Old-school Magic

The word “Magic” is meaningless.

Depending on the circumstances, it is used to describe one thing, many things, or nothing. I doubt there is any word in any language with less of a concrete definition. Breakfast cereals can literally be magic, and no one has the wherewithal to say otherwise.

And that lack of concrete meaning has led to “Magic” being used primarily as a way to mock or put down any other subject. When an adult calls a thing “Magic”, they are expressing contempt for a thing which, in their opinion, has no rational basis.

Convinced that psychology is a pseudoscience? You call it magic.

Have your doubts about the EM drive that will supposedly make space travel possible? Call it magic.

Prefer your old cable box to the on-demand world of video streaming? Decry it as magic.

There Are No Ground Rules

You might expect to find some commonality between the various ideas of what magic is, but you’ll quickly discover that there are none.

You cannot define magic merely as “the supernatural”. If you try, then you run into the problem of whether ghosts, aliens, and cryptids can be called magical.

Nor can you define magic as “spells, curses, and potions” because that excludes things like astrology, astral projection, superstition, and imitative magic—all of which are regularly included under the label.

Some have claimed that a common trait of magic is that it is used to explain natural phenomena in the absence of scientific understanding. But this definition ignores the fact that magic also attempts to explain unnatural phenomena and is often more concerned with the immaterial than the material.

The label of magic has been slanderously used against miracles, but never consistently. Miracles that society disapproves of are called magic, but miracles that society smiles on are not. Skeptics decry all miracles as magic, but that leaves them in a world where they are surrounded on all sides by the phenomenon, as all the things that cannot be explained still outnumber all the things that can.

And then you have modern pop culture’s definition of magic.

Magic as Special Effects

Modern audiences understand magic as being three things:

  1. It glows.
  2. It zaps/explodes things.
  3. It comes with cool visual effects.

This is quickly becoming the dominant notion of what magic is. Even other traditional mainstays of fantasy fiction, such as transformations, love potions, and sleep curses are being usurped by “zap you with energy blasts, pew, pew”.

Part of the reason for this is a—quite recent—aversion to depicting guns in popular media.

This is one of the reasons why the Western genre has fizzled out. If the hero uses a gun to murder the bad guy, that is evil wicked, and bad. But if the hero uses energy blasts to murder the bad guy, the act is pardoned.

Because of this, nearly all instances of magic in popular media are merely a stand-in for guns. If you replace all the energy-based projectiles with firearms, the story would be functionally the same.

The guns honestly haven’t gone anywhere. We’re just better at disguising them.

And many of the more classical depictions of magic are being pushed to the side. It’s gotten to the point where the ancient peoples who are responsible for inventing the concept of magic would not recognize our understanding of the subject.

How the Ancients did Fantasy Fiction

There is a rather famous quote by a science fiction author that reveals why magic is so hard to defiine.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.


And he may have said it with an understanding of how ancient fantasy literature viewed magic. Because to the ancients, magic was simply taking an ordinary talent or utility and stretching it to unrealistic proportions.

As an example, consider any pre-industrial-revolution-era tool.

How about we go with the scythe?

A large scythe can cut grass in a wide swath much better than the smaller hand sickle. If the scythe is particularly sharp, it can cut the grass faster.

So if I am a writer of fantasy fiction, I take the idea of a sharp scythe cutting grass faster than a dull scythe, and I stretch that concept to fantastic proportions. I write a story about a scythe so sharp that it reduces cutting time down to zero. One swipe is all it takes to clear an entire field of grass.

The object I have described is magical, yet it is merely an enhancement of the technology that already exists.

Faster Horses

Contrast that with the technology that actually replaced the scythe in real life: the combine harvester.

This miracle of modern technology would never have occurred to those ancient fantasy fictionists, even though it is far more attainable than the one-swing scythe. As such, you don’t encounter anything resembling a combine harvester in any of the classic folk tales.

Another quote comes to mind, this one by a man who had a hand in the creation of the modern automobile.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.


And that neatly sums up how magic was perceived anciently. Every object of power in ancient fiction is ultimately the equivalent of “faster horses”.

That cauldron of plenty, which never runs out of food, is just a better version of a regular cauldron.

Those seven-league boots, which transport you miles with each step, are merely doing the same thing that regular boots do, except better.

Even that perennial classic, the invisibility cloak, is merely an enhancement of a regular cloak, since any cloak can obscure you quite well already, especially if you’re in a dark place.

And this works not only with magical objects, but magical people as well. A witch whose potions can cure any illness is merely an enhanced version of your run-of-the-mill apothecary. And that wizard who dispenses the armor of invincibility is doing the same job a blacksmith does, only better. He’s never even heard of an “energy blast”.

Something to Keep in Mind

Having an appreciation for how magic used to be viewed is helpful to the modern fantasy writer.

Not only does it give you perspective on your genre, it gives you an edge. Perhaps, like me, you feel that the “energy blast” style of magic is starting to wear out its welcome. And you certainly don’t want to write the same thing that everyone else is writing. But you still want to write something that is recognizably fantasy.

If so, you can stand out by writing a story that uses old school magic. Don’t worry that editors won’t get it. All fantasy editors of any quality will be familiar with the classics, and will recognize what you are doing. They may even thank you for it.

Less flashy magic also opens doors to more grounded fantasy stories. Modern fantasy includes subgenres such as “magical realism” and fairy tale retellings that call for less special-effects-heavy magic systems.

It’s just a suggestion, but as modern popular literature becomes more homogeneous, there is an opportunity to draw attention to yourself and your work by trying something that is different, yet has an established pedigree.

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