The words of magic

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.

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4 Responses to The words of magic

  1. sylvietoldyouso says:

    Hi there, really interesting post, thank you for sharing. I recently sat down to (try and) write a story based on a completely abstract idea I had involving an owl, a wood and some magic..! I agree that magic needs some parameters in order to make sense to the point of the story .. I’d like to think that there is still a place for the ‘abracadabra’ kind of magic somewhere, but your post has got me thinking … so, thanks..!

  2. ecreith says:

    You’re welcome. I think there’s a bit of room for “abracadabra” as well. It’s just that effortless magic is less satisfying. I mean, if you’re going to pull someone’s chestnuts out of the fire with “abracadabra” at the end, why didn’t you just do it at the beginning and save all the fooferaw?
    An owl, a wood and some magic…sounds interesting! Now I’m curious.

  3. widdershins says:

    ‘Abracadabra’ magic has rules.

    First and foremost, the practitioner has to know the word, and be able to say it correctly. But first they have to clearly visualise what ‘Abraca’ they wish to turn into ‘Dabra’ and thoroughly research all possible future outcomes These four things alone may take a lifetime to master.

    Then there is the required flourish to send the magic released by the word to its destination. It’s usually made with whichever hand is dominant but some schools of thought prefer the ‘magic wand’ approach. Still, it has to be a movement through at least two of the five possible physical axies (plural of axis?) of orientation. ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’, ‘Time’ and “Distance’.

    This is also an all-or-nothing kind of magic. The practitioner doesn’t get the usual ‘three second recall’ option. Once its done, its final.

    These are just a few that come immediately to mind.

  4. You and I have a different understanding of “abracadabra”. I’ve used it as a reduction spell, breaking off letters as I go to diminish the effects of – for example – disease.

    “The usual three-second recall” is not familiar to me, either. I was taught that you needed to think very carefully about magic, because when you send it, it’s gone.

    Interesting differences in the practice.

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