magic in fantasy

This is excepted from my 2009 book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, now available as a Kindle eBook.

Magic Realism

The fourth ring [of five I discussed in this chapter] of fantasy, Magic Realism (also called Magical Realism), produces stories in which fantastic things happen, often unexpectedly, in the midst of realistic everyday settings and events. These marvelous occurrences may be quite mysterious and capricious. In these stories, magic is more likely to act as an independent force rather than a tool used by the story’s characters.

As Sheila Egoff points out in her study of fantasy literature, Worlds Within (1988), a characteristic feature of “enchanted realism” is that, unlike in classic fantasy or fairy tales: “The [protagonists] of enchanted realism do not change the world; instead they themselves are changed. . . .”

In Gabriel García Márquez’ novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the people of José Arcadio Buendía’s village are enchanted by a sudden onslaught of magical gypsies.

. . . whose dances and music sowed a panic of uproarious joy through the streets, with parrots painted all colors 
reciting Italian arias, and a hen who laid a hundred golden eggs to the sound of a tambourine, and a trained monkey who read minds, and the multiple-use machine that could be used at the same time to sew on buttons and reduce fevers, and the apparatus to make a person forget his bad memories, and a poultice to lose time, and a thousand more inventions so ingenious and unusual that José Arcadio Buendía must have wanted to invent a memory device so that he could remember them all.

In an instant they transformed the 

The inhabitants of Macondo found themselves lost 
in their own streets, confused by the crowded fair.

Then, in a passage which reveals another trick of magic realism, the tables of magic are turned. Before the gypsies depart, they offer the townspeople one last wonder. Inside a tent, guarded by a giant with a shaved head and a copper nose-ring, sits a large treasure chest. Inside is nothing but an enormous translucent block of ice, revealed to anyone who will pay to touch its cold surface.

This, too, is magic realism: the fantastic is transmuted back into the ordinary. Surprises, revelations, visions, and paradoxes are the coins of the genre. Everyday reality is magical and vice versa. In this back-and-forth trapeze act, magic realism offers the “Consolation” that Tolkien found in fantasy – the return home to normalcy – only here found throughout the story, rather than only at the end of the book.

In novelist Jonathan Carroll’s writings, for instance, talking animals, dreams, and strange apparitions mix easily with the mundane:

God’s office was nothing special. By the way it was 
furnished it could just as easily have belonged to a 
North Dakota dentist or some comb-over in middle management. The secretary/receptionist was a forty-something nondescript who told [Simon] Haden in a neutral voice to take a seat. “He’ll be with you in a minute.” Then she went back to typing – on a typewriter. God’s secretary used 
a manual typewriter.
Glass Soup (2005)

The story’s protagonist, Simon, finally gets called in to see God.

 A giant white polar bear sat behind a giant black 
desk across the not so large office. The animal’s size and 
that of the desk made the room appear much smaller. The bear was looking at a white paper on the desk. It wore 
rectangular black reading glasses perched on the end of 
its fat black nose.

The desk was empty except for that single sheet of paper and a copper-colored name plaque on the right front corner. The name engraved on the plaque was Bob.

God was a polar bear named Bob?

. . . Looking up, it saw him and the bear’s features 
immediately softened. “Simon! Wow. Wow. Wow. It’s 
been a lonnng time, eh?”

Glass Soup (2005), Jonathan Carroll

Diane Schoemperlen offers another example in her novel, Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001). In the story, the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, appears one day in the corner of a writer’s living room, for an extended surprise visit with the single woman, the narrator. In the first chapter, the arrival is foretold in a string of odd household events:

Seemingly trivial, apparently unconnected, they were 
not even events really, so much as odd occurrences, 
whimsical coincidences, amusing quirks of nature or fate. 
It is only now, in retrospect, that I can see them for what they were: eclectic clues, humble omens, whispered heralds of the approach of the miraculous.
Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001)

These fairly ordinary events are clearly not magical . . . or are they?

The kitchen faucet, which had been dripping for a year and half, stopped.

The toaster, which for a month had been refusing to spit out the toast (thereby necessitating its extraction by means of a dangerous operation with a fork), repented. That morning the toast popped up so perky and golden, it fairly leaped onto my plate.  . . .

The answering machine, which had been recording my callers as if they were gargling underwater or bellowing into a high wind, recovered its equanimity and broadcast my new messages into the room in cheerful, dulcet tones.

