The Rules of (Ancient) Magic

Not too long ago I was perusing a post by the fantasy author N. K. Jemisin about magic in fantasy. (The post is from several years back, but it only came to my attention recently—it’s well worth reading both the post and the comments after, if you’re interested in fantasy writing.) Jemisin takes issue with contemporary writers who obsess over rules and systems for magic rather than letting magic be the strange, unpredictable, sometimes frightening force that it often was in older fantasy by authors like Tolkien and Le Guin.

Naturally, being a historian of the ancient Mediterranean by training and a fantasy fan and author by inclination, it got me thinking about how magic is used in ancient Greek and Roman literature. The first problem is how to define magic. Lots of strange things happen in classical myths, but most of those are the action of gods, to whom turning people into peacocks or birthing fully-armed daughters out of their heads comes naturally. Ancient societies also widely believed that humans had the ability to invoke the gods to take action on their behalf through rituals including offerings, prayers, curses, and dances. I’m taking a more limited definition of magic, however: supernatural powers and events produced directly by humans at their will without requiring the aid and participation of gods or other superhuman entities. Using this definition, magic is actually quite rare in ancient literature, but here are a few examples.

In the Odyssey by Homer, the witch Circe uses enchanted food and a magic wand to transform Odysseus’ crew into animals. The god Hermes points Odysseus to a special herb which protects him from Circe’s magic as long as he is holding it, which allows him to overcome Circe and force her to restore his crew. (As a side note, this part of the epic may ultimately derive from Babylonian myths about the god Marduk, who held a sweet-smelling herb to protect himself from the poisonous blood of the dragon Tiamat and her monstrous children.)

In Euripides’ drama Medea, the sorceress Medea, abandoned by her husband Jason, sends a poisoned robe and crown to Jason’s new bride, Glauce. When Glauce dons the poisoned gifts, they cling to her body and burn her to death.

In Apuleius’ novel Metamorphoses (often also called The Golden Ass), the narrator Lucius learns that his friend’s wife dabbles in magic and can transform into a bird by rubbing a magic potion on her body. Lucius wants to try the same and steals some of her potion, but by mistake he gets the wrong one and is turned into a donkey. From the lady’s maid, Photis, he learns that the secret to reversing his transformation is to eat rose petals, but roses are not in season and the rest of the novel follows Lucius the donkey from one misadventure to the next as he tries to find roses to eat.

From these examples, we can notice some patterns about how Green and Roman authors thought about and used magic. On one hand, there is no sign of a magic system, as described by Jemisin. There are no universal rules and no explanation for how or why magic works. Every individual case is different. It depends upon secrets known only to its users, never shared with the audience, and its results often shock and terrify those who encounter them.

At the same time, even though we cannot call this magic systematic, there is a consistency to it. It tends to require special objects or substances, such as enchanted food, magic flowers, poisons, and potions. Those who are initiated into its powers can use them with confidence: Medea knows that her poison will be effective, just as Circe knows she is defeated when she sees Odysseus carrying the plant that makes him immune to her power. When the effects fail or go awry, it is because of ignorance or ineptitude on the part of the wielders, like Lucius using the wrong potion.

Despite this general consistency, the magic remains narratively powerful. It does not become dull and predictable or divert the stories away from the characters’ choices and their consequences. In fact, magic makes possible the human stories that are at the center of these narratives, from Medea’s calamitous vengeance to Lucius’ comic wanderings. How does it achieve these things? A few observations:

The stories include magic; they aren’t about magic. Magic is a MacGuffin. It sets things in motion or presents characters with choices to make, but once the magic has done its job, it disappears into the background and lets the characters get on with things.

Magic does not solve or circumvent the crucial problems. The human issues and choices at the center of these stories are ones that magic cannot touch. Odysseus is trying to get home. He deals with magic and monsters on his way, but it isn’t magic that gets him where he wants to go. Medea’s magic gives her the power to deeply hurt Jason in a way that a mundane woman in her position could not, but the story is about how she makes the choice to use that power. Lucius’ magical mishaps drive him to rethink his unsatisfying life and resolve to be a better person. Magic presents these characters with challenges and choices they wouldn’t otherwise face, but their stories are still about what happens in their hearts and minds.

