Abracadabra!

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I got my hands on a copy of the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols yesterday, and enjoyed the first entry so much that I thought I’d share it with you:

abracadabra: This charm was used throughout the Middle Ages. ‘One only had to write it down in a triangular pattern and wear it round one’s neck as a sort of phylactery or charm to be protected from various diseases and to be cured of fever.’ The word derives from the Hebrew abreg ad habra meaning ‘strike dead with thy lightning’. By arranging the letters in an upside-down triangle, the celestial energies which the charm claims to entrap are directed downwards. Accordingly, the figure should be seen as a funnel. The magic letters slanting down from the wide mouth to the narrow spout comprise the lines of force of a mighty whirlwind. Woe betide the powers of evil which it strikes since they will vanish forever from the world.

It does make it seem a bit too, well, emphatic for kid’s parties. What’s amazing is how long this charm has survived – according to Wikipedia it’s first found in the second century, in a book of medicine. And, whilst the theories and beliefs around magic have evolved massively, the word itself has remained associated with the subject.

There are a lot of essays and books on the study of magic throughout the ages, and I’m slightly ashamed to say that I haven’t read any of them. I take my magic in purely fantastical form – shocking in a historian – but even there you need to tread carefully. Do you use magic in place of science, or in addition to it? Does it hold the world together, or is it smaller and more personal than that? Does it follow rules? If not, why not?

I did hear one very interesting point recently – what does magic do to your economy? If magic can do a job, is there a reason why it wouldn’t? Who does it put out of work, and what are the knock-on impacts of that? You need to think about the impact and the cost of magic on your world, your society and your character.

There are a lot of books which don’t seem to have rules to their magic at all and I have to say that these irritate me. Even if you don’t explain the rules, there ought to be some internal consistency. One of the few authors I’ve read who does have a clear structure to magic use is Jim Butcher, particularly in his Harry Dresden series. Granted, they are clearly inspired by RPGs (I suspect D&D, given the author is a self-confessed enthusiast), but that’s no bad thing. At least they have been idiot-proofed.

There was a good idea that came up on Writing Excuses, which is to approach magic from the perspective of its limitations rather than its abilities. What problems can magic not solve? Where are the boundaries? That turns it from a deus ex to a tool for specific situations. I’d never thought of it like that, but actually it does make magic a bit more interesting and, against the odds, believable.

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One response »

  1. Amazing! I was having almost exactly the same conversation with a colleague yesterday – I say “almost” as my colleague isn’t one for literature and so the conversation was more about the use of magic in movies.

    I’ve read a lot of those essays and books on the study of magic throughout the ages, I subscribe to the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic – which sounds more Harry potter than it actually is. As such, my view of magic in fantastic fiction is somewhat skewed.

    I see a clear distinction between the fantastical thaumaturgies that you might find in the world of Harry Potter, Tamriel, the Forgotten Realms or Middle Earth and the kinds of magical practice depicted in treaties on “real world” magical systems.

    Some of my favourite systems of magic in literature can be found in China Miéville’s Kraken and Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series. Certainly the former, Miéville manages to balance contemporary magical practice (and organisations) with a well rounded (yet unexplained) variety of fantasy magicians.

    I think I’m also similar to you in that I love a well thought out magic system like you find in RPGs; contrary to that though, I also like my magic to be just that – magic. As soon as you allow for mainstream acceptance and understanding of the underlying principles of magic, you turn it into a science. My favourite magic system of any RPG has to be the White Wolf Mage system. Just enough control to maintain order with sufficient scope to allow magic to be used to any end.

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it should certainly alter the perception of magic in the society of the world it is in. Harry Potter’s wizardly world seems to have its own economy and politics arising out of that society’s understanding of the science of magic – albeit separate to the economy and politics of the muggle world; Rowling isn’t the only author to promote this diversity by shrouding the area of society that accepts and understands magic but she is certainly the most mainstream.

    Very thought provoking 🙂 I think I’ll resurrect yesterday’s conversation with my colleague.

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