Magic and minerals: a magical matchPosted: September 24, 2012
When a fantasy writer decides to use magic in their story, there are many decisions to be made. What it does, how to invoke it, how to control this possibly destructive force once you’ve invoked it. The magic might not even be called “magic”, if that’s what the tone of the story calls for.
Unlike mundane physical objects, magic doesn’t need to justify itself with a location. It can just appear in the air before our eyes. It might exist everywhere and nowhere at once. Or it might be a nebulous concept, like truth or life essence. A big part of magic’s allure is its mystery, the way it can ignore physical laws if it wants to. But even with something as amorpheous as magic, there are physical problems like where to put it and how to move it from place to place.
But I notice that magic is often associated with natural materials. In Earth cultures, things like animal bones and crystals have been thought to have connections to magic and spirituality. In fantasy books, certain animals, plants or minerals might be connected to magic. Just look at the Harry Potter world’s attention to what wands are made of: specific types of woods and magical creatures’ hair/feathers. Or look at the allomancy magic of the Mistborn series, where consuming different types of metal can enhance a person’s senses, or give them telekinesis.
Basically, magic pairs well with nature. If magic is meant to be a natural part of its world, how better to add legitimacy than to bind magic to something we know exists in our world? Animal, vegetable and minerals can all serve to ground magic in realism. Some fantasy worlds use fictional animals, plants or minerals, but that still serves the purpose — as long as we can imagine that a unicorn is a believable animal in its ecosystem, we can accept it as a ground for magic.
Magic’s conductors can even reference Earth mythology in a meaningful way. Oak wood is used as a conduit for lightning magic in your world? Oh, just like Greek mythology, where Zeus is associated with thunderbolts and oak trees. Greek mythology might not be real in the same sense as an oak tree we can actually touch, but it can still add legitimacy to a more recent concept of magic.
In the Aligare world, the six elemental castings are connected to living things. All animals — peoplekinds, deer, birds, insects, everything — have elemental magic in their bodies that is necessary for life. Trees and plants are all bound by plantcasting magic, so they’re still living things but they’re treated a little differently than the mishmash variety of animals. Okay, so my type of magic is still nebulously everywhere because it’s part of life itself. Mysteeeerious. But I wanted a way to physically pass magic around, too. A way to stick magic in a physical object and make it a little more mundane. Plants are living things with an existing elemental alignment, so they’re out.
That left minerals. I picked gemstones because, well … gemstones are pretty.
An early beta reader told me that the Aligare world sounded like a beautiful, colourful place, and I like the thought of such a positive world also being visually appealing. Colourful elemental magic would go well with colourful gemstones.
That, and gemstones have conductive properties that even we humans can detect. Some stones hold an electrical charge better than others. Even common quartz has useful transmissive properties, which is why we use quartz as a component in clocks and other precise instruments. This translated well to the Aligare world. A rare topaz is specifically useful for an electricaster, while common quartz is a broadly useful stone that accepts all elements — as long as it’s a pure, clear piece of quartz, that is.
A gemstone paid for Maythwind’s service, this time a clear quartz sullied with amethyst purple at one end. Tillian repeated the broadest points of Maythwind’s chatter: there weren’t nearly enough darkcasters in Skyfield to make these amethysts worthwhile; Maythwind would at least get to practice his dark healing on this one; gods’ good fortune indeed, Peregrine, that these stones kept turning up so free of flaws or there’d have to be some hard-knuckled bartering.
Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 3
I guess we can say that magic in natural materials is a hallmark of fantasy — because when plastic and synthesized compounds have magical qualities, that’s usually science fiction. But finding new magic in wood, rocks and pelts? That’s a pretty sure path to dragons and lore.
Recently read a good book with magical materials in it? Are you a writer with some cool worldbuilding of your own? Share in the comments!