Begging the Question; What do we mean by “Magic,” anyhow?

Thoth, ancient Egyptian god often depicted as ...

Stop Defining Me!

Begging the Question

What do we mean by “Magic,” anyhow?

Recently Thoth put up a post which more or less pointed out that no, there’s no such thing as reliable magic (and obviously there’s no point in asking how it works unless you have a specific fictional universe in mind). We might have hoped people would have understood that, but c’est la vie.

But let me take a step back and ask what the heck people think magic is, anyway. No, stop laughing at me, dammit. No, saying, “It’s Magic, fool!” won’t do. What am I being told is magical, and in what way is it magical?

Follow me for a second, because I’m not actually being obtuse or tedious.

Harry Potter’s wand is supposed to be magic. It is described as a thin shaft of holly wood, eleven inches long, with a feather inside. What exactly is magic about it? Well, it lets a wizard do magic, or do it properly. OK, what is the magic? The things wizards do that other people can’t? Alright, what can a wizard do that other people can’t?

Aha: they cause things to happen without clearly showing how they’re doing it. Other people don’t see the cause and effect.

That’s what makes magic, well, magical. You don’t know how the thing works, just that it does. And the other ingredient is a dose of childish wonder, but we’ll get to that.

To some degree, we’re all using magic every day. I know something of how a car works or my computer, but not everything. I know that it does work, and how to use it. To an inhabitant of 15th century England, who happened somehow to see me at a computer, it would be magic.

“How could this thing possibly work?” he might ask. It has no moving parts, no fire to shine on canvas or candle to light glass, but you can see a shining screen. And how does it change what you see? It knows things and even plays games with you, while being utterly obedient to your every whim! He wouldn’t call it a demon, because demonology was mostly a joke and things like witch-burning came much later during the Enlightenment. But he would be quite confused and utterly perplexed. Even if I told him these things are created by man and controllable to those with years of practice and enough talent not to completely bone it, that would in no way change his complete faith that this was incomprehensible.


Or alternatively, glassblowing. Here the 15th-century man might have a leg up on me, because I just don’t understand it. I can read on how its done, watch videos of it, and listen to practitioners of the art… and I still have no idea how the hell you do it. I can tell you the principles of physics, and could look up  the principles of fluid dynamics and heat transfer. But in no way do I know anything about glassblowing. To me, the people who do it are sorcerers playing in God’s domain, tooling around with mystical substances far beyond the ken of man.

Magic ultimately means “That which we don’t understand.” If you think you might understand it someday, you call it science instead, though there’s not much difference. If you think you already understand it but don’t, you use lots of circular definitions and very long words to confuse other people. But ultimately, the difference between magic and anything else is just a matter of study.

It’s also a good reason for the existence of magic shows. The fun is in three parts – being amazed when the magician does something seemingly impossible, trying to figure the trick, and suspending for a moment all the adult self-importance which keeps from dreaming that new, exciting things might exist.

Now, some studies may be up blind alleys. I have rather considerable doubts about the supposed powers of crystals or the healing properties of magnets, in that I don’t see any real effect. I might be wrong, just as a man once proved every single textbook and authority on crystals wrong by proving they could have five sides. He almost doubted his own sanity, but he was right, and for a moment people began to believe in magic.

So, what’s the point of all this?

First, in a game you need to know what *you* mean by magic. Is it exploiting some weird loophole in the rules of the universe? Is the power of the gods? Is it the calling some weird extra-dimensional energy or being to do something which is somehow not exploiting the rules of the universe or the power of the gods?

Granted, this does take away the mystery of magic. But that was never going to hold once you had any rules for it, a subject Thoth has written about before. Magic is literally whatever you make of it, from blacksmithing (yes, smiths really were considered wise and mysterious figures) to exotic rituals carving out the hearts of virgins. You don’t have to show the players everything just as the magician never reveals his full illusion, but you need to have some idea what you’re doing. And player wizards are likely to be bored specialists, or gents with the equivalent of a good selection of programmed numbers on their cell phones.

Authors do it all the time. Harry Potter is only magical to the extent it’s improbable and unexplained. But to the wizards, it’s often tedious and pointless busywork, which is why things ended up with a lot of dramatic posing and fighting. There’s a limit to how much mysticism we can take at once. (Religious mysticism is a rather different beast, and often has no connection to the magical otherwise.) In any case, as soon as Harry starts to grow up, he loses his sense of wonder at the magic. It simply becomes a tool, and loses the sense of wonder. He needs some magic to beat the evil bad guy, and he goes and finds out what he needs, how to use it, and then does so.

Of course, the childish wonder element is important. Without, we tend to stagnate, and thus, it’s important to remember. Most of human affairs are dragged down into tedium and probably evil without at least a hint of wonder to remind us there’s more to life.


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