Do you Recall that glorious moment in The Return of the King when Gandalf rides out to save Feramir and the last defenders of Osgiliath! Do you remember when he raised his staff and great light issued forth, driving the ring-wraiths away (along with all the cool kids who happen to be reading these here lines)? Yes, well, I do too. And now that it’s just us nerds here in the blog, let us talk of wondrous things!
What I’m particularly interested in on this dark morning here on the tail end of polar midnight, (aside from hope of a Gandalf-like ray of sun-light soon to come) is the way that some folks (ahem gamers!) often speak of wondrous things in particularly unwondrous ways.
‘Unwondrous’, Yeah, it’s a word now dammit!
One of the amusing meta-games that gamers have been playing ever since those heady-days of the early 80s is the game of “how do you stat that?” You know, the one where you decide that the Arnold version of Conan is a 10th level Ranger with an eighteen double-ought strength, and then your friend says; “hell no, he’s a 12th level fighter and he must have supernatural strength, 20 at least, …probably Chaotic Good alignment.” Then someone says; “You must be nuts! He’s easily true neutral.” …yeah, we geeks do that. Well anyway, the game of “how do you stat that” really comes into its own with magical effects, because stating magic helps to define the fantasy worlds in which the games take place.
In Tolkien’s work, mythic narratives began to flourish in fantasy fiction. Hell, for a time they almost seemed cool, cool enough for the mighty Zep at any rate, and this was a significant part of the cultural background informing the early days of pen&paper RPGs. But here is one moment where the game of stating the worlds around you (real or imagined) always seemed to fall short for me, at least in mainstream games. They fall short really the minute the game of stat this is played.
You see, to stat that magic moment in which Gandalf drives off the wraiths in AD&D one would need to assign his light effect to a designated spell with a designated range, area of effect, and duration, all defined in precise mathematical terms. The effects of light on undead would be clearly defined in this spell, and the sort of power it takes to generate the spell would also be clearly explained. In Dungeons and Dragons and many of the games emulating it, this wondrous moment in the story becomes a function of well-defined principle of mechanics. One might even suggest that it becomes part of the natural laws of the universe in which the games take place.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed countless hours of manipulating precisely those very mechanics over the game table. Good times! I wouldn’t part with them for brand new vorpral sword. But one thing is definitely lost in this approach to gaming, the wondrous part of it all. The rules of mainstream fantasy games normalize the features of mythic narratives to such a degree that they become a kind of demi-science. One can often see gamers haggling over the details of some magic effect or trying to plot the precise mathematical formula needed to ensure that all the orcs on the game table fry-up in a fireball without singing the elven maiden. in most cases there is nothing mysterious about it; the game rules tell us exactly how this sort of thing works. It’s how many of these games are played.
What is lost in this approach to gaming is the very fluid nature of the narratives which inspire and inform the genre. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t really present us with a theory of Gandalf’s light, not a complete one at any rate. We might imagine that Gandalf is able to generate that effect because of some arcane set of rules we know nothing about, but what we have in a mythic narrative is simply the fact that he did that, odd as the whole thing may be. Wondering just how such seemingly impossible feats actually happen is an important part of the story. Wondering about it at the game table? Not so much. Not usually anyhow.
In the scientization of mythic narratives, the spell-books of classic fantasy gaming effectively set that wonder aside. Of course there are alternative approaches to the subject, such as those used in story-teller games, but my purpose here isn’t to argue for upping the nerditude of the game table. It’s to comment on something I consider an interesting twist in the culture of fantasy gaming, namely its tendency to frame wondrous things in terms of a well defined rational principles.
If fantasy games presents us with a kind of alternative physics, I don’t think this is entirely unique to modern perspectives on the subject. One sees it in references to The Force of Star Wars, and still more so in the theme-killing notion of Midi-chlorians (microorganisms responsible for the force. …blech)! You can see it in old Theosophical notions of an astral plane through which emotional and psychic powers turn out to follow a kind of physics in their own right, and of course you can see it in sundry New Age efforts to turn Quantum Mechanics into a science of wishful thinking. Folks use these notions and others like them to embed the uncanny moments of a narrative in a theory which makes sense of it. In some cases, that is the total point of the theory; in others it is one of many uses.
Time and again, folks seem to want to find a theory in stories made wonderful precisely because they defy our theories, or more importantly, because they defy our normal strategies for making sense of the world. What makes the moment Gandalf creates his light effect compelling is precisely our inability to fully make sense of it. It is likewise with more traditional epic narratives such as the role of missletoe in the killing of Baldur in Norse mythology, the origin of sea mammals in the in Sedna’s severed fingers, or the forceful eviction of the Gambler in Navajo legends (he was fired up into the skies from a great bow). What all of these and so many more narratives share is not conformity to an arcane set of natural laws so much as a momentary in-your-face violation of expectations which people are most familiar.
What I am suggesting here is that the notion of magic isn’t really a part of these narratives, or at least that it is not the key to understanding the momentary occurrence of irrational events. Such stories may relate information about a natural order (such as a world in which the availability game-animals are in some sense part of an active relationship to Sedna), but that order does not itself explain the moment in which something odd springs forth from her severed fingers.One doesn’t really need a theory to explain why such an event would occur, nor need one assume that someone telling that story entertains such a theory to explain the event they describe. One needs only to understand that the outcome of the narrative will be meaningful. In the interim, the shear absurdity of moments in that story is a thing to be savored, not to be explained away.
The notion of magic along with its specific variations come into such stories in efforts to square them with more familiar realities. Where the uncanny can be a feature of such stories, it becomes a bug when one imposes an expectation of literal truth upon it. So, people sometimes concoct a theory to explain the matter. Some of those theories provide an ad hoc defense of the uncanny, and sometimes they damn it as in the more pejorative uses of terms like ‘magic’ or ‘myth’, but the explanations remain ad hoc in either event, providing us with no real insight into the stories.
Magic, resides in the secondary and even tertiary rationalization of mythic narratives, but there is no reason to believe it resides in the narratives themselves. We needn’t imagine Tolkien plotting an area of effect for Gandalf’s wraith-baffling light ray, nor do we need to ascribe a theory of mythic-evolution to Inuit story-tellers relating the story of Sedna. Hell, we don’t even need to imagine that the Book of Genesis constitutes an attempt to explain the cosmos, though a world touched by the hand of Thomas Aquinas can hardly seem to imagine otherwise.
There is something in the effort to find a theory behind wondrous narratives that does violence to those narratives themselves. Such theories always end up falling short of their source material. It is the same whether we are talking about the hackneyed apologetics of fundamentalist Christians looking to read a consistent theory into all the traditions crammed into the Bible; an anthropologist trying to find such a theory in the oral traditions of some exotic people, or yes; something as simple as a gam designer trying to fit a wondrous theme into a rule system. The explanation never quite lives up to the promise of its inspiration.
Sometimes that failure matters more than others, but for me at any rate, the disappointment is a fairly common reaction. What concerns me most nowadays is the ease with which people seem to accept that mythic narratives ought to have a theory behind them, a set of principles that will explain them, even if only in terms of an error. That just isn’t the case. Sometimes this expectation gives us bad story-telling, sometimes it steers a whole generation of fantasy-gamers right past the fantastic part of fantasy, and sometimes it leads people to genuinely misunderstand great texts and brilliant oral traditions. Either way the variety of magics are never quite as brilliant as the stories which inspire them.
Magic itself just isn’t all that compelling, but a man playing chess with a fish or a cat that sings itself into a dragon? No explanations required.