Five Branches of Magic Systems (Revisited)

Half a year ago, I wrote a blog post about different kinds of magic systems, hoping to be informative, not expecting it to continue garnering views in the way that it has. I certainly wouldn’t call it a throwaway post, but in the months since I’ve published it, I’ve come to realize that, although I still stand by the five magic systems, the definitions weren’t as clear and inclusive as they needed to be. With each new book I’ve read, I’ve considered how it fits into the various magic systems. Hopefully, the changes I’ve made below reflect them better, but if you’ve read a book whose magic system does not easily fit into one of the ones below, please mention them in the comments.

Elemental Magic

~Draws from the concept of universal building blocks where each of the elements has both metaphorical and literal meanings. Primarily split into four or five different elements.

Avatar: The Last Airbender popularized the notion of elemental magic systems. In fact, most of the elemental systems in modern literature draw from it in some way; the concept of earth, water, air, and fire (and spirit, in some cases) is perhaps the most well-known iteration of the system. However, elemental magic systems as a concept are nothing new. Many cultures have (or had) some iteration of the elemental magic system.

There is a Chinese philosophy, for example, called Wuxing where the five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. It’s interesting to see the differences, from an outsider’s perspective; wood, earth, and metal could all equate as physical, concrete, tangible items while also keeping the concept of “air” and “spirit” off the table. But there is a distinct logic to the system, one that keeps the five elements separate. The five Wuxing elements are each one phase that leads to another, which can be seen in a more abstract sense with how AtLA’s many lives transition from one element to the other. Furthermore, while not strictly necessary for the magic system, each element caries its own metaphorical meaning. Metal represents autumn and harvest. Wood represents spring and growth. I’m not here to speak on it as an expert, only to point out that there are alternative elemental systems.1

When it comes to magic systems found in fantasy novels, there are various ways to manifest the elemental magic. It can be divisive–limiting in the way that only certain people can wield a specific element–or it can be interwoven–certain people can use all elements, with rigid in-world rules to limit what it can do. Consider AtLA for the former, of course, and Wheel of Time for the latter. Channelers “weave” together different elements in a very specific way to do a very specific thing. The interwoven path allows for some general creative liberty in how the magic manifests, how it interacts with itself, and so forth. How the magic system’s limitations present itself remains pretty open for the writer.

The more divisive path allows for uniqueness as well in terms of how each specific element interacts with other elements. Often, it allows for the aforementioned metaphorical, abstract ideas being connected to each element. Character personalities are frequently influenced by the element they wield, especially when compared to their “opposing” element. Frequently, too, there will be in-world rules that allow for specific branches of unique elemental wielding that can borderline superpower magic (see below) with the exception that there are still strict rules as to what possibilities are available when the elements mix together. It’s not just that some people may be equipped with the possibility of using all four elements (like the Avatar). It’s also that the mixing of elements can allow for special abilities like AtLA’s metal and lava bending. But, of course, the exact nature of how it manifests depends on each magic system’s set of rules and regulations.

Superpower Magic

~Drawing from the popularity of superhero comics (etc.), has near limitless potential for actual capabilities. Often hyper-specific to each character so that each character has their own unique ability.

This particular magic system is a simplistic concept with endless possibilities. Really, the only cap on power is the author’s own creativity. Of course, there are more books with elemental magic systems than just the two I mentioned above, but it’s far easier to list books with the superpower magic system than the previous. Marissa Meyer’s Renegades series or Marie Lu’s Young Elites or, of course, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm.

In the case of the first two, there are truly no limitations. Whether it’s drawing things into existence (Renegades) or communicating with animals (Young Elites), or the usual suspects like super strength, indestructability, or flight, there is truly no limit. Hence, perhaps, why it can be such a fun magic system to play with. Each character can have a specific set of limitations for their own unique ability, and, like with any skill, if faced with an enemy that is not compatible with the character’s magic, then their magic does them no good at all.

The limitations themselves prove to be another avenue for creative liberty, as the confines of one superhero ability draws up the possible neighboring boundary of a similar ability. Take, for instance, Cashore’s mind readers. They are a subcategory of Gracelings because although there are several examples of mind readers, they have their own specific strain of capabilities. There is a mind-reader who can see other characters’ desires and a mind-reader who can steal any thoughts other characters have that are related to the mind-reader. Cashore, however, also has strict rules regarding what can constitute as a Grace. There are no elemental superpowers, no ability to fly or to create something from nothing. With the exception of mind-readers (and those bordering on similar kinds of mind-related Graces), most Graces are simply skillsets that already exist in people that are unarguably better with their Grace. Whether they’re useless, like being able to hold one’s breath for a long time, or useful, like being super strong, they’re based off of preexisting human traits.

What makes the superhero magic superhero magic is that there is an innate ability for characters to do some otherwise impossible thing. Most, if not all, abilities in the magic system do not require any external resources to make the magic work. And, even if there are rules to regulate what abilities a magical character might have, there is some element of randomness or uniqueness that prevents the abilities from being too similar.

Spellwork Magic

~Holds the broad range of abilities that superpower magic can have while requiring some physical elements or line of speech or magical artifact. Generally, but not always, equates to the traditional witch or wizard.