We know only as much as we need to know. Apuleius does not list the ingredients in Lucius’ donkeyfying draught, nor is there an appendix at the end of the Odyssey to explain how Odysseus’ magical plant disrupted the mystical ether currents that Circe manipulated with her wand. Medea does not take time out from her revenge plot to give the audience a primer on fiery poisons. The magic simply works the way it is supposed to, and that’s all we need to know.

Thoughts for writers

There’s room in fantasy literature for many kinds of magic, from complex and internally consistent systems to strange and unpredictable effects. There’s even a place for fantasy with no magic at all. Whatever kind of fantasy you feel like writing, though, remember this: the story comes first. Whatever you do with your magic, don’t let it get in the way of your characters and the choices they have to make.

Image: Circe flees from Odysseus, with animal-headed crew, detail of photograph via Wikimedia (Metropolitan Museum of Art; c. 440 BCE; red-figure vase; by the Persephone Painter)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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A Washington State Hobbit Hole

Kristie Wolfe built a Hobbit hole in the mountains of central Washington state. And what great work it is—the attention to detail is superb!

Zillow Kristie Wolfe Hobbit Hole View

The house hole has a bedroom, a small living room, and a bathroom with a large wooden oval jacuzzi. As befits a Hobbit hole, the structure is mostly underground and has a round door.

Zillow Kristie Wolfe Hobbit Hole Entry

The small yard is edged by a stick-and-branch fence woven by Wolfe’s landscaper sister.

Zillow Kristie Wolfe Hobbit Hole Yard

There are loads of thought-out details like the floors made of wooden disks of various sizes and a beautiful metal door decoration/knob. But where is the kitchen? Wolfe explains in this video:

A Hobbit House You Can Stay In by Zillow

In case you can’t access the video, she says she’s planning a total of three holes, and since it’s not very practical for each to have its own kitchen, she wants to build a bigger shared one in the style of an English pub.

Read the article at Zillow for more details and photos.

I can understand that you can’t always overcome restrictions, but I still think a kitchen is vital, VITAL, in a Hobbit home. On the other hand, an indoor bathroom is often omitted in favor of an outhouse when building in a challenging location, so full marks to Wolfe for including a full bath.

Also check out a Scottish Hobbit hole I blogged about earlier—which do you prefer and why?

In Here is an occasional feature highlighting geeky spaces created by our fellow geeks all over the world.

Finnish Folk Hop Ensemble Tuuletar Lends Wings to Game of Thrones Ad

Alku (‘Beginning’), a piece by the Finnish vocal folk hop ensemble Tuuletar, appears in a Game of Thrones commercial. The band’s website says,

“’Alku’, the opening track from Tuuletar’s debut album “tules maas vedes taivaal” has been sold for the use of one of the most popular tv-series in the whole world, HBO’s Game of Thrones. The song will be heard in the season 7 DVD and Blue-Ray [sic] commercial, which will be broadcasted worldwide. The deal was made together with Finnish record label Bafe’s Factory and ThinkSync Music from London.”

The ThinkSync news page on the sale links to a German-language DVD / Blu-Ray trailer for GoT season 7 on YouTube with Alku in the background:

GAME OF THRONES Staffel 7 – Trailer #2 Deutsch HD German (2017) by Warner Bros. DE

Tuuletar mashes up a cappella, beatboxing and Finnish folk music and poetry into a unique combination. Their debut album, Tules maas vedes taivaal (‘On Fire and Earth, in Water and Sky‘), won the prestigious Emma Award (the Finnish version of a Grammy) for the best ethno album of the year in 2016.

Tuuletar IMG_0510-1024x683

Vocalists Venla Ilona Blom, Sini Koskelainen, Johanna Kyykoski and Piia Säilynoja make up Tuuletar. More videos at YouTube or Tuuletar website.

Congrats, Tuuletar! I first blogged about the band two years ago just before they released their debut record, and am absolutely delighted to see them doing so well. And Alku is so amazing it gives me chills—always a sign of greatness!

Crossposted from the Playfully Grownup Home blog.

