I have been reading some interesting fantasy novels recently by Rabia Gale: novels which blur the line between magic and technology (four stars for Mourning Cloak, by the way). That prompted me to ask: where does that line actually fall? Arthur C. Clarke once said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So is there a line at all? What is magic, exactly?
One might perhaps define magic as the manipulation of the world using forces other than those commonly recognised. Exactly what that involves depends on where one thinks magic comes from.
(A): One might consider magical abilities to be divine gifts. God gives Moses the ability to carve a path through the Red Sea, for example. In practice, this category of activity is not normally called “magic,” and is more likely to go under the name of “miracle.” Generally, it is understood as divine manipulation of the world through a person, rather than by that person.
(B): The opposite scenario is where the magical gifts come from some darker power. In Navajo mythology, for example, witches gain their power by committing intrinsically evil acts, such as murder or incest. Obviously, magic of this kind must be avoided. Indeed, the Navajo prefer not even to speak of it. However, some form of this kind of magic is often used by the “bad guys” in fantasy.
(C): A third option is that some individuals are simply born with magical abilities. This is distinguished from case (A) in that there is normally an entire class of magical people or beings, and these people or beings have some form of free will regarding the use of their abilities. In the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Maiar (angels) and the Valar (archangels) fall into this category, as do the elves. Free will implies that some of these entities turn to evil: in the works of Tolkien, this includes Melkor or Morgoth (one of the Valar), and Saruman, Sauron, and the Balrogs (all Maiar of various kinds).
This approach to magic is a staple of young adult (YA) literature, in part because it encourages adolescents to think about the talents that they may have been born with, and how those talents will (or should) influence the trajectory of their lives. One thinks of Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, for example, or of Pug in Feist’s Magician. Indeed, it is not only young adults who find this theme compelling.
(D): The fourth approach to magic is that it is a totally natural part of the universe. Anyone can learn to manipulate the universe with magic, just as one can learn electrochemistry or thermodynamics. Approached in this way, magic simply becomes a kind of fictional science.
There is also a combination of (C) and (D) where magic requires a combination of study and natural talent. This naturally leads to a “school for mages” novel, which can be a little dull (in my opinion, at least), unless the author finds a way of extracting the protagonist from the school (as in A Wizard of Earthsea), or of creatively subverting the whole idea of the school (as in The Bards of Bone Plain).
Human magic in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien seems in most cases to be a combination of (B) and (D). When human beings attempt to seize what comes naturally to elves, the outcome seems to inevitably be one of darkness and shadow, with the Nazgûl (Ringwraiths) being the extreme example. There is a parable here which applies also to technology, much like Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and his other cautionary tales. Any sufficiently misguided technology, it seems, is indistinguishable from black magic.