Laughing at the magic

(Apologies for the late post; my day job is eating into my blogging time.  Oh, the horror.)

I’ve been rereading Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” in preparation for a post on sub-creation and secondary worlds next week (see!   I do prepare, sometimes!) and while I’d originally intended today’s post to be along those lines, something early on in the essay caught my attention.  Tolkien brings up Faerie as Magic, with one particular note:

There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.

Tolkien later points out that “enchantment” is a much more appropriate word for the effect he’s describing, the creation of a story which causes not just suspension of disbelief but wholehearted immersion in the world of the story.  But I’d like to look at this remark out of context (because that’s what the Internet is for!) and at how laughter or overexplained magic affects a fantasy.

A lot of fantasy does, in fact, explain away the magic to some degree (if it gets to the “3d4 damage per magic missile, you know it’s gone way overboard), at least to the point where it’s plausible.  And a lot of fantasy uses humor, if not based right on the magic then using it in some way.  (Frozen turkeys, anyone?)  And yet there’s still something that makes it fantasy — something beyond pointy ears stuck on the side characters and a magical widget instead of a doomsday device.

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, for example, the habits of the wizards (or Wizzard) are subject to much mockery, as are the witches’ lives and the lives of anyone touched by incidental magic. But when you get down to it, the soul and center of the magic itself isn’t a target.  People’s reactions to it are, as are people’s difficulties with it, but not the magic itself.  Even the most wisecracking urban fantasy sleuth has some point where he or she won’t make a joke.

I think that, for me at least, a lot of it has to do with mystery rather than Faerie. I don’t mean these in genre terms; whether a story has to do with the Fair Folk or with a locked-room murder — or both — isn’t quite what I’m talking about here.  If a story carefully dissects its magic or mocks it, then the mystery has to be located somewhere else — in the motivations of the characters, for example, or in the setting itself.  I think that might be part of what defines fantasy: some mystery that is not explained, that the reader must accept to follow the rest of the story.

This is a pretty broad definition, though, and one non-fantasy example that comes to mind is an episode of The Middleman, where for reasons that do not bear going into, the Middleman HQ is suddenly under lockdown.  Because of this lockdown, the building now has air ducts large enough to crawl through. The characters even draw attention to this fact, and yet by poking fun at it, they don’t dent the weirdness, the mystery of it — maybe because the Middleman himself takes everything so damn seriously, maybe because the inner workings of this particular world are the mystery that fuels the rest of the show.  (Which reminds me; I need to pick up the DVD set so I can have some idea of that last episode…anyway.)  The Nakatomi Protocol is probably much farther from Faerie than Tolkien ever expected, but I think his argument still applies to it, in some blog-mangled way.

Have I got this completely wrong?  I suspect that I’m forgetting some works that openly mock their magic or that analyze it to the last thaum, but my brain’s fried from overtime and so not up to coming up with a better example.  Does a story that mocks its magic but keeps the setting mysterious follow the same rules as the kind of fantasy I’ve described?  Or is this far too wide a net (especially if it means I can put The Middleman and Tolkien in the same post)?

Next week, sub-creation, secondary worlds, and where to find some fantastic secondary world fiction.

3 Responses to “Laughing at the magic”

  1. 1 Emily
    October 1, 2009 at 7:07 am

    A good example I can think of is the Mistborn series, where the magic is–well, it’s mysterious, and part of the books hinge on one mystery–but it’s pretty matter of fact, too. I never thought of it as a book about magic so much as one about people. (Come to think of it, that’s how I thought about Lies of Locke Lamora.)

    But just because the magic is kind of accepted in the world doesn’t mean there’s no mystery. The mystery becomes something other than “How does x work?”, instead becoming “What the hell is going on with everything else we’ve taken for granted?” And even more, “How can these people–not anybody, but these ones in particular–do anything about it?”

    I’m trying to think of anything where the magic is mocked or made ludicrous, and all I can think of is crap like Yu-Gi-Oh. And I’m not certain that’s intentional, but it still proves the point.

  2. 2 mlronald
    October 2, 2009 at 5:22 am

    Mistborn did come to mind while I was writing the post, and now I can’t remember why I left it out. Yes, it’s a good example of analyzed and predictable magic in its applied state at least, but the mystery is still very much present, particularly at the edges of what is known and what is assumed true.

    I suppose there’s unintentionally ludicrous magic, which I probably have fallen into at times.

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