Words are magical. Not only do they have a special power to bring thoughts, concepts, and ideas to life, they form the foundation of our daily interactions.
Imagine a world where words didn’t exist. It would be awful, but also as confusing as jumping into the middle of a book with no idea what’s happening.
Everything we do involves words, so it’s no surprise they show up in fantasy—in particular, as the key ingredient for doing magic.
The Magic of Words
Maybe you’re one of those people who loathe anything to do with magic, or maybe you think it’s cool and can’t get enough of it in the books you read. Either way, the goodness or evil of magic isn’t at stake right now.
We’re talking about the power of words.
Like I said, words have a magical aspect to them. How can something as simple as love be so profound, causing books, plays, movies, essays, and poems to tackle what it means to love?
Or what about war? A violent, gritty word that brings to mind everything from epic fantasy battles to black-and-white videos from World War II. It’s a small word, yet packs an incredible emotional punch.
Thing is, those words—love and war—are descriptions of concepts we can understand and impart meaning to. The word gives us something to grasp and a way to define what we mean. We say something, people hear the word or phrase, their brain interprets it, and voila—we’ve used words to convey an idea or truth.
That’s the magic of words.
The Parallel Between Magic and Words
One of the most common ways to perform magic is through spells. Which means saying things with words to bring about a result, whether it be turning someone into a toad or lighting a bundle of sticks on fire.
Some magic systems have a stark divide between good and evil, while others place the same power into different sets of hands and leave the decision of how to use it up to the characters. Each explores different themes and has room for probing deep topics, but the second approach applies best when talking about the connection between words and magic.
Do the characters abuse the magic or use it to advance a good cause? What are their motives? Do their actions help or hurt others?
The way we use our words has the same affect. Words are amoral—not intrinsically good or evil. The purposes and motives of the speaker make them destructive or beneficial.
Magic workers use their spells to destroy enemies. In the same way, a person could use words to tear down someone they had a grudge against. Different applications, the same potent results.
The Power of Words
Time to pull out a quote I’m fond of: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Why? Because for being intangible things, words are incredibly powerful.
- We say “yes” to the marriage proposal
- We swear before a jury to tell the truth
- We inform our employee that the company is laying him off
- We pronounce judgment and offer pardon
- We tell people we love them
Standard stuff that happens in everyday life. If you stop and think about it a minute, the words we use have more power than we give them credit for. Ever been told you’re a worthless failure by someone you admired? I’ll bet it stung. Ever felt the satisfaction that comes from glowing praise? I have, and it’s like chocolate for the soul.
Without a doubt, words are powerful.
Magic creates a visible manifestation of such power. Characters recite spells or incantations to produce results in the physical world. Even single words accomplish extraordinary things. Gandalf says “mellon” and the huge doors to Moria— carved from solid stone and impossible to open through physical exertion—swing wide.
The use of magic and spells shows the truth that what we say matters. Not because if I use a spell I can enchant you to subscribe to my blog, but because in a real sense what we say produces an affect as substantial as the most powerful spell conceived.
If you ask me, that’s pretty cool.
Do you think magic in fantasy is a good depiction of the power of words? Why or why not? I would love to hear your thoughts.