Magic in fiction

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Magic in fiction is the endowing of fictional characters or objects with magical powers.

Such magic often serves as a plot device, being the source of magical artifacts and their quests. Magic has long been a component of fantasy fiction, where it has been a mainstay from the days of Homer and Apuleius, down through the tales of the Holy Grail, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and to more contemporary authors from J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis to Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, J.K. Rowling or Mercedes Lackey.

Plot function[edit]

Within a work of fantasy, magic can function to move the plot forward, providing both power for the hero of the story and power for those who oppose him/her. The use of magic is often a transformation of the character, if not the world.[1]

In order to carry out its function, magic often carries a price, equal to its value.[2] (See Limits to magic)

Historical beliefs[edit]

The Alchemist, by Joseph Wright of Derby

Historically, many writers who have written about fictional magicians, and the readers of such works, have believed that such magic is possible.[citation needed] In William Shakespeare's time, witches like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth and wizards like Prospero in The Tempest (or Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play) were widely considered to be real.[3] However, modern writers and readers treat magic as imaginary.[3]

Fictional magic[edit]

Fictional magic may be inspired by non-fictional beliefs and practices, but may also be an invention of the writer. Furthermore, even when the writer uses non-fictional beliefs and practices, the effect, strength, and rules of the magic will normally be what the writer requires for the plot. Fictional magic may or may not include a detailed system, but when the author does not bother to systematize the magic or create rules, it is more likely that magic will be used simply at the author's convenience, rather than as a believable plot element.

"The Crystal Ball" by John William Waterhouse: studying magic

Magic as an innate talent[edit]

In most fantasy works, writers tend to depict magic as an innate talent, equivalent to perfect pitch,[4] and there is wide variation on how spontaneously a person or other being with such a talent can use it.[citation needed] Talents that occur spontaneously usually need training in order to control their abilities.[citation needed] Those who use such spontaneously generated powers are usually not called magicians or similar terms, those being reserved usually for those who have to learn to wield magic.[citation needed]

Magic acquired through studying[edit]

Some works treat magic as a force that is acquired through studying books and tomes.[citation needed] Works which feature this concept usually include a school where magic is taught as a main setting.[citation needed]

Magic bestowed by another[edit]

Magic may also be gained by having it bestowed upon one by another,[citation needed] either through a pact with a devil or with other spirits, as is common in folklore.[5] In some cases, the demon may only provide the means for the would-be wizard to learn magic,[citation needed] or the pact may be for the devil to do the magic on the wizard's behalf, forcing the wizard to compel it to act.[citation needed] Sword and sorcery heroes are depicted as fighting against this type of wizard, along with crazed cults where gods or demons give power to their followers.[citation needed]

Magic via enchanted objects[edit]

In some works, such as fairy tales, magic items either endow the main characters with magical powers or have magical powers themselves, and are often used as plot devices or MacGuffins to drive the plot of a story.[6] Such items may be created by magicians or powerful beings, often in the distant past, but aren't possible to create at the present time of the story.[citation needed] Other fictional magical objects may have no explained past, but the more clearly they are described by the author, the more believable they will be to the reader.[citation needed]

Wands and staves often feature in fantasy works, often in the hands of wizards.[7] Italian fairy tales put wands into the hands of the powerful fairies by the late Middle Ages[8] and the concept was transmitted to modern fantasy.[citation needed]

Magic divided into separate areas[edit]

In some works, types of magic are divided by color.[citation needed] As in folkloric and occult tradition, the white and black magic dichotomy may also exist in these works.[citation needed]

Magic via words, names, or language[edit]

Some works feature magic that is performed through using words to cast spells.[citation needed] Many works use this method without offering an explanation for it while others do,[9][10] with the explanation for it differing from one work to another.[citation needed]

Magical places[edit]

Some works feature magic that is tied to a certain area, such as an enchanted forest or an ancient battlefield.[citation needed] Such places are usually the homes of powerful magical beings.[citation needed] In these works, magic can only be accessed and performed in the area in question and runs out when all of the magic in the area is used up.[citation needed]

Limits to magic[edit]

In any given fantasy magical system, a person has limits to their magical abilities, otherwise the story will have no conflict and the magic will overwhelm the other side.[4] Various techniques are used by fantasy writers to limit the amount of magic in a story,[11] such as: limiting the amount of spells a character has;[11] restricting a character's magic through the use of an object, such as a wand or staff;[11][12] limiting magic to the use of certain materials and making the materials hard to find;[13] restricting the amount of magic a character can use due to the consequences of using it;[11] and limiting the amount of magic a character has inside of them.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 143, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
  2. ^ Brian Attebery, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, p 143, ISBN 0-253-35665-2
  3. ^ a b John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Wizards", p. 1027 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  4. ^ a b John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Magic", p 616 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  5. ^ Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Magicians", p279. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  6. ^ Stith Thompson, The Folktale, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 1977
  7. ^ Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p 152, ISBN 0-691-01298-9
  8. ^ "Italian Fairies by Raffaella Benvenuto: Journal of Mythic Arts, Summer/Autumn, 2006, Endicott Studio". Retrieved 2013-10-16. 
  9. ^ Brian Attebery, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, p 167-8, ISBN 0-253-35665-2
  10. ^ Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 134, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
  11. ^ a b c d "The Limits of Magic". Retrieved 2013-10-16. 
  12. ^ "2001: Accio Quote!, the largest archive of J.K. Rowling interviews on the web". Retrieved 2013-10-16. 
  13. ^ Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, pp. 47-49 ISBN 0-89879-416-1

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