A New Thought On Magical Systems

Fantasy fiction is known for the presence of magic.  Magic is also a central part of many of our legends.  The magic of fairies and elves, the power of none other than Merlin, all deal with magic.

Arthur C. Clarke once famously said that any science sufficiently advanced would be indistinguishable from magic.  Even the movie Thor played with this notion.

I’ve long though that much of what has been considered “magic” may have actually been what we now call “science.”

So, as I’m working on the third Tommy Reilly book, I’m also working on the worldbuilding of a heroic fantasy series.  The first book is called The Last Champion and will deal with some themes I definitely want to explore and I think this series will be the perfect place for that.

However, as a fantasy series, there almost has to be some form of magic.  Brandon Sanderson has written about creating magical systems, and he’s talked about it, and he’d be a great place to go.  That is unless there’s something already built that would work.

This idea came to me when I read this bit in an article from The Daily Mail:

Post-apocalypse, they would have been fighting to survive in a very dangerous world. It seems likely that they posed as wizards, using showmanship to heighten the impact of their secrets. Carvings discovered at sites as far-flung as Bolivia, Mexico, Turkey and Iraq depict human figures in fish-like robes, wearing garments patterned with scales.

The mythical Oannes of Mesopotamia, for instance, had ‘the whole body of a fish, but underneath the head of the fish there was another head, a human one. It had a human voice.’

Oannes was accompanied by seven sages, who taught chemistry, medicine, stone-cutting and metal-working.

At the Temple of Horus in the Egyptian city of Edfu, ancient inscriptions also tell of seven sages. They were the last survivors of a sacred place, ‘the mansions of the gods’, whose home world had been destroyed by flood and fire. These sages had escaped death only because they were at sea when the catastrophe struck.

According to Arab traditions, the wisdom of these sages was stored in the pyramids of Giza, built to be a library for their books of knowledge. These included technologies that sound modern even to our ears: ‘[Military] Arms which did not rust, and glass which might be bent but not broken.’

Now, I’m not saying I buy that this really happened, but let’s think about this within the context of a fantasy realm.  How would a culture with more advanced scientific knowledge appear to the remaining world?

Like is suggested here, they may well be able to pass themselves off as wizards.  A pound of science, a dash of showmanship, and a healthy pinch of ignorance in your audience, and voila!  Magic!

So, what if your mages are really just showy scientists?  What if their “magic” was really stuff that we would recognize as science?

Gunpowder, for example, would bewilder Viking hordes.  Greek fire would terrify the Huns.

None of these things were considered magic, necessarily, but they weren’t necessarily billed as magic either.

Let’s take Greek fire, as an example.  Its production was a state secret of the Byzantine Empire, but it was produced by people who made no claim to magic.  However, what if those who produced it were part of an independent guild who also claimed to possess other magics?

They would then lock themselves in their tower with their apprentices and concoct the strange liquid.  From outside, arcane chants can be heard from within the stone walls.  Days later, the mage releases barrels of the oil for use by the armies.

Then, when used, they see a fire that doesn’t respond like normal fire.  Water doesn’t put it out, only things like sand will do it.  It’ll even set the water itself on fire.

Do you honestly think someone in a fantasy setting wouldn’t view this as magic?

Now, picture the same man being able to create a powder that could be put in a clay jar with a piece of waxed string.  Then, when the string is lit, the jar could be thrown.  When it hits and the jar breaks, a tremendous explosion erupts.

Again, magic.

The same man can tell you it’s going to rain by checking a strange artifact of quicksilver and water…and he’s right.

I think you can see where this is going.

The difference between magic and science is understanding.  Had the earlier scientists made just one different decision, the decision to keep their understanding hidden from the world at large and only share the results, where would we be?

I’m not sure I want to go with this approach, but I do think it would create an interesting way to depict magic.

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6 thoughts on “A New Thought On Magical Systems”

  1. Or there’s the Fred Saberhagen approach, where “magic” is the result of altered physics, but still has to obey certain scientific rules.

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    1. That’s an option too, but I don’t think I want to manipulate the laws of physics.

      Something for me to think about. I’ve got a couple of projects to do before I get to this one anyway.

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  2. Reminds me of Roger Zelazny’s “Lord of Light”. Where the advanced tech is not scientifically explained, but the “gods” are using it to dominate.

    Both Start Trek and especially Star Wars are ‘magic tech’ type SF. (I don’t believe in the Transporter, tho the Communicator and hand held phaser, yes; the “Force” is merely an alternate magic, along with light saber magic, plus some cool advanced tech.)

    “Had the earlier scientists made just one different decision, the decision to keep their understanding hidden from the world at large and only share the results, where would we be?” <<

    I don't think this works in the culture that develops the tech, because even Newton had to learn what was already known before making new discoveries.

    However, if there was one continent of competing scientist/priest guilds, perhaps with a Church or State that suppresses general reading but actively looks for bright and curious kids to become "Techies", while others are mostly taught only how to service the machines & keep them repaired; then the scientists invade other continents …

    Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, it doesn’t work in a high tech society, but that’s kind of the point. This is a fantasy-type setting so it wouldn’t evolve into anything like today, much less Star Trek or Star Wars. I don’t want it to be on this one.

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  3. I remember a short story from back in the 80s about a SF type getting tossed back to the Viking ages (via handwavium), and his 9mm gets interpreted as ‘the hammer that flies back to his hand’ (aka Mjollnir).

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