As you may know, Brandon Sanderson (author of the Mistborn series, among other great work)writes about hard magic, the kind with rules, and soft magic, the kind that’s unpredictable and mysterious. He prefers to write the former and argues that problems should only be solved by magic when the magic makes sense, so that the author doesn’t take the easy way out.
It mat not be much of a surprise that I prefer soft magic and sometimes solve problems with it. There’s more to it, of course.
My favorite magic feels like real magic. The metaphysics of it are not less likely but rather likelier to make sense than the specifics. It is, to quote Romanov in Diana Wynne Jones’ the Merlin Conspiracy, “wide, various and big.” And it works to some extent like the insides of our heads work. The sense it makes is complex and intuitive and not rule-based.
Jones almost believed in magic. She had strong intuitions about how it should work (most nonfictional writings on magic fall short, in her view), and she claimed, only half-jokingly, to have experienced it: she felt that her books came true on her, she once described experiencing what she took for time travel when she got in the car with someone she thought was a witch, and, once, when writing about the sun as a character she would put her manuscript in sunlight so he could check her work.
I’ve never believed in magic, but I have always been fascinated with it (the same goes for the spiritual and miraculous). Jones’s intuitions about magic match my own, though they are much more developed and based in deeper and broader reading. And I like it when the magic in books has the kind of depth she gives it — not based on rules and virtuosic inventiveness (though I do enjoy Sanderson’s systems and think such subcreations have great value) but rather on educated and intelligent instincts and a perception of the real workings of the mind.
I think you can solve problems with this kind of rooted magic. Jones does, and it doesn’t feel like a cheat to me. But that is also because her magic is not only so real but also so nearly allegorical, often serving as an exploration of power and imagination — and a multilayered one because it is at once a metaphor for those things and — because, I claim, of her half-belief and deep investment in it — an immediate reflection of how the mind processes them.
4 replies on “Magic, Hard, Soft, and Rooted”
I talked about this kind of issue a while ago, using a lot more words.
I suspect your analysis is, overall, substantially more useful.
I like your piece a lot–read it a while ago and didn’t connect it with mine (which has existed on my computer for an even longer while) but we seem to be in agreement.
People ended up talking about this post a lot, if you didn’t see. http://whitemarbleblock.tumblr.com/post/158692549327/magic-hard-soft-and-rooted
Whoa, cool! Thanks for letting me know!