Firstly, I want to get on the same page about how we use an important word: MAGIC. I think we’ve gotten into a habit of treating it as synonymous with “fantasy.” Like, “fantastic” = “magical,” e.g. something like a unicorn that we could call a “fantastic creature” could also be called a “magical creature.” This isn’t a wrong way to use the word, but it’s distinguishable from another way that I feel used to be more common. An older definition that was more limited and yet nuanced.
Fantasy is anything impossible in reality but possible through the imagination. So all magic is fantastic. BUT...
Magic itself is an activity. It’s something that people learn and do. Magic is performed. Not all fantasy is magic. A floating continent in the sky isn’t magic. Unless it’s floating because someone cast a spell to make it do that.
I think the conflation comes from a couple ways in which we’ve casually used the concept of magic. For one thing, a lot of the time within a work of fantasy fiction, many of the fantastic elements can be attributed to a character performing magic. So, like, in Fantasia, when Mickey brings those brooms to life, we can say that they were magical brooms. When Elsa created Olaf in Frozen, she straight up magic’d him into existence. A dragon might have originally been a serpent or salamander but got enchanted by some magician into its wicked form. A lot of fantastic things in fantasy are attributable to magic, so we start to conflate them.
Another, more meta reasoning, is that even when the fantastic isn’t caused by magic in-universe, in a truer sense it’s always caused by magic. It’s caused by the magic that an artist performs in order to bring the work to life. When you’re a kid and you see something impossible in a movie, like a flying horse, you are told that it’s possible through “movie magic.” This is literally true. People who make art are performing magic, so all fantasy is magical in a meta sense. A book review might credit the author with “taking the reader on a magical experience” as a way to compliment the performance of writing.
This is not the only way to think of the word, and definitely not the best way. That being said, for this piece I am going to talk about magic as an activity performed. The older sense of the word.
What is Magic?
The modern conception of magic has been diluted and left a bit too nebulous. People just think of it in the most abstract sense. When a work of fantasy has “magic” in it, that’s just a fictional, uh… “force” of power that people can control to make… whatever happen, I guess. It’s barely even a functioning definition, meaning that any operable understanding of magic needs to be informed by more specific rules and qualities within that unique story as decided by the artist. As though magic can only be defined on a case by case basis. You may notice that this comes from the very conflation I noted before: fantasy is anything impossible in reality but possible through the imagination, and so equating that to magic gives it an unworkable-y broad definition.
But it was not always so. Historically, there has been a fairly consistent understanding of what exactly “magic” entails, common to nearly all human cultures throughout time. It’s still a very flexible definition that can accommodate all the many differing specificities and details of each culture, but it’s precise enough that anthropologists can confidently identify exactly what is and isn’t magic in any culture they look at. Here is that definition:
Magic is basically just fancy knowledge. Like, the extreme dramatization of “knowing stuff.” Anything in human culture that can be known but which is even somewhat exclusive to know will be characterized as magic by the not-knowers. When depicted in fantasy fiction, magic is just the rhetorical stylization of knowledge. This is an important definition I’ll be referring back to. Put a pin in it.
I’ve referenced this quote by Alan Moore before, because it’s very important to me. Some of the key points to support this definition of magic:
- Anyone in earlier societies considered a mage was nearly always also one of the few literate people around;
- From this, all the language about magic is oftentimes the same language used to describe writing. Grimoire is just an antiquated predecessor to “grammar,” to cast a spell is simply “to spell,” ie. “spelling a word,” and magic was often referred to as “the Art” across many cultures because all magic simply is whatever artistic forms a culture is enraptured by.
- The relative perceived power of magic reflects an appreciation for people who can display insight, connections, and complexity, all unlocked by advanced knowledge,
- SO much occult is literally just “manufactured knowledge,” shit that people have made up for the express purpose of being exclusive to know about and thus derive power from.
