Magic as Mystery

You probably know about Clarke’s Third Law, which states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I would like to propose a related theorem, but one with a very different meaning:

Any sufficiently rule-bound magical system is indistinguishable from technology.

I’m going to explain what I mean by this, but be warned, it’s a long and convoluted post, one that makes many broad statements but does a poorer job of backing them up (though I believe every one of them).


Consider any secondary world that has elements that would be described as “magical,” “mystical,” “faerie.” What we mean by these words, I posit, is incompatible with a system of pure cause-and-effect, codified rules, where A=>B is all you need to know about A and B. So any system of magic that is described as a system of cause-and-effect rules will not be truly magical, mystical, wonderful, faerie; it will come across, to the reader, as merely a technology specific to this universe. And while there are interesting things we can do with that, it’s not what magic is.

There are two things I’m trying to do here. The first, is to define a word – magic – that i believe has been misdefined. (From here on out, all mis-uses of magic will be in quotes – “magic” – and all valid uses will not.) To achieve that, I’m going to elaborate on two examples of fantasy universes, and explaining in what senses they are and are not magical. After that, I’m going to explain why true magic is probably best off being left mysterious.

First, for the two examples. Consider the universe of Harry Potter (much of what follows might not make sense if you haven’t read the books, but, you probably have, so I press onward). The so-called “magical” elements of that universe can, I believe, be divided into three categories: the whimsical, the scientific, and the truly magical.

The whimsical aspects are all of the oddities that Rowling throws in to make the universe seem more outlandish: the Every Flavored Beans, the pictures that move, the Monster Book of Monsters, etc. This stuff seems worthless to me, except for comedic value; it adds little to the magic of the setting, and completely destroys its believability. She includes it to make HP a children’s book; I think that was a mistake.

The scientific aspects are the rules for how “magic” works in the HP universe: some people are “magical,” some aren’t, and it is passed on genetically; if one is “magical,” one can say words and cause certain things to happen, each set of words with a specific result tied to it, including effects such as levitation, transformation, making areas larger on the inside than outside, mind-control, torture, death, etc; there are many more natural species than were previously realized, such as dragons, hippogryphs, leprechauns, mermaids, and some of these have powers that are not physically explicable but which follow a set of “magical” rules nonetheless.

These aspects are interesting and not out-of-place in a magical literary universe, but they’re not what’s essential to magic, and I often think they’re overused. It’s possible to have too much of this stuff. And if some of this is going to be used, the author has to be careful to actually follow the rules to their logical conclusions (one of my major complaints with HP is that the Weasleys shouldn’t be poor).

The truly magical aspects are the ones that don’t seem exactly rule-bound, but not illogical either; they follow a set of not-exactly-rules and are integral to the moral fabric of the universe. The best examples of this in the HP universe are: the wands, how each wizard is “meant” for a certain wand; the Sorting Hat, Goblet of Fire, and other such mystical selection processes; the Higher Magic (or whatever Rowling called it) that protected Harry through his mother’s love; whatever the hell it is that happened when Harry and Voldemort’s wands clashed in the graveyard in book 4; how created a Horcrux “tears your soul in two”, whatever that means.

These truly magical elements, I believe, all stand out when reading the books; they seem somehow more magical than the “magic” itself, more magical than “say Expelliarmus => their wand flies out of their hand.” That’s not magic, that’s technology.

That’s it for Harry Potter for now. We move on to considering the Star Wars universe. There are three different “magical” elements of the SW universe I want to talk about, though they don’t really correlate with the above three. These are, the actual technology, the Force used as a tool, and the Force as a moral, uh, force.

The actual technology is, according the Clarke’s third law, “magic”; they have laser guns, FTL travel, protective energy shields, etc. These are functionally little different from Avada Kedavra, apparating, and protective charms. Clarke says this is because the technology is so fanciful as to be essentially “magic”; perhaps so, I say, but another way of looking at it is that the “magic” in HP is just an attempt to cloak technology in fantastical trappings. The flavor of a universe with laser guns is different from that of a universe with Avada Kedavra, but that’s the same thing as saying a universe with swords has a different flavor than a universe with light sabers. There’s nothing metaphysically different about them. Technology is “magic”; “magic” is technology; rules of cause-and-effect are rules of cause-and-effect, however you disguise them.

The Force used as a tool, then, is functionally the same as HP universe “magic,” or SW universe technology; it’s just another way of getting stuff done. Does the fact that it’s restricted to some people mean it’s magical? Does the fact that only some people in HP universe have “magic” mean it’s magical? I don’t see why. This isn’t to say you couldn’t write interesting things about a universe where some people had telekenesis and some didn’t, but there’s nothing particularly magical about the setting.

But then we consider the Force as a moral, uh, force. The Light Side and the Dark Side, the Force as somehow in all living beings (ignoring that mitichlorian nonsense), the business about one coming who will balance the Force which is currently unbalanced, etc. There does seem to me something magical about that.

I’m going to try to cast in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics. Things have four kinds of causes: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, the final cause. (If you don’t know what these are already, read the Metaphysics, it would take way too long to explain them here.) The rule-bound “magic” systems I was talking about are cast entirely in terms of the material and efficient causes; the actual magic, as I’ve described it, seems related to the formal and, even more so, to the final cause.

So now, for why magic ought to be a mystery. This question, I believe, comes down to ‘why can’t actual magic be integrated into a “magical”/technological system that humans manipulate?’ Phrased like that, it answers itself. If humans control it or understand it, becomes a tool, a system of cause-and-effect; it is no longer magical. The wands destined for their owners, the Hat and the Goblet, the Love magic, the Force as moral arbiter, are all things we can’t really wrap our heads around.

And they would (except for the wands destined for their owners) work just as well if the technological/”magical” trappings of their universes – the spells, the light-sabers, etc – were removed entirely. I find that rather interesting.

True magicians, I think, are in the end never characters we can relate to or understand, not just by how they are presented to us, but by their very nature. Gandalf is the classic example of a fantasy literature wizard; what most people forget is that he’s not even human, or elvish; he’s one of the Istari, essentially an angel. It is that distance that makes us accept his ability to seemingly understand magic when we ourselves cannot.

There’s a reason that witches, warlocks, sprites, and pixies are never the main characters of fairy-tales. The magical, mystical, wonderful, Faerie is that which is beyond, that which we cannot understand, that which is mysterious; by trying to make it immediate, we destroy it.

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One Response to Magic as Mystery

  1. Incidentally, I am completely aware of the irony of my claiming to dislike Harry Potter while talking about it constantly. (There are eight posts on this blog with the words Harry Potter in them, many of them of Epic Length ™.) What I’m doing is using it as a *cautionary* example, because it’s immensely popular, succeeds in some ways, and yet is seriously flawed in others.

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