Everyone welcome guest writer Andrew Lias, for an alternate (weird?) take on magic.
The Weirdness of Magic
In the play Macbeth, the titular character encounters a trio of witches called the Weird Sisters. The first time I heard them called that I assumed it was because they acted and looked strange (I recall that they have beards) and not because they were witches. It turns out that this wasn’t quite correct. The word “weird” comes from “wyrd”, meaning destiny. As such, their “weirdness” comes out of their ability to see the future.
At the same time, however, I wasn’t quite wrong. The ability to see the future was considered solidly in the realm of prophecy and magic. The fact that the sisters had the ability to see and influence the future made them weird in modern sense, and there is no doubt that their strange demeanor and appearance was intended to play on that sense of strangeness and otherworldliness.
I think that modern fantasy often manages to lose that sense of the weird from its depictions of magic. I think that the reason for this can be traced back to the influence of RPG games. When D&D was first developed, the goal was to give players a kind of narrative sandbox that they could play in that was based solidly on 20th century fantasy, with a huge amount of influence by Tolkien as well as Jack Vance and others.
Role playing is a great source of narrative inspiration and I think that authors can benefit from being role players, but it’s important to recognize that the genre has certain limitations built into it. In particular, roleplaying games are rules-based systems. If you’re running a campaign and your wizard wants to do something, you need to know a) can he do it and b) what the results of the attempt are. In practice this usually means consulting charts and character sheets (“Do you know this spell?”) and rolling dice (“Did you successfully cast this spell, and what happened?”). In order for this to work, magic needs to be well codified. It doesn’t hurt that this also gives game publishers a good reason to publish spell supplements.
The problem with this, however, is that it fosters a sense that magic is just technology by another name: if I perform a specific set of actions, I will get a specific set of results. The TV Tropes term for this is Magic A is Magic A, the basic concept being that magic acts as though it is being governed by a consistent set of alternative physical rules. Magical physics, if you will. There is nothing wrong with this interpretation of how magic works, and many authors prefer it because it allows them to avoid magic being treated as a nebulous deus ex machina. I fear, however, that over reliance on this interpretation has had the effect of robbing magic of some of its weirdness.
In classical storytelling, encounters with magic are often transcendent and transformative. Magic doesn’t make sense. It’s an intrusion of the unnatural into the natural world. There is a scene in The Evil Dead where Bruce Campbell is trapped in a cabin while trying to escape from eldritch forces. At one point, everything inside the cabin starts acting bizarrely, with a deer head laughing maniacally and other things jumping around and behaving unnaturally. By the end of the scene, Campbell is reduced to insane laughter. To me, this is a perfect example of an encounter with the Weird.
I think that when we limit ourselves to well defined and consistent theories of magic, we can inadvertently paint ourselves into a corner where the skin-crawling potency of magic is reduced to casting a 3D6 fireball. As I like to do, let me propose an alternative. Let us imagine a world where we take Weird literally. In this world, magic is, literally, weirdness intruding on the normal world. Being a magic user means having an affinity for weirdness.
In this scheme, people who suffer from abnormal mental states are more naturally attuned to magic, as would albino eunuchs, people with extra thumbs, and so on. The weirdness can be further enhanced by adopting strange dress (or tattoos, facial scars, what have you), as well as creating complex and strange rituals.
A sorcerer in such a world is a very unpredictable thing. They’re basically bringing their own distorted worldview into the world that the rest of us experience. Being in the presence of this kind of magic should feel like sitting next to someone on a subway train whose muttering to people that can’t be seen. It should be unnerving and it should follow a logic that defies comprehension. And it should be entirely unpredictable in scope and power.
A story set in this kind of universe is more challenging to write. In a story where magic doesn’t follow the rules, you need to be careful not to make magic the solution to every problem. Shakespeare solved that by making the encounter with the Weird the entire point of the story. Macbeth is set on his course by a twisted prophecy that fulfills itself.
The movie Excalibur is another good example of a story that embraces the Weirdness of magic. Merlin doesn’t use his magic often and, when he does, the consequences cannot be predicted. The sequences where magic is in play reflect this. Magic isn’t treated as a CGI lightshow. When magic is happening, the world gets darker and foggier, the edges between this world and another, deeper world (characterized as The Dragon) become blurred. And the invocation of magic comes with deep consequences precisely because reality is being altered.
I do want to say that this doesn’t mean that well-defined systems of magic don’t have their place in fantasy — I certainly like to think about how magic can be made to work systematically — but we shouldn’t limit ourselves to thinking of magic as just being another tech. A good author shouldn’t be afraid of being Weird.