The Hapless Writings of a Canadian Fantasy Author


The Hapless Writings of a Canadian Fantasy Author

It’s a Kind of Magic


In this, the second of a regular column series, Canadian-born, UK-based fantasy author Matthew Ducharme dives into the realms of magic and their effect on the worlds in which they’re written.


 Fantasy without magic isn’t fantasy.

There, I said it. 

I had to get that out of the way first thing. You might find yourself disagreeing – but if you do, well, you’re wrong.

Magic is essential to fantasy. 

Now, there’s room for interpretation on exactly what qualifies as magic, but that’s kind of the whole damn point.

In my last article I touched on how, when done well, fantasy is among the most immersive reading experiences the literary world has to offer (insert generic qualifying statement here: in my opinion, of course). I began the process of explaining the ‘why’ behind my love for the genre—if you haven’t read it yet, do so…now, HERE. I spoke about fantasy’s (yes, yes, yes…and science fiction’s) inherent need to develop worlds from nothing, coaxing its readers to enter them completely. 


Soooo, why isn’t it fantasy in the absence of magic?


Because it’s not simply the invention of a setting that makes a story fantastic. It’s only when – within these unique and unusual settings – the weird and wonderful can come to life, that we finally arrive into the realms of fantasy. 

Otherworldly creatures roam alien landscapes, shaped by altered rules of nature, or even laws of physics. In some worlds, we can manipulate and use these rules with nothing but the power of will, or with a turn of phrase. In others, the rules are as static and inaccessible to use as they are in our real world.

But it’s all magic.

Magic creates and drives the things that make fantasy fantastic. Magic is fantasy’s spirit. Its soul.

Magic can be an overt, all-encompassing religion which the story itself orbits; it can be a subtle, nuanced difference in the laws that govern the universe the story is set within, or anywhere between, but it is always pivotal because magic strikes a primordial chord with us. It is an integral part of the human experience dating as far back as our species’ memory stretches (and even further, I’m certain of it).

The tales from our distant past all incorporate magic. When our ancestors didn’t have answers to the mysteries of universe, they invented them. In a round-about sort of logic, magic presented explanations to the unexplainable, and our genetically-ingrained need for answers spawned imagination.


But there’s a catch…


Magic is at once our wonder at the unknown, and our attempt to explain it. Our species’ curiosity spurs us ever-onward towards discovery. 

In the midst of an ever-branching collective pool of human knowledge, drilling deeper and deeper into the core of reality, presenting all of its secrets on demand, the processes of the universe are being systematically observed and catalogued, dissected and explained in elegant mathematic equations (that I have no hope of understanding). We know the world and how it works in a way that our species never has before, and it’s brilliant and beautiful. The nuance of the microscopic and beyond is truly amazing.

But it is not magic. And it comes at a cost.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson so eloquently put it: God [Magic] is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.

And along with this receding pocket of magic left to us, our sense of wonder is disappearing along with it. Which is why we – yes, I’m lumping you in with me here…because, you are here, reading this, after all – desire the escape to the realms of fantasy. To a world where wonder abounds.

We live in a world post-pandemic where lockdowns and social distancing were mandated, and now, as a looming nuclear threat breathes down our necks as Russia’s horrible war in Ukraine drags on and escalates daily, control is feeling more and more like an illusion. Entering the world of fantasy, where magic exists as a reality, the power of change is at our fingertips. Or, at least it can be for a time.


Hard or soft, it’s all awesome


Magic comes in many shapes and forms, but they’re all great and they all serve their purpose. Some stories rely on complex magic systems based on logic and hard rules, where the initiated train and study the nuance to cast spells or manipulate their environments. Others play it fast and loose with the rules, never defining the limits or requirements of magic, using it to engage the world and enhance the story. Yet more combine the two, incorporating aspects of both. 

None are wrong.

Each story is crafted differently, and the magic is tailored to fit it…or vice versa. 

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time revolves around a rock-hard, iron-clad set of rules that cannot be bent, let alone broken. Magicians (Chanellers) use specific ‘weaves’, combining the five elemental powers to send down rains of fire, blast the earth with lightning, or split it apart with a quake. If they don’t know the proper weave, they can’t achieve their goal. 

The system is complicated and takes a little bit of time to fully comprehend. As readers, we must learn along with the characters; once it’s grasped, there’s a deep-seated joy, excitement and anticipation. But that comes without losing the ever-important sense of wonder at seeing something truly outstanding.

Alternatively, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice (the books, of course) has hints of magic throughout, but never dives into the specifics of how, or even why in a few (most) cases it even exists. This leaves us readers in a state of uncertainty as we navigate the story. We never know when the magic will rear its head, how it will come about or what sort of impact it may have. There are unknowns even to the characters who wield the story’s magic, only enhancing the sense of awe we feel when it does appear. 

Again: neither approach is wrong. The story dictates the terms of the magic (or…vice versa). There are hundreds of examples that sprawl the spectrum. I stuck to two of the biggest, most popular examples for ease, but I’d love to hear your favourites, and thoughts in the comments below. 


But it’s far deeper than that…


Magic’s appeal is complex. It’s not just that it’s fun to imagine the possibility of casting a fireball, becoming invisible, flying, or morphing into our spirit animal. It’s about agency and possibility. 

Whether magic is hard or soft, accessible or ambient, it invites us to explore the expanses of infinite potential. It invites us to bask in uncertainty and to marvel at the unknown. It invites us to wonder once more.

And in this world of uncertainty – yet where science has taken much of the wonder away from us – isn’t that exactly what we’re all looking for?

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