Image via Tuuletar

This post has been edited for style.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

A Game of Thrones Hotel Made of Snow and Ice

The Snow Village hotel in Kittilä in Lapland, Finland, has gone all-out Game of Thrones for their 2017-2018 season. The snow and ice sculptures of various characters and scenes embellishing the resort were created in collaboration with HBO Nordic.

Laplandhotels Snow Village White Walker Sm

According to an Yle article (NB. in Finnish only), the hotel’s current look was finished at the beginning of December. While Finns built the structural parts of the snow village, the carving was done by an international team of artists with members from Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, and Russia.

Instagram Snow Village Hall of Faces

Check out the interiors in this video by Snow Village:

 

Another short video with more indoor and outdoor shots by LADbible can be found on Facebook.

It looks absolutely amazing! Just out of curiosity, I also had a look at the restaurant menus, and it sounds. So. Delicious! (Sadly, now I miss home!)

Instagram Snow Village Ice Bar with Dragon

The downside is that the pricing is, erm, quite high, to stick with a polite understatement. Then again, what else is to be expected when you have to rebuild a significant part of your infrastructure every winter?

Check out more and/or follow Snow Village on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. There are also photos I haven’t seen elsewhere (both of GoT and other themes) in the photo gallery at Laplandhotels.com.

Images: White Walker via Snow Village at Laplandhotels.com. Hall of faces via Snow Village on Instagram. Ice bar with dragon via Snow Village on Instagram.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

R.I.P. Ursula Le Guin

Author Ursula Le Guin is no longer with us.

Eileen Gunn Ursula-39-small

One of the most poignant remembrances I’ve yet seen is by author Catherynne Valente on Twitter:

I’m most fond of Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, some of which I’ve read and re-read in Finnish and in English over the years. I’ve only managed one of her science fiction books so far, though. Time to rectify that.

Forever read, Ms. Le Guin. Your intellect, inner fire, and vision will be deeply missed.

(Hat tip to Nnedi Okorafor for the phrase “forever read” in lieu of “rest in peace”.)

Image by Eileen Gunn via Ursula K. Le Guin website

Eating

Whether it’s lembas bread and stewed rabbit or a nice fresh pan-galactic gargle blaster, the things that characters eat and drink can be a useful way of establishing the feel of an unfamiliar world. But how your characters eat and how their food is prepared and served can contribute just as much to your worldbuilding as what they eat. Here are a few things to think about when creating food systems for fantasy worlds.

Wet carbs or dry carbs?

Traditional cuisines in most of the world are based on carbohydrates, but those carbs can come in many different forms. If they’re dry—flatbread, raised breads, tortillas, biscuits, etc.—then people are likely to eat them by hand and may well use them to pick up and hold other dishes like stews and sauces. If they’re wet—porridge, cooked rice, pasta, etc.—people are more likely to use implements like spoons and chopsticks to hold them.

Eating by hand or eating with implements?

While this can be to some extent determined by the nature of the food, many foods can be eaten either by hand or with implements. Implement-eating cultures tend to develop specialized implements for particular foods or kinds of eating; whether or not people have access to or know how to use the correct implements for the right food can be a marker of social status. On the other hand, hand-eating cultures can have just as complicated rules about how to eat. Forget the renfaire stereotypes about grabbing a turkey leg and tearing into it; societies that eat by hand tend to have strict rules governing when and how often you wash your hands, which hand you use to eat with, even which fingers and which individual finger joints should be used for which foods.

Large pieces or small pieces?

Some cuisines, such as most traditional European cookery, tend to cook meats and vegetables in large pieces which individual diners cut up for themselves. Others, such as traditional cuisines across much of south and east Asia, tend to cut meats and vegetable into smaller pieces in the kitchen which are served up to be consumed as they are.

Communal dishes or individual servings?

Sometimes food is served in communal dishes from which everyone takes what they like; other times, everyone gets their own individual serving. Both ways of serving are wrapped up with social etiquette. With communal dishes, there are usually rules about how people serve themselves, in what order, and how much at a time. With individual dishes, there may be rules about whether everyone gets the same things or the same amount.

