The Weirdness of Magic

Everyone welcome guest writer Andrew Lias, for an alternate (weird?) take on magic.


The Weirdness of Magic

Andrew Lias

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.

7 thoughts on “The Weirdness of Magic

  1. I do, by the by, have a pet theory about Harry Potter. I believe that magic drives wizards insane. It’s the easiest way to explain why something like the Tri-Wizards Cup could exist. In a sane world, adults don’t challenge children to participate in potentially fatal games but, to a wizard, there’s nothing strange about this because their brains have been addled by the magic they’ve been wielding. It also explains their truly bizarre security systems and their numerous weird obsessions.

    HP Wizards are, bluntly, all nuts, and poor Harry is as much a victim of this as anyone. The only character who even seems slightly inured to this is Hermione, but even she doesn’t seem to perceive the sheer madness of the Wizarding world.

  2. Looking back on the Harry Potter books, the phenomenon that you describe is what bothered me most about them. The normalcy of the child characters (contrasted with the appropriate weirdness of the adults), coupled with the fact that they were memorizing spells like multiplication tables.

    But to my mind things can get too weird, especially when wizards take center stage. When Peter Jackson gives us his explanation of what Gandalf was up to during The Hobbit, his raw, undefined magic loses me. I didn’t understand what was happening, from a physical perspective, during his battle with Sauron in the second movie. They were…throwing light energy and darkness energy at each other? And that energy sometimes acts like an explosion, and other times more like a giant, invisible hand that forces Gandalf back against the wall? And Sauron is a looping gif? It looked pretty cool at the time, I could follow the action, but I couldn’t for the life of me explain what was happening.

    And you know what a closer examination did to Radagast…

    I feel like Ursula K. LeGuin found the happy medium in A Wizard of Earthsea. The students of her wizarding school do spend time memorizing the true names of things, but once they know these names what they do with them is rather more personal and arcane.

    • I liked the Earthsea take on magic as well. It preserved a mystique rather than reducing it to mere technology. Tolkien does this as well, and for some old school dark fantasy, the Michael Moorcock series about Elric of Melnibone, or the Tanith Lee Tales of a Flat Earth series preserves the fairy tale (or occult) feels of magic without making it procedural.

      I suffer a little of this in Ahmbren, because what I call “Classical Magic, or Wizardry” ends up being a procedural method (they are ‘prepared spells’, similar to what we see in d20-based rpgs).

      I’m going to take Andrew’s advice here, and in future books try to bring back some of the weird. I tend to keep the inexplicables to the magical areas of omens, priests, and gods, as contrasted with wizards (and even the channeling druids and sorcerers, to a degree).

      I will have to make a choice, however, if I want to do more “weird”, then maybe save that for a different world setting other than Ahmbren.

      On another note, bringing back to Andrew’s post… I think Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is a fine example of epic fantasy (a bit of fusion going on with western and modern as well) that preserves the weird with the magic. But then, that is the salt of horror, right?

      • I don’t think that there’s anything fundamentally wrong about procedural magic (hell, I make magic systems in my spare time as a hobby). However, I think that the overall genre has shifted so heavily in that direction that a reintroduction of the weird into magic would be a helpful corrective.

        If you ever get the time (because it’s a big, thick-ass book, so be advised), I’d recommend “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” as a great example of magic as something mystical and strange.

        • Looking back on my series, the procedural magic isn’t described until the 2nd book (Covenant). You briefly see a wizard in Lightfall (the Archmage), but it’s not clear yet in that book how much of his power is spellcasting and how much he’s directly channeling. It gets a bit complicated with the avatars. In Myth and Incarnation (soon to be released) we see more “Classical Magic”, given that two of the four protagonists are wizards. Another is a witch, which is still the same kind of magic. In Ahmbren, a witch is, bluntly-put, a character who isn’t smart enough to be a wizard. Witches can’t grasp the spells on their own, so they rely on faerie familiars to prepare the spells for them.

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