Magic in Literature


Last week Armaitus made a very rash comment on this blog to the effect that he’d done lots of reading about magic in history. So I invited him to share with the rest of the class. Ladies and gentleraptors, please give him a big hand!


As far back as written history can take us, many of the stories told to us make some kind of reference to sorcery.  From cultural mythologies to the holy books associated with today’s world religions, magic plays a key part in the stories told.

The reason for this is that, believe it or not, magic plays a key part in the development of human society.

I’ll take that “believe it or not” and expand it into something of a caveat on what you are about to read.  The aim of this article is to compare the magical systems that are found within fantasy literature with their far more mundane “real world” equivalents.  Whether you’re a hardened sceptic or an open-minded believer, there are systems of magic practiced today, as there have been as far back as human societies have existed.

Many people find it hard to look beyond the limitations of their own belief systems.  In my opinion this is one of the reasons that the academic study of magic is not taken as seriously as it could be.

This ignorance can lead to some shockingly prejudiced work when applied to literature.  We only need to look as far back as the mid-twentieth century, and the works of Dennis Wheatley, to find “satanic” Hindu antagonists wielding “Black Magic” against a righteous British society.

You could hardly class the works of Wheatley within the same genre as works of classic fantastic fiction though.  When we think of fantasy fiction we consider a wide range of sub-genres; from sword and sorcery to supernatural horror, we find systems of magic that are often translated and codified to appear in associated role-playing games – which I would extend the term “literature” to encompass.

The kind of magic we tend to find within literature can be classified and sub-classified from magical system to magical system but they often share common ground.

Wizards, sorcerers and mages are often capable of healing and causing harm as well as shielding themselves from magical attack; they are also usually capable of clairvoyance and prescience insofar as there is usually some means of seeing the future and communicating with unseen or extra-planar entities.  Some works will even add the ability to summon forth these unseen or extra-planar beings, a common theme amongst sword and sorcery antagonists.

In many works of fantasy, magic replaces or supplements more mundane technologies or science.  This sometimes runs along the lines of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Or Larry Niven’s counter to that law:

Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Real world magical systems are just as diverse as those found within the fantasy literary setting.  Though historical systems aren’t always well documented (and some are just plain invented) the systems can be as simple as early forms of animism and shamanism to complex ritual based practices.

In a great many cases, formal magical systems are associated to a religion (or at least the acceptance of religion, as is the case with Freemasonry).

Both Islam and Judaism have accepted magical paths, through Sufism and the Cabbalah respectively.  The “three wise men” of the Christian nativity were reputedly “Magi” – wizards for want of a better word.  We have also seen a dramatic increase in people who cite “Pagan” or “Wiccan” as their personal religion.

Contemporary systems, here in the West, have evolved somewhat from a resurgence of magical thinking at the end of the nineteenth century.  The groundwork laid by the likes of Blavatsky and her Theosophy has proved a sturdy foundation from which we have seen magical orders grow and fall.

Dr Dave Evans (currently of Bristol University) has written a very interesting and informative treatise on the development of British magical practice throughout the 20th century.  Dr Evans has also been instrumental in the continuing work of the Society for the Academic Study of Magic and its irregularly published companion journal.

There are people who take their study of magic seriously, either from a historian’s viewpoint like Dr Evans, or as practitioners themselves.  Two good examples of this are Peter J. Carroll and Ramsey Dukes; both tutors at the Arcanorium College and highly respected authors on the subject of contemporary magical practice.

As seriously as magical practice can be taken, we hardly ever hear about magical attacks or the like.  Here in the west it would be a rare day indeed where a tale magical healing was reported in the local news.  Yet, there are African nations where the local news regularly tells of witchcraft being used against local children – honestly, some of these news articles are on a par with the writings of the Brothers Grimm.

Even talking with magical practitioners you are unlikely to hear of somebody hurling a magical fireball at somebody or flying around chasing some kind of golden squash ball.  Mundane “Real World” magic has a far more subtle effect and yet in concept carries far more impact.

In his Magic in Theory and Practice, the 20th century occultist, Aleister Crowley, defined magic as being:

The Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will

More recently, the aforementioned Ramsey Dukes defines magic as:

Magic is a technique by which the human mind attempts to operate upon its world… note that the term ‘its world’ is meant to embrace not only the physical universe but also all phenomena, objective or subjective, which do not respond to direct control.

In his Liber KKK, Peter J. Carroll applies a structure to magical practice in a manner that we see frequently in fantasy systems.  He categorises five types of magical act and then classifies their practice via five magical methods.

Real World magic is about effecting change in one’s reality; physical, perceived or otherwise.  Magical systems throughout history have been used towards that end – be it to ensure a good harvest or to make the person next door fall in love with you.  A magician attempts to use magic to change the world they live in where other methods do not work.

This way of thinking has become even more main-stream with such systems as “The Secret” and “Cosmic Ordering” being pushed by people who have seen the financial success of Scientology and its Dianetics.  Whilst celebrities endorse the latest magical fad without giving it that name, there are still Magical Orders active in the world that seemingly work to improve methods by which their individual will can be imposed on their individual reality.  The OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis) have lodges throughout the world and the IOT (Illuminates of Thanateros) likewise; even freemasonry still retains a level of magical practice in some lodges.

Peter J. Carroll, one of the founders of the IOT, is a relatively prolific writer in the field of magical practice and is often listed alongside the likes of Ramsey Dukes and Phil Hine as forerunners in the field of Chaos Magic.  Now it may seem that we’re pulling back into a world of fantasy, after all Michael Moorcock brought us the war between Law and Chaos in his Eternal Champion series and Games Workshop have had us going giddy over Chaos armies for almost as long as I have been alive.

Would you believe, it was my life long interest in the occult and paranormal that actually got me into role-playing games, rather than the other way round? I was incredibly disappointed as a youth when the realities of fantasy role-playing games were so dissimilar to my understanding of occult reality.  It is this very disparity that explains why I am unable to play certain archetypes at live action roleplaying events; reality is just too different to fantasy.

About the same time that Games Workshop was starting out, the Chaos Magic current was also starting out in Leeds, England.  The basic foundation of Chaos Magic is one of flexible belief.  The idea being that what works, works.  Another magical practitioner of that time, Ray Sherwin, referred to this as Results Magic.

With this we come full circle with regards fantasy literature.  Magical systems and mythologies created by fantasy authors are now frequently used by contemporary magicians in their practice – with as much relevance and sincerity as Egyptian practices might have been used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn way back when.  Lovecraft, Moorcock and Tolkien are used alongside the Greek classics and more.  I have even come across basic magical rites adapted to use the Teenage Mutant Turtles as a focus for invocation.

At least two authors that I have read recently have tapped into this current.  Contemporary magical practice is referenced alongside more fantastic magical systems in the works of Sergey Lukyanenko and China Miéville.  The latter has also played with the theme of “the power of belief” in his work.  It would also be remiss to neglect the author, Jaq D. Hawkins, whose Dance of the Goblins fantasy series augment her own published treatise on contemporary magical practice.


Armaitus’ blog is here.

If you would like to hear more from this guest in the future please comment with your opinion.


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