What is magic?
In Christian circles, it’s a magnet for controversy, coming with a stock of common arguments.
- It’s witchcraft
- God forbids it, so we should shun it
- If tolerated, magic should only be used by evil characters
- Reading about magic will encourage interest in the occult
Beyond that, however, is the question of why magic is good or bad, and at the heart of that question lies the definition of magic.
It’s a term we throw around like a beach ball in the pool, but what do we mean by it? When we know that, we can talk about its values and dangers.
According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary:
- a: the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces. b: magic rites or incantations
- a: an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source. b: something that seems to cast a spell: enchantment
- the art of producing illusions by sleight of hand
Since we’re talking about fantasy and magic systems that grant powers to characters, the first two definitions are the most helpful.
In conversations I’ve heard about magic, it usually comes down to one thing: what’s the source of the power?
This brings in the idea of advanced technology. According to this version, magic as we find in fantasy—where people can do things like fly, mind-read, or become invisible—is based in science. It has a logical, real-world foundation, perhaps extrapolated and infused with some fictitious elements.
For example, Allomancy in the Mistborn Trilogy. One of the restrictions is that when an Allomancer pulls or pushes on metal, they move either directly toward or away from it. Another is that they push smaller objects, but are pulled toward larger objects.
It has basis in Newton’s laws of motion. It’s a rational system for how the magic works.
Another aspect of this explanation is the one Thor presented:
“Your ancestors called it magic. But you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.”
To us, anything we can’t explain with science falls into the category of magic, but science makes advancements and new discoveries every year. Who’s to say things we label as magic might eventually find their reality in science?
This second category is more dubious for people, but I’m not going to get into the magic vs. not magic debate right now.
This is the most common type of magic in fantasy, usually accompanied by spells or enchantments—a sense of mystical power the characters wield for good or ill.
While the magic systems themselves might be thoroughly fleshed out, they’re not rooted in science. They don’t make sense within the framework of how our world works. Thus the “magic” label.
Going back to Allomancy, in addition to its scientific basis, it also falls into the supernatural category. Swallowing metal shavings in liquid and then “burning” them to use the powers they grant?
Wrap your mind around that and explain it.
Or don’t, because its fantasy set in another world, and in that world, that’s how things operate.
Another example is the infamous One Ring.
- How do its powers work?
- What causes it to turn people invisible?
- Why does wearing it corrupt the user?
We can’t answer those questions. That’s the way it happens—controlled by a supernatural agent existing outside the mundane elements of Middle-earth.
Which One Is It?
Cutting to the heart of the question, which category does magic fall in?
In my opinion, the latter. The first two definitions make it clear—they both use the word “supernatural.”
To me, magic, by its very nature, is something beyond the scope of science and our finite understanding and capabilities. The word carries connotations of the supernatural. Magic is power granted from an external source—whether good or evil—and does things that go against the grain of nature.
Most magic happens in imaginary worlds. It doesn’t need a foundation in the rules of our reality. Maybe someone was born with the ability to see through walls. No scientific explanation. No special injection. Just the way the powers work.
Some elements might be reasonably explained using science, but at the end of the day, the root of magic is the supernatural.
Otherwise it wouldn’t be magic.
Which category do you think magic fits into best? Why? I would love to hear your thoughts.