. . . The next day, Friday, I had several errands to run.  . . . There were parking spaces everywhere I needed them, some with time still on the meter.

At the bank, I got the friendliest, most efficient teller after a wait of less than five minutes.  . . .

At the library, all the books I wanted were in and shelved in their proper places.

At the bakery, I got the last loaf of cheese bread.

At the drugstore, all the things I needed – toothpaste, shampoo, bubble bath, and vitamins – were on sale. . . .

Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001)

In a 2001 interview, Schoemperlen discussed the techniques of magic realism, its interplay of normal and magical.

Magic realism is indeed a type of fiction where the 
protagonists are the ones affected by the mysterious appearance of the fantastic. And that is what happens in my book. . . . the Virgin Mary appears in the middle of the narrator’s ordinary life and then takes part in ordinary life.

. . . I wanted to play around with the connections 
between ordinary and extraordinary.
– interview (2001), with Philip Martin

Magic realism crosses over readily into modern “mainstream” fiction. The term is used to describe the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Haruki Murakami, Louise Erdrich, and many others whose works are seldom found in fantasy sections in bookstores or libraries. Yet these stories are clearly a branch of fantasy. They deal with the same issues of good and evil, seen through the filtered light of magic, wonder, and belief.

In magic realism, sometimes the magic is for the good, as characters are overwhelmed by moments of beauty or passion.

 On her the food [quail in rose petal sauce] seemed 
to act as an aphrodisiac; she began to feel an intense heat 
pulsing through her limbs. . . .

[After eating] The only thing that kept her going was 
the image of the refreshing shower ahead of her, but 
unfortunately she was never able to enjoy it, because the drops that fell from the shower never made it to her body: they evaporated before they reached her. Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to 
split and burst into flame. Terrified . . . she ran out of the little enclosure just as she was, completely naked.

By then the scent of roses given off by her body had 
traveled a long, long way. All the way to town, where 
the rebel forces and the federal troops were engaged in 
a fierce battle. One man stood head and shoulders above 
the others for his valor; it was the rebel who Gertrudis had seen in the plaza in Piedras Negras the week before.

A pink cloud floated toward him, wrapped itself around him, and made him set out at a gallop toward Mama Elena’s ranch . . . without knowing why he did so. A higher power was controlling his actions.
Like Water for Chocolate (1989, English transl. 1992), Laura Esquivel

In other stories, tricks trip up human protagonists, playing on their greed or other foibles, bringing the high and mighty face down in a puddle. Magic realism draws on the ancient mythic tales of Trickster, known to different cultures as Coyote, Anansi, Loki, Hermes, and so on. Trickster is a complex shaft-shifter. Terri Windling calls him:

 . . . a paradoxical creature who is both very clever and very foolish, a cultural hero and destructive influence – 
often at one and the same time. In the legends of many societies, it’s Trickster who is responsible for giving humans fire, language, hunting skills, or even life itself . . . but he’s also the one who brought us death, hunger, difficult childbirth, illness, and other woes. Alan Garner (the great British fantasy writer and folklorist) calls Trickster: “the advocate of uncertainty. . . . He draws a boundary for chaos, so that we can make sense of the rest. He is the shadow that shapes 
the light.”
– “Wile E. Coyote and Other Sly Trickster Tales,” 
in Realms of Fantasy magazine (1997)

In magic realism, the world contains both black and white, yin and yang. These stories often avoid a simple division into good and evil. They suggest that, as in the yin/yang symbol, each half has the seed of the other within it. The two natural forces ebb and flow, in a mysterious dance, achieving a balance that might be unclear to the story’s characters.

The line between good and evil is often blurred, as are the lines between reality and dreams, history and story, actual events and metaphysical truth.

Magic realists raise the question that Jorge Luis Borges asked: What if that which we believe is reality is some sort of dream? If so, who is dreaming it? Louise Erdrich echoes this question in the closing page of her World Fantasy Award–winning novel, The Antelope Wife, with its central image of Native American floral beading.

Did these occurrences have a paradigm in the settlement of old scores and pains and betrayals that went back in time? Or are we working out the minor details of a strictly random pattern? Who is beading us? Who is setting flower upon flower and cut-glass vine? Who are you and who am I, 
the beader or the bit of colored glass sewn onto the fabric of this earth? . . .  We stand on tiptoe, trying to see over the edge, and only catch a glimpse of the next bead on the string, and the woman’s hand moving, one day, the next, and the needle flashing over the horizon.
The Antelope Wife (1998)

In magic realism, abstract thoughts and concepts can become real. Something intangible is given visible form, like the pink cloud of passion in Like Water for Chocolate that pulls the revolutionary soldier to Gertrudis, or the concept of transformation, as when Gregor awakes in Kafka’s novel to discover he is a really big bug.

