train crashes, and political sparring over an upcoming election. The period was an uncomfortable one, full of scandals and disasters. Reading the headlines, you can catch a whiff of the skepticism that was in full force by 2006. It’s little wonder that Miéville’s blurring of science and magic, and the way his characters vacillate between the two while trying to solve their problems, went over well in that environment.
It’s difficult to draw any major conclusions from the juxtaposition of systems of magic and history. It would certainly be as unfair to assume that the creation of a system of magic stemmed completely from its zeitgeist as it would be to claim that it was entirely independent of it. And while readers react undeniably to the magic in fantasy novels, they also fall in love with (or despise) characters, worlds, storytelling, and voice. The interactions between magic and zeitgeist are complicated, to boot. In the uncertainty of the 1950s, readers enjoyed the nonscientific magic of The Lord of the Rings. In the uncertainty of the new millennium, they flocked to the more scientific magic systems of Mistborn and Perdido Street Station.
Trying to look at past cultural moments and the magic that developed in them in a way that would allow us to predict the future will probably always be a lost cause. There are too many variables to take into account. But at the same time, it remains fascinating to think about. The zeitgeist we live in is a tumultuous one. Commercial space travel is edging closer and closer to reality. Earth’s climate grows painfully and inexorably warmer every year. Technology is rapidly worming its way into every moment of our lives. Politics are as fraught and dysfunctional as ever. It will be exciting, at least, to see what magic may grow out of it.