“Breathing With Meaning”: What Non-Magical Magic Tells Us About Fantasy Fiction

Last week I wrote about magic, and how the systematisation of video game magic causes the phenomenon to become distinctly non-magical. I focused mainly on magic as a combat mechanic, but my statement that game developers “rewrite the laws of nature in such a way that magic can come to ‘exist’” extends to all forms of magic in their game worlds. This may include things like elevators (Guild Wars 2), transportation services offered by non-player characters (The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind), long-distance communication devices (The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings), et cetera. To once again reiterate the point I made in my previous post (this is the last time, I swear): these phenomena are presented as if they are magical, but their very existence nullifies that ‘magic-ness’, both in video games and in other media that depict magic. Keeping all of that in mind, what does this alternative understanding of magic in fantasy fiction tell us about fantasy fiction itself?

Before I get to this question, I should talk about the ‘fantasy versus science fiction’ debate. No, that’s not the ‘Lord of the Rings vs. Star Wars‘ debate, I intend to keep well away from that one. (That said, LotR is better.) The debate I’m referring to revolves around the question of which of the two genres is better suited to provide social criticism. A rather common view is that science fiction is the most capable of this, since it usually attempts to ‘predict’ the future. Often, sci-fi uses the contemporary social, political and technological situation as a starting point. It then extrapolates from that situation an imagined future in which the possible consequences of some of its aspects–whether positively or negatively–are heavily amplified. Since the genre is thereby mostly rooted in our own material reality, it can very effectively question or comment on the flaws of our current social structure.

Now, I don’t intend to question sci-fi’s capacity for societal critique, but I do object to fantasy then being dismissed as an ‘ahistorical’ and ‘escapist’ genre, incapable of saying anything meaningful about contemporary social issues.1 In fact, fantasy fiction has a whole lot of things to say, we just need to be willing to listen. This is where Ted Friedman’s wonderful essay, “The Politics of Magic”, comes in:

The key to fantasy’s contemporary resonance […] lies in the way the genre negotiates two intertwined preoccupations of our era: technology and nature. […] At a time of both great technological advances and looming ecological catastrophe, the fantasy genre provides writers, directors, game designers, and audiences an opportunity to reimagine their relationships with both their machines and their environment.2

According to Friedman, fantasy gives us a chance to reflect on our connection to modern technology because the genre’s primary trope, magic, “serves the role in fantasy that technology does in science fiction–and in fact, the role that technology serves in real life”. Magic is not just non-magical, it’s very much technological: it’s “the fictional force that makes tools work in fantasy worlds”. It’s what powers the elevators, transporters and communication devices I mentioned in the introduction. However, since we supposedly cannot comprehend this ‘fictional force’ (it is still presented as being ‘magic’, after all), these technologies become devices that we simply expect to function without understanding how or why they work. For Friedman, this makes for a sursprisingly accurate “metaphor for representing our alienated relationship to [modern-day] technology”. Similarly to the magical technologies in fantasy fiction, we don’t know how the real-life technologies we use everyday work anymore either. Who can still single-handedly fix their car engine, or their washing machine, or their smartphone? As far as most of us are concerned, “it might as well be magic”.

In addition, fantasy can also help us to rethink our relationship with nature. Even though magic isn’t actually magical anymore, fantasy still wants to make us believe that it is. Friedman notes that magic does not only drive the fantasy world’s technologies; it also facilitates the existence of “talking animals, self-aware plants, and landscapes that breathe with meaning”. Magic creates connections between human and animal, between civilised society and savage nature, and shows us that there is–hypothetically–much to be learned from those creatures and entities that we normally deem ‘below us’. At the very least, it suggests that the human perspective on things might not always be the most well-rounded or rational one: for example, when humans destroy their environment in fantasy fiction, magic allows the environment itself to protest–the rise of the Ents in Lord of the Rings, defending their forest from Saruman’s corruption, comes to mind here.

The Battle of Isengard, the “last march of the Ents”, nature refusing to make room for technology.

The two-faced nature of ‘magic’–presenting itself as magical when it is, in fact, technological–makes the phenomenon a suitable way to represent our relationship with both technology and nature. By incorporating magic, this potent metaphor, into the very fabric of its universes, fantasy offers us a way to reflect on those relationships in a similar way that science fiction does. It shows us alternative ways to think about the divide between technology and nature, and about our own disconnect with both of them. If we strip away the medieval setting and the archaisms, fantasy worlds become tentative answers to the question, “How might we live with far-advanced technology, whilst still trying to co-exist in harmony with our natural environment?” While some may look at fantasy and see a purely escapist imaginary scene, those with a more trained eye might spot that its landscapes are, in fact, breathing with meaning.

P.S. I very much intend to analyse at least one fantasy video game (The Witcher) from this theoretical perspective. However, that will have to wait because next week, for the sake of variety, I want to write about something that isn’t magic- or fantasy-related.


Notes and references:
1. That’s a very, very brief summary of the argument made in: Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005): 57-71.
2. Ted Friedman, “The Politics of Magic: Fantasy Media, Technology, and Nature in the 21st Century.” TedFriedman.com, 21 January 2014, https://tedfriedman.com/2014/01/21/the-politics-of-magic/. I’d recommend reading the entire article if you’re interested, it’s quite good.