Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, and the gradual removal of the fantastic from our fantasy.
I’m going to do something here which will shock all my friends: I’m going to say something controversial.
There is no magic in the fantasy genre anymore.
I do not mean that there are no spellcasters or spells. Those are a dime a dozen. Wizards and Witches and Warlocks and Priests and Clerics and Druids and Magi and Seers and Thaumaturges and Mystics and plain-old-badly-named Magic Users abound like there’s a firesale over at the “Sorcerer” section of the local Thesaurus-mart. No, I do not mean spellcasters or spells. I mean magic.
I assume if you’re still reading this, that you are at least somewhat a fan of the fantasy genre. Do you remember the very first time you read The Hobbit? I do. I was 5, and it was uncle’s copy, the coffee table edition illustrated by the Hildebrandts. Dungeons & Dragons was still called “Chainmail,” at the time, and movies considered to be ‘Fantasy’ were released with almost audible apologies by the studios. I read The Hobbit, and I was utterly captivated. Hobbits and Dwarves and Elves and Wizards and Orcs and talking spiders and magic rings and a Dragon! Oh my god, a Dragon, the most amazing and perfect Dragon ever! Everything about the story was new and interesting. I had no idea what an Orc was. I learned it through context. I had heard of Elves before, of course, but they were little flying pixie-people who shot tiny bows that gave you tetanus. They most certainly were not tall or taller than a man and beautiful and ancient and wise and deadly and wonderful. A magic sword that glowed when monsters were nearby was an amazingly useful thing to have and just think of all you could do with a ring that made you invisible!
This, for me, was Magic. Not what Gandalf did, although that was there also, but the entire book. This wonderful mythology that was so wonderfully thought out and beautifully detailed and, most importantly, Not Explained.
That’s right. Tolkien did not detail exactly how magic worked. He did not give step-by-step details of how the Elves came to be where they were (not until the Silmarilion and while yes, I have read that several times, not when I was five). Dwarves were not just ‘short guys with beards and Scottish accents.’ Each species seemed like a totally different and unique race. Remember, I was five.
Yes, I can look back now and realize that each race was given one or two defining characteristics that stereotyped them, but it was the first time I had ever seen that trick pulled and it worked. It worked so well, in fact, that it spawned a juggernaut in the fantasy genre. Tolkien, whom I admire greatly and love the works of, is in my opinion indirectly responsible for the death of the very thing he created in me, a sense of wonder and magic.
For the vast majority of Dungeons & Dragons was ‘influenced by’ Tolkien. And that’s not a bad thing by itself. If you’re going to steal your setting details you may as well steal from the best, right? And when D&D first came out by that name, I loved it. My mother had the old boxed set which I promptly read cover to cover, then convinced my Grandmother to buy me my own copy, an act she regretted deeply for the next 20 years. I played it and loved it, never aware that already the seeds were being sewn.
Then the game went into a Second Edition, and while the rules made a lot more sense (WHY was ‘Elf’ a character CLASS instead of a RACE?), they also took a little of the mystery out of it all. Then forty-five billion other game companies released their own games but even more crucial: people started writing novels about their D&D groups. You had the obvious ones like Hickman and Weiss and Estes of course, but there were others. Feist’s Riftwar books were thinly disguised D&D campaigns set to page. There were others, dozens and then hundreds of others. It wasn’t all D&D obviously. There were those who loved their GURPS and so wrote those campaigns into novel form. You even had a funny reversal of the trend when White Wolf came along and, not being able to get Anne Rice’s permission to use her names, made up a bunch of their own as they made the first truly successful RPG adaptation of a novel since D&D itself. And then people wrote novels set in the White Wolf World of Darkness, and the circle was completed.
And those books shaped the minds and the language of fantasy for those who came later. People started putting their fantasy books in space, but it was still the D&D creatures (in the case of Warhammer 40,000, they often didn’t even bother to change the names). Even the movies and TV companies started getting into it. In the original series of Star Trek, the Klingons were warlike but urbane. By the time Next Generation hit, they had been reduced to SpaceOrcs. And on and on it went.
Now, here is where the death of magic comes in. Books based on your RPGs, no matter how cleverly you disguise your source, still have to follow the basic rules of whatever system you were using at the time, and use the same tropes as the system. And so, those rules and those systems began to make their way into fantasy books also. Sometimes this was literal (Orcs, the use of D&D magic in Hickman/Weiss/Feist books, etc), but sometimes it was more subtle. But in all cases, something began to happen. Fantasy began to be structured.
This is obvious, if you think about it. Games have structure. They have rules. Otherwise an RPG would just be a bunch of people sitting around a table saying “I kill you.” “No you don’t.” “Yes I do.” “Nuh uh.” “Uh huh.” Games HAVE to have rules and structure. And that’s fine. But what happens when you start writing books about your campaign? That structure starts to work it’s way into the fiction. Suddenly, “Witch” doesn’t just mean “woman who lives alone and people sometimes go to for love potions, and when the cows die we have someone to blame and burn at the stake.” No, now “Witch” has a very specific meaning in whatever your world might happen to be, and it’s very different from a “Sorceress” or a “Wizardess” or a female “Magi.” Each one has it’s own clearly defined ways of doing magic, and no one in the world of the novel would ever confuse one for the other. Why? Well, obviously because Janet was playing a Witch and Brad’s female Sorceress character was a totally different character class, duh. What was I thinking?
It got to the point where people would go out of their ways to show that their world was not a D&D game brought to life. But they had to prove it, which meant they had to detail how their magic system worked, in the story. This leads to pages of exposition as Lord InfoDump the Wizard explains to ReaderStandIn McProtagonist exactly how magic works. What the rules are. The problem is that most people don’t buy the latest novel with a dragon on the cover because they want to be lectured to for 45 pages on some made-up metaphysical construction. And worse yet, for the authors at least, often the more that you explain the more holes your readers will be able to poke in your system if they bother to think about it.
Those who know me will, of course, think that I’m off my rocker right now, since one of the things I cannot stress enough when talking about writing is world building. I’ll probably Rant about that later, but in a nutshell, I think that one of the most important things a writer needs to do is to know their own world. How does it work? Why do things happen the way they do? And yes, this usually means figuring out how your magic systems work ahead of time. But: and here’s the crucial bit, it should be opaque to the reader. YOU need to know that there is a difference, and how that difference manifests practically, between the magic forms of the Brotherhood of The Threadbare Robe and those of the Royal Order of Purple Slipper Wearing Geezers, but your reader (and indeed, 99% of your characters unless they happen to BE members of the Brotherhood or the Royal Order) should have no idea.
To close out, I’m going to point out a couple of last things. The first is that, done right or with a very entertaining writing style, even books with these clear delineations can still be fun to read. David Eddings’ Belgariad books did it, and Terry Goodkind may as well have included statblocks for his classes in the appendix of his Sword of Truth series, but they were fun to read anyways. Not Magic, but fun none-the-less. And Brandon Sanderson, when he’s not finishing up the last works of dead hacks, pretty much takes the idea of “I’m going to explain how the magic works and that’s pretty much the book” and refines it into an artform of exploration of the permutations of what seems like, on the surface, a fairly simplistic system. If you haven’t read Elantris or the Mistborn books, do yourself a favor and buy them.
The last thing is that I may have overstated myself when I said Magic is Dead. It’s not dead. There are a precious few writers who still have it. I almost cried when I finished Neil Gaiman’s Stardust because I never wanted that book to end. American Gods was also excellent, but Stardust might be, in my opinion, the best novel written in the last 13 years. It made me believe in Magic again, and for that I thank you, Mr. Gaiman.