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.”