Magic as Fantasy’s Pseudo-science


George R.R. Martin, currently over at the Helsinki Worldcon, has offered the following opinion on magic in fantasy literature: “Magic should always be dangerous and unknowable, not a pseudo-science.”

This is currently being cheerfully tweeted and re-tweeted all over the place.

Now, my immediate reaction is a knee-jerk one: I dislike Martin’s wording. It appears he is expressing a personal preference (magic as being mysterious) in a way that makes it some sort of rule. Certainly, I would prefer it if Martin had couched his statement as an opinion instead – “I think magic should be..”, “I like magic to be…”, and so on.

But let’s give Martin the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that the “should” in that line is the expression of subjective desire, not a “shall” statement of how to write fantasy.

Ignoring the knee-jerk annoyance factor, I still disagree – not because I am committed to a pseudo-scientific view of magic, but because it is the sort of thing that really depends on setting. As you probably know, J.R.R. Tolkien is my favourite author; Tolkien is notable for treating magic as something very rare and mysterious. That doesn’t mean I am inherently tied to believing that magic should be written like that. Wise Phuul treats necromancy as a “mind-control” type of pseudo-science, to the point where, if you squint, there is a case for treating the book as a variant of science-fiction.

Now, the arguments on both sides are well-known. There is the school of thought that a magic that loses its mystery is no longer magic. To which the counter-argument goes “Is that a problem?” – magic is just a manipulation of the world according to different physics. Clarke’s Third Law, and all that.

Alternatively, there is the school of thought that advocates a more systematic approach – magic needs limits on what it can do, lest it come across as a deus ex machina. True, but is there any particular need for those limits to be made explicit in the text? We don’t need to know the gory details of Gandalf’s spell-casting to know that he is less powerful than Sauron.

Thinking about this a bit more, I would refine my view that “it depends on setting”:

  • If magic is used to resolve the plot, it should strike a balancing act. Yes, you want to avoid deus ex machinae (Sanderson’s First Law of Magic), but if it is too well-explained, you run the risk of tension being sapped from the scene. Rather than the reader wondering how on earth this obstacle is going to be overcome (and then surprised and delighted when it is), the reader ends up sitting on our protagonist’s shoulder, second-guessing and tut-tutting, as though watching a sort of literary chess game.
  • Relating to the above, one can skirt close to deus ex machina without actually going over the cliff, so long as it feels consistent with the spirit of the setting. Tolkien never explicitly establishes the limits of Elven singing, yet he gets away with Lúthien sending Morgoth to sleep (or driving Mandos to pity) – because he has established the story as being mythic, he can have mythic things happen.
  • Further relating to the above, the sort of thing Sanderson warns about – unexplained magic acting for the convenience of the author – can become apparent when magic shifts from the background to having real plot significance. Harry Potter worked much better before Rowling started to rules-lawyer things after the fact in order to suit her authorial needs.
  • If magic is used to resolve the plot, it should still be secondary to actual character conflict. People don’t watch court-room dramas for the excitement of seeing a legal question being resolved, they watch it for the humans struggling to get something they want. There is a reason TV and literature alike often play fast and loose with the mechanics of law, and even the most perfect and elegant of magic systems has to bow before the rules of narrative.
  • It is easier to keep magic as a mysterious background force when your protagonists are non-magical themselves. When you are seeing things through the eyes of Frodo Baggins, Sam Gamgee, or even Aragorn, Gandalf’s activities are a thing removed from their understanding. In Martin’s work, the chief magic-using Point of View character is Bran Stark, who learns and grows in skill throughout his story – he may use magic, but he is not in a position to understand the finer details, and for all his talent, he is only one character. By contrast, the nature and setting of Harry Potter by necessity turn magic into a science once the whimsy dissipates. It is literally the only academic subject around, and everyone uses it (though Rowling is hardly rigorous about it, which causes problems later).
  • A more systemised and scientific magic system creates more demands on the world-building. If these strange forces can be understood, they can be harnessed, and if they can be harnessed, they will have inevitable effects on the way a fantastical society develops. Martin’s Westeros does not lend itself to an abundance of magic, since it would deviate too strongly from the fifteenth Century English model. As it is, Martin’s neglect of how variable seasons would impact his setting is a weakness of his world-building. Magic as a mysterious thing ties in with the sort of story Martin wants to tell – which is fine for him, but not everyone wants to tell the same sort of story.
  • While Rowling provides a cautionary tale of trying to turn whimsical magic into something more rule-bound, magic can exist as both a mysterious force and as a pseudo-science in the same setting – as per Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller books. Naming and Sympathy are both clearly magic, yet the books have their cake and eat it too, with the former being the unknowable quantity, and the latter being a sort of magical engineering. Rothfuss’ trick? The two systems are entirely distinct branches of magic, rather than one turning into the other.

All this is before we consider Martin’s implicit assumption that mysterious magic is somehow more dangerous than the more pseudo-scientific variety. Knowing what the risks are beforehand does not, to my mind, mean safety – especially if the power associated with the magic comes at an inherent price (I am thinking Holly Lisle’s Secret Texts trilogy here). There is also the point that real-world magical traditions did actually end up going down the pseudo-science route, to the point where the likes of Isaac Newton did not distinguish between his occult/biblical prophecy/alchemy work, and his work on actual mathematics and physics – and in the case of his ideas about gravitation, one may have influenced the other.

So, yes, I think even if we give Martin the benefit of the doubt on his statement, there is a fair bit to unpack. As always with writing, I think it matters less about the underlying dogma, and more about the needs of each individual setting, and how the author goes about attending to those needs.

One thought on “Magic as Fantasy’s Pseudo-science

  1. Pingback: Mages as Main Characters: A Comment on a Reddit Post. | A Phuulish Fellow

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