But absurd it is not. These are not the melted shapes of surrealism. On the contrary, magic realism often seeks to refine and express concepts more purely than in the murkiness of real life.

One writer suggested that Tolkien fantasy is inherently Protestant, with its belief in the profound impact of each individual’s actions, in assuming that characters can influence the outcome. Magic realism on the other hand is more Catholic, with a belief in miraculous transformation from outside, in mysterious powers that strike unexpectedly. In any case, magic realism is indeed fantasy, simply one in which the rules are often invisible to the human characters involved.

Are we the beader – or are we just a bit of colored glass, following a dancing needle?

[This is an excerpt from the chapter, “Types of Fantasy: Five Rings of Tradition” in A Guide to Fantasy Literature by Philip Martin (Crickhollow Books, 2009), which examines the significant differences between sub-genres of this literary field, named here as High Fantasy, Adventure Fantasy, Fairy-Tale Fiction, Magical Realism, and Dark Fantasy/Horror.]


In Lev Grossman’s delightful, if slightly disturbing, 2009 book, The Magicians, the author draws high fantasy’s sword from the stone one more time, but manages to sharpen and harden the edge to slice and dice a re-imagining of a fantasy world that is tougher, more mature, and more realistic than, say, the high-school world of Harry Potter or that of Narnia’s more innocent children.

Grossman’s modern setting begins in New York, then moves to a pastoral college for magicians in upstate New York on the Hudson. In fact, the literate students refer to both the Harry Potter body of fiction and to a Narnia-like set of book called the Fillory chronicles, Fillory and Further, a set of five novels for children “published in England in the 1930s.” In his fresh, post-modernist look at fantasy, Grossman manages to both playfully mock the conventions of fantasy, and yet to draw from it and add his own vision to that grand literary universe.

A central conceit is to seriously tackle the implications of magic on these young adults. What would these awesome powers of manipulation do to a person’s emotions, to his/her ethics, to daily motivation, to long-term ambition . . . if so much could be conjured and controlled? The characters at Brakebills College suffer a realistic cycle of doubt, exhilaration, ennui, insouciance, personal bonding and betrayal, all pulled down by the hedonism of booze and sex, the difficulty of taking anything seriously when so much is variable.

In particular, Quentin Coldwater and his colleagues struggle with the challenge of imagining any career after school that would have the artificial intensity and systems of expectations and rewards as the world of rigorous academia.

Grossman shows at least one set of parents, magicians themselves, who have descended into apathy, near lunacy, and he talks about other magical graduates with great powers and low ambitions that spend their time in irrelevant pursuits, working at hedge funds making easy money or randomly tinkering with magical problems of insignificance.

What is the motivation for a magician, if they don’t believe in a Narnia-like goodness, with Aslan to reassure in times of doubt? What if they don’t have the slightly narrow-minded pluckiness of Harry Potter and his buddies, ever fighting the good fight?

In The Magicians, the secret for genuine success as a magician is a difficult combination, and there seem to be as many who fail as those who succeed. Magic is tougher than it looks, especially for anyone who’s read the fantasy books — as have Quentin and his friends, as have we all — where stories fall into place, where plucky, good-hearted individuals wend their way through plots designed to challenge, motivate, and ultimately lead to success.

The “real world” of being a magician just isn’t so pat.

From The Magicians (p. 44):

“You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.”

“Which are what?” Quentin asked.

“The reasons why most people can’t do magic? Well.” Eliot held up a long, thin finger. “One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right. Three, they lack the guidance and mentorship provided by the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. And four, they lack the tough, starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly.

“And five”—he stuck up his thumb—”some people have all that stuff and they still can’t do it. Nobody knows why. They say the words, wave their arms, and nothing happens. Poor bastards. But that’s not us. We’re the lucky ones. We have it, whatever it is.”

“I don’t know if I have the moral fiber one.”

“I don’t either. I think that one’s optional, actually.”

The moral-fiber part of the equation is the key to Grossman’s literary questioning of fantasy. What if it’s not all so clear?

