The Nature of Magic, in Le Guin and Tolkien

The description of magic, and the underlying concept of it, is variously tackled in many a fantasy book. What does it feel like to use magic? Is it a tool, a technique? An external force? Or is it an art? A gift?

Tolkien wrote (in an undated letter, probably in 1951) that in Middle-earth, in The Lord of the Rings, there was a sort of machine-like magic used by the dark forces, used like a bulldozer to dominate or coerce, to gain Power. And in contrast, he offered the more wonderful high art of the immortal Elves, whose powers were simply “more effortless, more quick, more complete” than ordinary abilities of mere mortals.

To find an insightful description of magic and how it feels to use it, look to the writings of Ursula Le Guin, author of the famed Earthsea series, and more recently, an excellent series (Annals of the Western Shore) that includes the novel Gifts (2004), Voices (2006), and Powers (2007).

About Powers, a reviewer in Canada’s The Globe and Mail said:

What if there were a writer who exhibited all the inventiveness of genre fantasy but played out the action with a cast of nuanced, gritty, convincing characters in a prose style that was as lean, distilled and rhythmical as poetry? What if there were a writer who could invite all those readers who duck at the mention of dragons into a fantasy world that was as compelling and familiar as any in realistic fiction? . . . Peer as you might, you can’t quite see how she does it. Events from the past reappear, the future is foreshadowed and every incident is deeply rooted in character.

Gifts, the first in the series, introduces the Upland tribes, strong in magical powers that are different for each family group, gifts passed down from father to son, mother to daughter – power to see, command animals, destroy . . . with “a glance, a gesture, a word.” It focuses on a young teen, Orrec, who has a wild gift, and his friend, Gry, a girl whose powers to work with animals is taking shape.

What does it feel like to use the great powers of magic?

“But what does it feel like, to use it?”

He [Canoc, Orrec’s father] frowned and thought a long time before he spoke.

It’s as if something comes all together,” he said. His left hand moved a little, involuntarily. “As if you were a knot at the center of a dozen lines, all of them drawn into you, and you holding them taut. As if you were a bow, but with a dozen bowstrings. And you draw them in tighter, and they draw on you, till you say, ‘Now!’ And the power shoots out like the arrow.”

That’s a description of magic . .  rich with the tangible imagery and cadence of poetry . . . the kind of writing that those who read Le Guin’s novels are hooked on.

(Blog post on the blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

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1 Comment

  1. I’ve only just discovered your blog, hence the very late response. These observations remind me of an interview I had with Philippa Boyens not long before the release of The Fellowship of the Ring. At the time, she was scheduled to write the teleplay for A Wizard of Earthsea (which she was unable to do, to the great detriment of that production!), so we talked about the challenges of adapting both Tolkien and Le Guin to the screen. At one point she said (paraphrasing), “Earthsea isn’t fantasy, but then of course, neither is Tolkien. Well, technically I suppose they are, but you know what I mean.” And I did. She meant they are as far removed from standard genre fantasy as Beowulf is from Disney. Your discussion of their use of magic expresses one aspect of this difference very well.

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