Friday, January 24, 2014

How I Built my Magical System (Sorcery Pt. 2)

So last time we discussed general ideas behind constructing magic in fiction and how to simplify it so you can do it as well. This round I will introduce the magic system I created for my Sword & Sorcery stories. Magic is a common feature in my writing, and it falls somewhere between High Magic and Low Magic, another concept that I also mentioned last time and we will explore here.

From my view, High Magic has always been connected to High and Epic Fantasy, and usually revolves itself around currents of energy. Notice how I didn't compare it to Low Magic yet, because I want to just talk about High Magic first so the differences will be much clearer when we get to Low Magic.

High Magic, traditionally, has always been connected to either the evocative or the ceremonial, usually with the assumption that there will be a explicit manifestation of power. A great example of this in the real world is John Dee's texts on Enochian Magic, where in the 1580s he began to conduct rituals with Edward Kelly where they communed with angels and apparently learned the their language (hence the term "Enochian".) I used Harry Potter as an example last time as well, and many of the spells in Harry Potter are of themselves High Magic. Merlin in T.H. White's The Once and Future King, which everyone should read, features the wizard turning Wart (Arthur) into animals, which is another form of high magic. Basically, there is a boom and something happens. Finally, and I think it is the finest book showing the form, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea is basically a book where most of the wizarding characters practice High Magic. From the moment the main character Ged opens the spell book and accidentally summons his shadow, it is a tour de force on what High Magic is and what it can be.

Worth every penny!

Low Magic, on the other hand, is much more difficult to pin down with a solid definition. One might say that High Magic creates things that could be considered Low Magic, a key example being something like an amulet or charm. Going back to Ged in Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea, in the beginning of the story he has an aunt who concerns who is a witch that concerns herself mainly with root work and using natural plants and materials to create charms. None of them are depicted as actual magic, but the idea behind them is that they are, and that idea causes the manifestation of power. Another example can be Excalibur, or better yet, the sword's scabbard in the King Arthur mythos. In the myth, it is the sword that makes Arthur king of all Britain, but it is the scabbard that grants him invulnerability in battle, which is lamented later on when he foolishly throws it away in battle. Funny how that works. There is a belief there that has power.

Another good example of this comes from one of my favorite stories, The People of the Black Circle by Robert E Howard. Sword & Sorcery by Howard's flavor was often a low magic affair, and this is seen clearly in the story where Conan wears a magic girdle to protect himself from the malevolent spells of the evil sorcerers. We never see it actually happen, as Conan shows up and just lays waste to the wizards, but the belief is there.

But the problem with Low Magic and High Magic, in my opinion, is much the like problem with the Chicken-And-The-Egg issue: which came first? Honestly, I think it is one of those conversations that doesn't merit huge debate, because at the end of the day what will matter is how you use either form to advance the characters on their way through the plot.

When I decided to construct my general magic system, I decided early on that I wanted to have a system that was both simple while at the same time allowing room and flexibility to grow without the strings of a story written beforehand affecting any that came after it. I was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and actual Occultism. What Tolkien did very well was utilize Low Magic through the use of objects, be it Anduril or The One Ring of Power, though those were products of High Magic and have definite manifestations. These simple objects didn't necessarily the flash and the bang, but they themselves allowed for powerful plot developments. Rowling, on the other hand, masterfully used to aspects of actual occulta and High Magic to create a system of spells which seemed easily accessible to the characters early on until the later books. It wasn't until the use of The Patronus Charm and Horcruxes that there were really limits on what a witch or wizard could do with their abilities, and any difficulty early on had more to do with the ability to learn, focus, and apply, much like learning in general.

What I really wanted to bring in was my own study of the occult and magick (with a 'k'), and provide a framework that was somewhat reminiscent of The Golden Dawn and O.T.O, which required not only mental clarity and focus, but a bodily component. Whether it is in the East or the West, the body plays a key component in magickal practice.

So taking the mental, physical, and the spirituality of Eastern and Western esoteric philosophies, I also wanted to have my magic users be different from other magic-systems other writers were using, but not too different. I borrowed a little bit from Glen Cook's The Black Company and one of his best characters, The Lady. Besides being the biggest and most under-appreciated badass in fantasy, she was also a great warrior that was in killer shape that could focus in and do devastating things with her power. In many ways, this reflects things that you notice about all real-world magicians: Aleister Crowley was a famed and highly-skilled mountaineer, WB Yeats was a man often seen in peak physical condition with a strict diet, and the lifestyle of Indian rishis, sadhus, and ascetics create individuals who often exposed themselves to the elements, hunger, and rigorous physical exercise through Yoga. People that practice magick are tough inside and out.


Like Cook's The Lady, none of my magic-users weren't going to be out of shape. No fat wizards or wheezy witches--the body in my system is the container for a person's energy, and the strength and quality of that container is going to play an impact. What is inside the container is the mind, and the mind when properly sharpened can manipulate the spirit, and that spirit is a key that unlocks the power.

So in simple English:

1. In my magical system, the practitioner must be able to align the mind, the body, and the spirit to summon High or Low Magic. This starts with an accumulation of energy (Genesis), manipulated by using their mind and the spirit (Will), and released in whatever form required (Manifestation.)
2. This places strain on the body, so if they force themselves into a spell that is more than their ability they can end up damaging themselves in a physical manner.
3. At the same time, they must be able to remained focused to complete their working.

Whether it is changing the weather (which is a form of High Magic that places a lot of stress on the body,) or creating an amulet for protection (Low magic that takes very little in the way of physical stress but much in the way of focus,) the world is theirs to manipulate. They can channel their being into creating great weapons, summoning entities from beyond through ritual, or battle using the forces of nature around them.

What matters, and this is something I spent a lot of time considering, is that they must sacrifice something. In the Vedic novel, my hero is turned into an Avatar against his will, and every time he turns back into his original form he loses all of his hair. As I mentioned before, if a magic-user overexerts themselves, they can lost body parts or even die! The act of magic takes something out of the practitioner, and while that something can come back like stamina does, overuse always leads to dire consequences. Even the act of learning magic, developing ability, and growing one's power requires a sacrifice of time (the body,) energy (the mind), and life spent in more pleasurable things (the soul.)

One of the best things I can tell you about writing a magical system: Put a price on it, and MAKE the characters PAY FOR IT.

I am going to go a bit further into this next, using one of my stories as a example of where I think it did it correctly. Until then, stay safe! 

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