Amazingly, he manages to let us inside the questioning, while not kicking away all of the parts of fantasy that we love so much.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

The description of magic, and the underlying concept of it, is variously tackled in many a fantasy book. What does it feel like to use magic? Is it a tool, a technique? An external force? Or is it an art? A gift?

Tolkien wrote (in an undated letter, probably in 1951) that in Middle-earth, in The Lord of the Rings, there was a sort of machine-like magic used by the dark forces, used like a bulldozer to dominate or coerce, to gain Power. And in contrast, he offered the more wonderful high art of the immortal Elves, whose powers were simply “more effortless, more quick, more complete” than ordinary abilities of mere mortals.

To find an insightful description of magic and how it feels to use it, look to the writings of Ursula Le Guin, author of the famed Earthsea series, and more recently, an excellent series (Annals of the Western Shore) that includes the novel Gifts (2004), Voices (2006), and Powers (2007).

About Powers, a reviewer in Canada’s The Globe and Mail said:

What if there were a writer who exhibited all the inventiveness of genre fantasy but played out the action with a cast of nuanced, gritty, convincing characters in a prose style that was as lean, distilled and rhythmical as poetry? What if there were a writer who could invite all those readers who duck at the mention of dragons into a fantasy world that was as compelling and familiar as any in realistic fiction? . . . Peer as you might, you can’t quite see how she does it. Events from the past reappear, the future is foreshadowed and every incident is deeply rooted in character.

Gifts, the first in the series, introduces the Upland tribes, strong in magical powers that are different for each family group, gifts passed down from father to son, mother to daughter – power to see, command animals, destroy . . . with “a glance, a gesture, a word.” It focuses on a young teen, Orrec, who has a wild gift, and his friend, Gry, a girl whose powers to work with animals is taking shape.

What does it feel like to use the great powers of magic?

“But what does it feel like, to use it?”

He [Canoc, Orrec’s father] frowned and thought a long time before he spoke.

It’s as if something comes all together,” he said. His left hand moved a little, involuntarily. “As if you were a knot at the center of a dozen lines, all of them drawn into you, and you holding them taut. As if you were a bow, but with a dozen bowstrings. And you draw them in tighter, and they draw on you, till you say, ‘Now!’ And the power shoots out like the arrow.”

That’s a description of magic . .  rich with the tangible imagery and cadence of poetry . . . the kind of writing that those who read Le Guin’s novels are hooked on.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Magic in fantasy occurs as a central nervous system of the fiction. And though is it the systematic underpinning of all that happens, it is frequently mysterious, capricious, often dangerous.

Its main logic: rules are rules, and woe to the person that offends or transgresses those powers.

This is at the heart of G.K. Chesterton’s observations about key elements of fantasy (that he extends to Christian philosophy), the first being an absolute sense of wonder. And the second: that transcendent, unknowable rules need to be obeyed and heeded, even if we don’t understand them.

This is the belief that fantasy is built upon. Fantasy rests not on a block-by-block foundation of logical understanding but on a hidden bedrock of great mystery and faith.

Robin McKinley is one of those treasured fantasy writers who has written a slew of wonderful number of novels over a career, and garnered praise and big-time awards (Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown, a Newbery Honor for The Blue Sword, the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature for Sunshine).

Sunshine, by the way, is a great work, and gave rise to one of my favorite statements from McKinley: “There is no sequel to Sunshine.” Unlike so many others, she feels no need to write sequels. She writes when she’s ready to write:

It’s not up to me! I can’t do anything unless or until a story comes to me and says, “Write me – write me now.” (. . .)

Yes, there are lots of loose ends.  I like loose ends.  Loose ends are like life, and, proficiently deployed, make a story feel like life.

Here’s her take on magic in Spindle’s End. It wonderfully mixes an original look at magic that pervades everything . . . with a delightful sense of place, all in the first pages of that novel.

The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.) If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water. (. . .)

If you lived there, you learned what you had to do . . . like asking your loaf of bread to remain a loaf of bread before you struck it with a knife. (. . .)

Generally speaking, the more mobile and water-dependent something was, the more likely magic was to get at it. This meant animals – and,  of course,  humans – were the most vulnerable. Rock were pretty reliably rocks, except of course when they were something else that had been turned into rocks.

And by the way, about magic settling on everything . . . on her website, she claims this as a personal motto, which many of us writers share:

My favorite sofa cushion reads, “My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance.”


(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)