In any culture, you are also likely to find variations on these possibilities. People of different social classes or ethnic backgrounds within the same society may well follow different eating customs. The same people may also eat differently under different circumstances: a quiet family dinner at home probably has different social rules than a public banquet for a festival day. Drawing out these complexities is also a part of worldbuilding.

Food is important. People often get emotionally invested not just in what they eat but in how they eat it. Many of the customs and norms that societies develop for how food is eaten and served have their roots in protecting hygiene and managing social hierarchies, two very important issues for personal well-being. Even today, when modern food safety practices and the weakening of traditional social hierarchies has made these issues less urgent, people can still have deep emotional reactions to perceived transgressions as trivial as folding a slice of pizza or eating a hamburger with fork and knife.

Imagine how important customs of cooking, serving, and eating food could be in a world in which your character’s standing in society may depend on knowing which finger to use to dip into the shared sauce bowl.

Image: Preparing butter, image from Shiwunbencao (ink on paper, Ming period)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Game of Thrones Stamps to Be Published in U.K.

Royal Mail in Britain is releasing Game of Thrones stamps. The Character Stamp Set focuses on popular characters:

Royal Mail GoT Character Stamp Set Jan 2018

According to the BBC, an additional five-stamp sheet is also going to be published. It features giants, direwolves, dragons, the Iron Throne, and the Night King and his undead White Walkers.

The stamps will be available at post offices across the U.K. or by calling Royal Mail’s customer service line from next Tuesday, January 23, 2018. Pre-orderes on the Royal Mail website are also possible.

I’m counting 5 women and 5 men on the Character Stamp Set. Counted another way, 4 Starks (go, Starks!), 4 Lannisters, and Daenerys plus old dame Tyrell. Cool cool cool!

Found via File 770.

Image via Royal Mail

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Quotes: One Should Not Seek Ugliness in This World

“One should not seek ugliness in this world. There is no lack of it. You will find it soon enough, or it will find you.”

– Sigrud je Harkvaldsson in City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett

Although my life has been very different from that of a Dreyling operative and assassin, I agree. (For instance, I’ve never understood the appeal of vampire or horror genres, but to each their own.)

Bennett, Robert Jackson. City of Miracles. New York: Broadway Books, 2017, p. 177.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Medieval Fantasy City Generator

Creating medieval(esque) city maps just got a lot easier: Oleg Dolya (watabou) made an automated generator to do it.

Medieval Fantasy City Generator Small

Choose size of city with the click of a button, and color scheme and line or shading types from the options. You can export the image either as png or svg. Unfortunately the ward names (temple, merchant, crafts, etc.) aren’t saved on the exported map, though.

Watabou also built a 3d-visualiser to support Medieval Fantasy City Generator called Toy Town. Although I haven’t played with that, it sounds like both should be a great help to storytellers—unless you enjoy the process with paper and pen, of course!

Found via N.K. Jemisin on Twitter.

Image: screenshot from a map created by Eppu Jensen with Medieval Fantasy City Generator by watabou

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Flashback Friday: AFR 115: Don’t Die So Close to Me

In the morning, my logic brain was busy blocking the day and arranging my To-Do list, when the art brain suddenly burst out with “Don’t stand– Don’t stand in– Don’t stand in the fire!”

AFR115

The joke comes from Erik’s previous online comic, Away from Reality. AFR is a World of Warcraft fan comic, and this one, number 115, is called “Don’t Die So Close to Me”.

Of course, having been jolted out of my multitasking-while-not-realising-it state, I had to sing the whole thing. Multiple times. 🙂

“Young warrior, the subject of mob abilities.

He’s tanking so badly, he doesn’t even see.

He got too distracted. He full of rage inside.

He should have been moving–

Instead he stood and died.

 

Don’t stand– Don’t stand in– Don’t stand in the fire!

Don’t stand– Don’t stand in– Don’t stand in the fire!”

(The tune is “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police.)

While my To-Do list probably would be in a better state had I finished it at one go, my day was definitely made. Thank you, art brain. 😀

Image: Away from Reality #115: “Don’t Die So Close to Me” by Erik Jensen

Some things are just too silly not to share!