As a speculative fiction writer, I’m not a huge fan of magic. Something about the “wave of the hand” magic that you often see in books is something of a turnoff for me, because it often makes magic seem like the easy way out of an otherwise perilous situation. Granted, this isn’t true of Tolkien and Eddings and Feist and most other major authors in fantasy over the past half century.
Most authors (not all) have the good sense to put a comparative challenge in front of their powerful wizard so that the magic isn’t overbearing. The danger must exceed or adequately match the hero if the hero is going to rise to the occasion without dying a horrible death. That’s all fine.
The question that always catches me up with magic is this: When magic becomes mundane, does the wizard use it to turn a profit?
And nobody ever talks about it.
Making It Rain
Let me give you an example. Our wizard, for this story, has already beaten the dragon and saved the kingdom. Story’s over, everyone’s gone home. Happily every after. Blah, blah, blah.
Our wizard has returned to his tower, or study, or whatever, and he gets a knock at the door. It’s a farmer from the local village. There’s been a terrible drought, and every city in the region is on the brink of destruction, not from dragons but from famine.
What does the wizard do?
Surely, with his magical Stone of Many Waters, he can put clouds in the sky and make it rain. Does he turn the farmer away (and kill all the people he just saved)? Does he decide to help the village out, with enough rain to tide them over? And if he does . . . is he charging for that service?
If he’s an entrepreneur with a mind for business, then of course he does, and if that’s true, what’s to stop him from turning the weather into his own business model. Heck, at that point, he could just use his control over the weather to force people to do his bidding. That’s getting dangerously close to “bad guy” territory, but if you believe absolute power corrupts absolutely, then it’s a dark road ahead.
The Art of Characterization
Some authors get around this by adding some restrictions. Maybe the wizard isn’t that powerful. Maybe, like the Will and Word magic you see in Eddings’ Belgariad, you can’t take a cloud from one place and put it in another without some very dire consequences.
Most of the time, I see authors take the purist route. The Wizard cares not for earthly concerns and would rather sit in his high tower ponding more important things. Or maybe, like the Jedi in Star Wars, they’re trained to respect and obey the magic surrounding them. But it’s always something higher minded that keeps the wizard out of the lives of the mundane folk.
My question is why? Why is magic either one or the other? Why not have it be more than a little of both?
A Working Man’s Wizard
Every now and again, I see magic done another way.
One of my favorite openings of any book is in A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. When Ged comes down from his village to get on the boat, there’s a wizard there who puts wind in the sails. He’s a working wizard, doing something useful with magic beyond saving the world!
That styling of magic is practical, efficient, and utterly essential without being overblown. It’s a trade, just like carpentry, and the boat can’t sail without him. But seeing that interpretation of the fantastic is rare.
I think writers sometimes get so caught up in the fantasy of fantasy, that they forget how powerful down-to-earth magic could really be to a reader. I know that I enjoy magic much more when it’s more mundane and less high art. Maybe only one type saves the world, but the other one is largely ignored in worlds where it simply wouldn’t be.
I think I’d enjoy magic much more if that weren’t the case.