Magic is not science

A post at Patricia Wrede’s blog: Science vs. Magic

[T]he “rules” of magic—which usually involve things like the limits of magic, the price or cost of spell-casting, and the mechanisms by which magic works—do not have to look or sound like the laws of physics. They can—and it often makes it easier for readers to accept magic if it has “laws” like “you can’t transform rocks into food that will actually sustain you” or “the laws of Similarity and Contagion.” But if that’s not what the story needs, it is perfectly fine to have magic that works based on different rules of poetry or intuition.

It’s that last bit I want to pick up.

I’m fine with magic-as-science if that happens to be what the author wants to do and it’s right for the story. But I’ve also had editors press me to develop rules that will make magic be more like science, and I have reluctantly done so when this conception of magic wasn’t violently opposed to the story. But it’s not necessary for magic to be like science. Magic can instead by like … magic.

The linked post is fine and I agree with everything Wrede says, but also, there are times when the conception of magic-as-science is not just unnecessary, but violently opposed to the story. And when does that happen? It happens when the story is using fairy tale magic rather than some other kind of magic. Because fairy tale magic does follow rules, but the rules aren’t scientific.

Fairy tale magic has rules like this:

–If you enter the enchanted forest, you won’t come out unchanged.

–It’s easier to go into the enchanted tower than to come out.

–Going through any doorway is fraught. Almost anything could be a doorway.

–If an animal asks you for help, you should help it.

–You should be careful about making promises.

Rules are poetic rather than scientific. There’s no “weigh out three grams of saltpeter” alchemy; there’s no scribbling down equations; and you probably don’t want to try to find a loophole, because that probably wouldn’t end well. Fairy tale magic is much more about doing the right things, possibly for the right reasons, and much less about applying a formula.

Of course the best essay about fairy tale magic is On Fairy Tales, by Tolkien. It’s a long essay; here’s a pdf version, and here’s an important bit from near the end of the essay.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good
catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which
is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,”
nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace:
never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow
and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face
of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting
glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its
events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it,
when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed
accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar

I can’t say anything to match that, so I’ll stop. Click through to the pdf if you’d like to read the whole thing.

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2 thoughts on “Magic is not science”

  1. Obviously there are no absolutes when it comes to art, but I think in general the clearer the rules of the magic are, the more that magic can be used to solve problems without it seeming like cheating or deus ex machina.

    If the rules are more nebulous, the magic has to be applied more thoughtfully/carefully

  2. Incidentally, I reread Wrede’s 13th Child this weekend, and she certainly touches on this. But my biggest takeaway is when the main character being an idiot actually works: when she is cursed, or believes herself to be. Eff us an idiot about her magic, but it makes sense. El (Scholomance) is an idiot about making friends, but it makes sense. Working through the perceived problem is a big part of both books.

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