I think a lot about magic. I think about it, among other reasons, because I’m a reader and writer of fantasy. When people say things like, “You think it happens by magic?”, what they mean by “magic” is something that requires no physical work and doesn’t particularly follow any rules of causality. Why, after all, should a genie appear just because you rub the lamp?
(Actually, I figure that inside a lamp, the sound of rubbing would be quite noticeable. If you were to knock on the lamp, you’d eventually get a genie who was deaf from the echoes. If you asked such a genie for a pair of golden slippers, you might get, instead, pair of olden kippers.)
Still magic does have rules and, odd as it may seem, one of the rules is the literalness, and power, of words. When you make a wish, as everyone knows, you need to be quite careful of how you phrase it because you’ll get not what you thought you asked for, but what you actually asked for. Midas got into trouble because he wanted everything he touched to turn to gold. He didn’t except living things, or food, or water, because he didn’t think things through carefully.
I got to thinking about words and magic, oddly, because I’d been reading something which used the word “men” to mean “people” – or so it seemed. Then there came a point when the writer veered off and said that it was different for women. The use of “men” in the article was imprecise, which bothered me quite a lot from a linguistic point of view.
But then I thought about how this very imprecision has been magically useful. Where a word is imprecise, or has two meanings (sometimes two opposite meanings, like the verb “cleave”), it can be used to good effect to create spells with loopholes in them.
The example that came to mind was from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, when Eowyn and Meriadoc meet the chief Nazgul on the battlefield. He gloats that no man can kill him. Eowyn reveals that she is no man, which she is not, being a woman. Meriadoc, who stabs the Nazgul behind the knee, is also no man in that he is a hobbit, not a human. It’s an elegant double demonstration of the magical use of imprecise language, although I doubt the Nazgul appreciated it.
I want the magic I read, and the magic I write, to have laws and consistency. Where there are laws, there are loopholes, and it is language that makes the loopholes, more often than not.
But why bother? Why not just have hand-waving and “abracadabra” do the job, without thinking of all the problems of consistency and the inner workings of wishes and spells? I feel it’s like writing a mystery and pulling out a solution at the end that your audience couldn’t have guessed. When magic has no rules, no boundaries, no loopholes, no limitations, it’s a sort of a cheat. It’s far less satisfying, and not at all elegant.
Precision in language; it’s not just for lawyers.