Spellwork magic has an array of applications, various ways to both limit and grow its power. While it’s traditional for a certain magic spark to be required to make the spells work, it’s not a requirement. Spellwork magic parallels superpower magic in its own way, except for two differences: 1) What one person can do, another person of equal or greater power and equipped with the same knowledge and resources can also do. 2) As an extension, whereas superhero magic is often intuitive and self-reliant by necessity, spellwork magic almost always requires either a physical or verbal element to unlock or direct the magic.

Physical elements are any living or nonliving natural elements that can go beyond what a reader generally considers when it comes to spells or potions. It can also refer to the physical gestures or movements (finger or arm or wand placement) used in spells. I could go straight to the likes of Harry Potter, but whether those helped establish spellwork magic in narratives or built off of existing tropes (and it is primarily the latter), it is what one could consider the norm. For outliers, one such example is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, where Mistings and Mistborn must ingest a specific metal to “burn” to activate their abilities. And while it does have an element of superhero magic to it–in that Mistings can only burn one particular metal–because it requires a physical element, it also falls into the spellwork magic.

That is not to say that spellwork magic can’t have specialties on its own merit. The Magicians by Lev Grossman prove as much. With spells reliant on dead languages, special ingrediants, and precise castings, it purposefully parallels the likes of Harry Potter, if with a darker appeal. But, as with interests in any academic field, it makes sense that these students of magic would find themselves with specialties of their own. Every student has a discipline. Some are well-populated, such as psychic disciplines, where there are specialties, such as traveling or astral projection, but more than one student can have these disciplines. Each student’s discipline is not inherently their own; they may just be (un)lucky enough to have a rare one that makes it seem so. In a way, a case could still be argued that they are more aligned with superpower magic–levitating or mind reading don’t require any special spellwork for magicians with the appropriate discipline–but of course magic systems do not have to fall into one category and one alone.

Animal Magic

~The pairing of humans and beasts to some capacity, whether it’s two entities bonded together or one entity able to shift into two or more forms.

As with elemental magic, animal magic can be linked to other systems; based on the definition, one’s first instinct would be to consider witch familiars and werewolves, both of which are most prevalent in the paranormal fantasy where spellwork magic often holds center stage. However, the likes of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials–with animals as the personifications of peoples’ souls–and George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire–where certain people can temporarily inhabit the mind of an animal–prove that this particular magic can also stand on its own.

Animal magic is as ancient as elemental magic, going back to the likes of the Norse Saga of the Volsungs, where father and son don wolf pelts that turn them into wolves for ten days. But there are plenty others, like the Greek myth of Lycaon or else in the western Epic of Gilgamesh2. Perhaps the continued popularity of werewolves is due to the general mysticism around wolves that had been prevalent in those ancient times, but present-day animal magic systems have embraced a wider range of beasts to shift into. From Beorn’s black bear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit to Solembum’s cat in Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle to even dragons in Hartman’s Seraphina duology, nothing is binding authors from branching animal magic out to incorporate other beasts.

Potentially, the other half of animal magic is less prevalent. The likes of Harry Potters‘s Hedwig or Trevor or Crookshanks may look to fill in the “witch companion” checkbox, but this is magic we are discussing, and so for it to count, there must be some level of supernaturalness to the bond. (An argument could admittedly be made for Crookshanks, who was half-Kneazle and thus even more selective of his owner than a normal cat would be.) Dæmons from His Dark Materials obviously qualify as a more concrete example. Dæmons, as a personification of a character’s soul, are invariably linked to that character. Kill the dæmon, kill the human, and vice versa. (Although, in the books, killing the dæmon really just killed the character’s soul; they could live without their dæmon, but as little more than a shell.) A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t require a bond between the warg and the animal whose mind they borrow, although the warg characters tend to have one they are especially close with. Again, this qualifies because it goes beyond the mere concept of a pet.

Multi-world Magic

~The existence of a world within a world, or worlds beside each other. Requires some magic (included, but certainly not limited to, a talisman, spell, or ritual) to enter, and thus, tends to be selective on who can enter.

It’s interesting to see a sort of multiverse concept in fantasy when it seems like it should belong in science fiction alone. Yet the concept of multiple worlds in one can be seen at least as far back as the Norse Yggdrasil, their tree of life with its nine separate worlds connected to a single tree. What separates the concept of the science fiction multiverse with the fantasy “multi-world” is that there are magical rules and restrictions that tend to limit who can walk between the worlds. Whether it requires a magical talisman like Chronicle of Narnia’s ring or a wardrobe, or some form of spell like Shades of Magic‘s Antari, something restricts movement.

Yet the multi-world magic is not limited to just off-worlds. It involves any parcel of land that takes up space in an area that no one can enter without some sort of key. I hesitate to call the likes of Harry Potter‘s Diagon Alley a form of multi-world magic because it does take up space in a common area; magic just discourages the Muggles from entering and, to a certain extent, can also mitigate the amount of space used in a proper Timelord bigger-on-the-inside fashion. Certainly, though, Waygates and Portal Stones from Wheel of Time are a proper example. The portal stones goes beyond just “fast travel;” it can take characters to different versions of their own reality. Waygates exist on a seemingly separate plane from the regular world, where the rules of nature and time itself are different, but still connected in some physical sense to the regular world that the characters usually inhabit. Neither have exclusions on who can enter, so long as there is a basic understanding of how the magic works, but knowledge itself is limited, and of course, especially in the case of the portal stones, so is space. But, in the end, exclusions or lackthereof would not make or break the magic’s classification as “multi-world;” rather, it is just the magic system’s own set of limitations. And limitations, as we already know, can come from various directions.



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