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While the fantasy genre is often associated with the need for a presence of magic or the supernatural, I would argue that need not always be the case. Could a fantasy novel not, instead, solely feature complex world-building with different lands, societies, and customs without the presence of magic? I believe so. Recently, several members of Backroom Whispering Productions read The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, a 2015 hard-fantasy novel from Tor Books that features neither magic nor the supernatural, nor are there strange beasts or creatures. It is, instead, merely a fictional world entirely separate from our own, with customs, cultures, and technologies not found on Earth. And, yet, it is fantasy, especially if one assumes that certain seemingly supernatural elements or sentient races can be explained by the physical laws of their respective fictional worlds.For example, the otherwise magic-free 2014 fantasy novel The Goblin Emperor contains species such as Goblins and Elves, which for all we know, could have evolved naturally in that world.
In my own reading of fantasy literature, I utilize a five-tier classification scheme, adopted from a forum of which I was a member, to help me understand and analyze the role of magic within any given work based on a relatively objective scale:
Level 1 – Nonmagical. Magical miracles that science cannot explain are possible but exceedingly rare and the public believes that science will come up with a reason sooner or later.
Level 2 – Very low magical. Supernatural occurrences may be relatively common but are misunderstood or difficult to harness.
Level 3 – Decently magical. Magic is believed in, though not necessarily easy to perform.
Level 4 – Highly magical. Supernatural occurrences are common and believed in, though may still be under the control of an elite or a subbranch of culture.
Level 5 – Magically saturated. Supernatural power is common and prevalent. Nearly everyone has it and it’s a cornerstone of civilization. To go without is unthinkable and disastrous, akin to the world losing electric power all at once.
It is a simple, straightforward scale that I think applicable to almost all works of fantasy literature. A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, could be situated on Level 2, as magic occurs, but only within the margins of society and, even then, its efficacy is often unclear to even the practitioner (c.f. Melisandre). A series such as The Lord of the Rings, however, would be situated around Level 3, as magic occurs within the stories with complete awareness to the characters; no one denies the power of Sauron, Gandalf, or Saruman, but the use of magic is limited to a select few and, even then, it has its limits. The Wheel of Time series would sit comfortably on Level 4, with magic being both common and widely demonstrated, albeit with the initial exclusivity to women who can channel the “One Power.” Finally, I would personally rate most of the works of Brandon Sanderson somewhere between Levels 4 and 5, as they are completely saturated with magic and often designed along elaborately-described systems.
Those books higher on the tiered scale beg the question: as magic becomes much more directly a part of a fictional world, is it then really magic? If we accept the definition of “magic” as the presence or use of the mysterious or supernatural — i.e. the extraordinary — then, does not the overt pervasiveness of the magic within the worlds of say, Sanderson, make magic commonplace? It becomes the ordinary, a natural part of a fictional world that simply obeys different laws from our own. Even so, it is still fantasy.
Reader, what do you think? Is is fantasy without magic, when you just have a different world? Is magic just a word for different laws of nature in a different world? How would you classify and understand the role magic plays in fantasy works?
*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.