In older societies, this was not the case. Just take the literacy thing, for instance. Try to imagine you live in a culture in which, not only are you illiterate, but 99% of your community is illiterate and you never really have to deal with writing as a thing. The contrast of someone who is literate is then made much more drastic, more dramatic. It really would be something you could only conceive of as supernatural. If the concept of writing is foreign to you, then for a person to recite, verbatim, the same words you heard your grandfather tell you 15 years ago, before his death, it may seem like goddamn time travel or spiritual possession or something.
“How did they know what Pop-pop said to me?? Those words have been burnt into my memory for 15 years and they just said them exactly! Are they reading my mind?? Is Pop-pop’s spirit possessing them??”
Knowledge can be so incredible and wondrous to the not-knower that the actual things known are themselves only secondary to the very act of knowing itself. This is why mages are framed more like they command a powerful force: it has more to do with dramatizing that they know things. Your super exclusive expertise could be in something pretty mundane, like tying knots. But even if that’s it, your knot tying will be stylized as rope sorcery and your fantasy equivalent (rope wizard!) will be depicted conjuring a rope of endless length, commanding it to knot itself into any shape imaginable, forming itself into a dragon or some shit, at your mere gesture. So I ask you...
What if Other Human Activities Were Treated the Same?
I previously said that when depicted in fantasy fiction, magic is just the rhetorical stylization of knowledge. We can stylize anything for the purposes of rhetorical ends, though. And in this case, the specific stylization is to take a simply rare human activity and dramatize it into something supernatural, to turn knowledge into MAGIC. There has occurred to me another potential human activity for which the same logic could be applied.
Violence. Specifically, the trained use of physical violence.
Sure, yes, anyone can commit acts of violence. All it took Cain to kill Abel was a rock and murderous intent. But the same could be said of many things that could fall within “magic.” No, I think we can fairly say that there is a world of difference between the common person and those who are a violently capable. Anyone who has ever been in a real fight in their life will be hit by the reality of violence pretty fucking quick: you are not cut out for winning fights. This is true of about 99% of us. Any daydreaming you’ve done where you totally whoop some ass is a bad, bad, bad fantasy. Effective, capable violence is extremely difficult to perform. There is a hard line between the knowers and the not-knowers, and in societies for which the knowledge of performing violence is pretty exclusive, it can come across as having the same wondrous qualities as magic. That a person performing violence may be credibly characterized as “commanding a force of nature” when they swing a sword. That reality will slightly bend to accommodate their skill, so otherworldly is the power of violence.
I would love if I could have a good fantasy name for this interpretation of violence, the way that “knowledge” gets renamed as “magic” when seen through this lens. Maybe we call it “action.”
For one thing, I can tell you that they’ve already been doing this for awhile in Japan. Think about it. Nearly every action anime will treat physical violence a lot like magic. Stylized into impossible feats that make no sense but are impressive, dramatized and regarded as an exclusive, learned skill, and accords to its user a special status and oftentimes even a title. If it ever is framed within some system of understanding, it’s an artificial one that retains its wonder instead of just clarifying things. Different movements in battle are designated as “fight moves” and given specific names, maybe called “techniques.”
We can compare these directly. So, like, magic represents knowledge, but in a work of fantasy that spells out the exact details of how magic works, it’s still just made up craziness. Same thing with anime fight moves. It’s literally the same as categorizing and naming magic spells.
While I’m not a huge fan of action anime (actually in large part for these very specific qualities), it’s a great example of how this idea might be applied. I would seek to do this in a less on-the-nose and artificial-feeling fashion. The most subtle thing I can imagine is for the flow of violence to conform to dramatic pacing instead of anything especially strategic or sensible. This was, at one point, how lightsaber-fighting was treated in the Star Wars franchise. If ever you’ve been confused why some people defend so strongly the fight between Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader in the original Star Wars, its because you weren’t reading it with the correct lens. It’s not meant to be a real, honest sword fight where they each gave it the old college try. It’s basically a wizard duel, more ceremonial and mysterious than a normal, strictly pragmatic fight between us peasants. There is an underlying command over some aspect of nature that’s truly at contest here.
I mean, you could also argue that the lightsaber fencing from the Star Wars Prequels is also treating violence like magic, just in another direction. It does the same thing, but instead of stylizing violence into mysticism it takes the approach of stylistically exaggerating fight moves into absurd feats of impractical flair.
