Monday, January 10, 2005

Descriptions of Magic

I finished reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell last night (300 of the 780 pages yesterday, with almost the last 200 in one sitting). I loved it. It makes me want to be a magician. Well, even more than I wanted to before.

Here's what gets to me with books about magic, though: they never seem to explain satisfactorily how the magic actually works. I have some ideas about it, and I believe (with Mom) that there are ways in which magic is still possible, even today, though we think about it so differently in the modern world. So I'm very interested in ideas on how it all might work. J.S. & Mr. N., while excellent in many other respects, was extremely hand-wavy about the actual process of doing magic. Sometimes even the results of the magic were left pretty vague. And really, it was surprising to me how much I liked it, in spite of this frustration. I wanted to know what Strange and Norrell learned from their books, how they performed their spells, how they created new ones. But no luck.

As a different sort of example of what I'm not looking for, there are descriptions of magic such as you can find in the Harry Potter books: words to spells, ingredients to potions, etc. That's getting closer, but a big problem with the HP books in particular is that everything is predicated on the wizard or witch having both an inherent magical ability and a magic wand. I think that sort of a skew is probably incorrect. To my mind, magic would be something anyone could do with proper training and practice, and it would be much more mental, less reliant on props, or even spells.

Here's another kind of magical idea. Several years ago I read Little Big, by John Crowley. I remember more or less nothing of it (so I should probably read it again), except for one quote which I copied into my journal at the time. It described a system of "memory houses," in which you remember things by creating buildings and architecture in your head and filling it with symbols. The interesting part, though is that
it can happen -- if you practice this art -- that the symbols you put next to one another will modify themselves without your choosing it and that when next you call them forth, they may say something new and revelatory to you, something you didn't know you knew. Out of the proper arrangement of what you do know, what you don't know may arise spontaneously.
That sounds less explicitly magic than does most fiction about magicians, but it seems to me like it could open the door to all sorts of things. More importantly, it seems to me like the right kind of foundation for magic. That's where I would start if I were going to try to really figure out how magic works.

Speaking of which, I think there's going to have to be another post on this subject. I've got a lot more to say about what I think magic is and isn't, so I'd like to try to work it out and organize it a bit more.

1 comment:

bellaccione said...

Wow - this hit the nail right on the head ! I've always thought that most contemporary descriptions of magic miss the metaphysical implications of a practitioner's exertion of his will, through magic, on the physical world. I believe such an exercise to take place in the spiritual realm, but even there some rules do apply (like conservation of energy: it has to come from somewhere and go somewhere. For example, shouldn't magicians not become physically tired while performing their craft ?). I'm deeply interested in this as I'm in the middle of writing a novel in which magic plays a big part (an excerpt here: http://yrunn.blogspot.com/2004/12/copperthrow.html).