Tim Stead - Fantasy Writer

Magic - May 22th 2013

When creating a fictional, fantasy world magic often has an important role to play. But magic must have rules. It must have limits. Without these it becomes an unwieldy monster. The danger of rule based magic is that it begins to sound like physics. Arthur C Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In the same way any sufficiently hidebound magic is indistinguishable from technology. So if we must have magic let it be unpredictable, capricious, and half tamed at most.

Magic is magic.

Traditionally it seems to have fallen into two different spheres: Sympathetic magic and Invocation. There may be others, but broadly speaking most manifestations will fall into these two camps.

The former follows a spurious set of quasi-physical laws. Many people will be familiar with the expression “hair of the dog”, which refers to the unhealthy practice of curing a hangover by drinking more alcohol. It is an abbreviation of “hair of the dog that bit you”, which is a suggestion that you can cure the dog bite by using a physical piece of the dog. Voodoo dolls work on the same principle, making a connection between one thing and another, and it was believed many years ago that you could poison your enemy by pouring venom on a blade that had injured him.

Sympathetic magic, then, relies on a mistaken apprehension of the way on which the universe works. It disassociates effect and cause, the cart and the horse, creating a magical vector to connect the two.

Invocation is based on the assumption that there are beings in the universe with the power to do things that we cannot. Prayer is the most common form of this. It extends into the whole summoning of demons, magic circles, Solomon’s ring, etc. etc. Secret words of power, symbols and the like, are used to gain control over these creatures that are bound by a set of laws that enable you to manipulate them and get them to do what you want without any comeback. It is generally acknowledged that if you make an error you get toasted.

I confess that I have never been drawn to either form of magic provided by tradition. They tend to be mixed and matched in the most bizarre fashion. Here’s a little quote from Paul Christian’s book The History and Practice of Magic:

Take a sheet of virgin parchment and cover it on both sides with the invocation: ADAMA, EVAH, even as the all powerful Creator did unite you in the earthly Paradise with a holy, mutual and indissoluable link, so may the heart of those to whom I write be favourable to me, and be able to refuse me nothing: * ELY * ELY * ELY. This sheet of parchment must then be burnt and its ashes carefully collected. Then obtain some ink which has never been used before; pour it into a small new earthenware jar and mix in the ashes together with seven drops of milk from a woman who is giving suck to her firstborn, then add a pinch of powdered lodestone. Use a new pen, which you must trim with a new knife. Everyone to whom you write with ink prepared in this manner will be disposed when reading your letter to accord you everything in their power.

You can see the ritualistic nature of it, and the strange mix of sympathy and invocation, and the pure perversity of the ingredients. In addition it is all mixed up with a hefty dose of religion.

I need a different kind of magic to create a decent fantasy world, so to paraphrase Voltaire, if it does not exist, then it is necessary to create it.


I like cause and effect, and so I see magic as a thing that needs an energy source. There are plenty to choose from. In Shanakan I chose to use the energy created by the friction between parallel words that move through time at different speeds. This allows me to postulate that in some worlds there will be a lot of magical energy, and in others none at all.

The controlling intelligence in the Shanakan books is the dead – or the souls of the dead if you prefer. In this scheme the dead dwell without consciousness in the energy that magic controls. It is the dead who know how things may be achieved, who translate the will of the mage into magical deeds. This is a form of invocation, perhaps, but it is an invocation of the unconscious. There are no demons or djinni to get in the way – only men and women.

The Sparrow and the Wolf

In The Sparrow and the Wolf I used energy as we know it. It comes in three flavours. Firstly there is the energy that a man or woman has of themselves. This is the same energy that you use to pick up a suitcase, to brush your teeth, to function. It is limited, but it is easy to control and easy to get at. This is what the Durander Mages use. The second flavour requires connection with the world, the ability to draw the same energy as the first flavour from other entities. With the skill to do this you can kill another simply by drawing all the energy from them, effectively draining them in an instant. Alternatively you can draw a small amount of energy from a great number of creatures or plants. This is obviously less destructive, but takes greater skill.

The third flavour of energy relies on Einstein’s e=mc2. This is to say that the amount of energy that can be extracted from anything is proportional to its mass. This is, as anyone who does the maths can tell you, a source of almost limitless energy. In The Sparrow and the Wolf this is the difference between a Durander Mage and a so called God Mage.

Now that I have an energy source in each of my worlds I need a controlling intelligence.

It seems bizarre to me that someone could just heal someone else, or even themselves, without knowing how they work. It would be like a car mechanic working by laying his hands on the bonnet of a broken car and fixing the engine that way. Something has to know how to do what the magician or mage wants to do.

Fortunately for us, human bodies contain within them a detailed blueprint of themselves. This blueprint exists in every healthy cell, and we refer to it as DNA. This is also true of trees, wolves, fish etc. etc. In this instance I have imagined magic as a deployment of power to make things become what, in a sense, they desire to be. This is also true of everything’s tendency to decay, the desire of living things to grow etc. The knowledge of how to get to that state is already present. A rock at the top of a hill knows how to fall, but one at the bottom is ignorant of how to fly. This is a subtle magic, but brute force is also available.

Simple force, however, comes with its own rules, its own skills. Magic used as simple strength also obeys the normal laws of physics. You cannot push a mountain over because it weighs more than you do. The mountain pushes back. You need to make one mountain push against another, or against the rest of the world. This involves the setting up of opposing forces in such a way that they can be controlled.

This is the essence of the controlling intelligence.

Of course I fee free to break or bend any of these rules at any time, magic being magic…