I also feel like violence has the same potential for moralization as knowledge. It is popular to characterize magic as a corrupting force, especially in contrast to honest and pure beefy action dudes like Conan. Whatever moralization people apply to knowledge is extended to magic. So if people are skeptical of knowledge and science and whatnot and think of it as hubris, then magic will also be perceived as hubris. Could you not then reverse it to characterize magic as a force for progress and the betterment of humanity (I’m kind of a scientific idealist, if that wasn’t clear) where instead, “action” is a force used by those who mean to harm humanity or puts its users at risk of being corrupted and mutated? I would love to see a work of fantasy fiction that depicts characters who use skillful violence becoming increasingly warped and degraded. Conversely, I think that lots of works already moralize violence to be a good thing, by depicting the skilled use of violence as correlating with “being the good guy.” That they promote this fallacy that deserving to win has some causal relationship to your actual chance of winning. MrBtongue once made a great video about this.
It also occurs to me the emotional effect that this transformation has, and the root cause in why people apply it. I think part of why the “not-knowers” will reinterpret knowledge as magic is because it’s a way to turn the abstract into the tangible. Magic spells are very concrete in comparison to literacy or critical thinking skills. And indeed, fantasy fans often treat the more abstract spells as being more “high brow” in a sense. Fireballs and lightning bolts are not as respected as rhetorical devices as Saruman’s enchanting second voice. But it’s instinctual to accord a tangible element to the abstract, which seems a difficult quality to apply to violence.
Violence is already pretty tangible, and the addition of great skill in violence slightly abstracts it. It can be a bit hard to wrap your head around advanced fencing techniques even when you are witnessing them firsthand. So I would posit that, in the translation from violence to action, we see the opposite of what occurs in the translation from knowledge to magic. Instead of taking the abstract and making it tangible, we are taking the tangible and seeking to increase the abstraction. Remember, it’s a transformation in service to rhetorical stylization. The best way to dramatize the unfamiliar element in a trained and uncommonly skillful warrior is to exaggerate the abstract element, i.e. the secret ingredient to their ability to kill things really effectively. There’s probably a lot more to think about here.
You could argue that 4th Edition D&D also, even if a bit unintentionally, conflated violence and magic. Because all fight moves are Powers and all spells are Powers, they function much the same way. I also don’t like this, and I think it’s clunky and weird. So to guide us toward a version of “Action” that I like as much as good Magic, we’d have to treat violence the same way my favorite works of fantasy treat knowledge.
So Lord of the Rings, essentially.
The way Lord of the Rings treats magic is mysterious and inexplicable, but more importantly, as metaphorical first. Maybe there’s some internal logic to be found, but that is never the interest Tolkien has when using magic. It’s always framed in terms of an artistic tradeoff, and he always justifies it as a metaphor to understand human behavior better. Magic has a suggestive power to help you suspend that insistence of rational understanding. It opens your brain to the world of possibility, despite being impossible in reality. Does stylized violence open us up to possibility? It’s hard for me to give an unbiased interpretation. In my mind, I always feel like it does more to warp one’s perception of reality, which I never find to be a great risk in depicting feats of magic. It almost feels like the suggestive power of stylized violence is too strong, to me.
LotR also employs physical metaphors for the source of magic power. Gandalf uses a walking stick because his knowledge comes from wandering. A big part of why the One Ring is a ring is because rings are associated with both material wealth and authority (imagine a signet ring), two of Sauron’s greatest vices. Could you do the same with violence? I bet the end result, if creative enough, would be really cool. The first thing that came to mind, however goofy, would be a magic belt. You know how in wrestling they give a big belt as the champion’s trophy? Well… what if your belt was the source of your strength? I bet that has some precedent in mythology somewhere.
I could keep going and going. I think it’s a potent enough idea to fuel a lot of idle musings at least, but I do really want to see it explored in a serious capacity. If nothing else, it bothers me that a trope as universal in the fantasy genre as violence seems to lack the same examination that we are all happy to apply towards magic.