Magic in the Real World: Fantasy Novels and How They Excite

Image Credit: Charlize Du Perez

David Kelly questions the place of technology in the modern fantasy novel, and wonders if there is something to be said of the traditionally mediveal-set fantasy.

What place does magic have in more modern fiction, where science fiction grows ever closer to scientific reality? Is it something that can still excite and enthral?

As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote in his novel, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible, the third of his famous three laws for science fiction, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. In recent years, this idea has become more apparent in the likes of the epic onscreen battles such as those seen in the Avengers and other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Visually, Thor’s feats of magic might blend seamlessly with Iron Man’s technological mastery, while Captain Marvel’s energy blasts hardly look out of place alongside the Scarlet Witch’s chaos magic. 

There are of course other examples where the magic at play stands out more as its own thing, but even then, it tends to be rather exciting. But then what about fantasy novels?

While J.K. Rowling’s famous series, Harry Potter, is set in the 1990s, the books hardly address the divide between its magic and modern elements, mostly seeking to avoid the latter altogether with few exceptions such as the Weasley’s ill-fated flying car, a quirky example of magical technology, or ‘magitech’ as it is called in the books.

But how does magic in a more modern setting really compare with the tried-and-true fantasy archetypes?

The Potterverse’s hard magical system of wand waving and incantations, occasionally abandoning the rules for more mysterious soft magical elements where convenient, still manages to be plenty exciting - despite the fridge logic moments one might experience when wondering why no-one ever thought to dispatch Voldemort with a well-timed firearm. This is a case in which modern technology could have been used to Rowling’s advantage: why alienate the whole of the wizarding universe from that of the muggle and deny them the opportunity to use helpful inventions such as the phone or even the firearm?

Other fantasy novels prefer the classic crossover of sword and spell by leaning into more medieval style or similarly archaic settings where the next best alternative to a devastating spell is usually a sharp blade or pointy arrow, somewhere magical elements can truly, and often literally, shine. J.R.R. Tolkiens’ Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones are both examples of fantasy novels that benefit massively from soft magical systems in which the plot itself seems to dictate what magic can or cannot do. These traditionally set novels, the setting in which remains monarchical, rely on the lack of modern technology to tell the story. How much easier would it have been for poor Frodo Baggins if he could have simply Google Mapsed his way to Mordor?" for accuracy.

These traditionally set novels, the setting in which remains monarchical, rely on the lack of modern technology to tell the story.

Yet, while the classics benefit from the ease of older settings, more modern tales strive to do more ambitious things with magic in a modern world. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files plays with magical realism, presenting a world in which while magic and technology don’t really mix, they’re both commonly accepted norms of the world in which Harry Dresden lives and performs his magical detective work. He can drive his modern car to the home of a supernatural creature, a vampire, and still challenge it with a magical amulet!

Meanwhile, travelling instead to the East, the light novel That Time I Got Reincarnated As a Slime, written by Fuse and illustrated by MitzVah, tells the tale of how the protagonist, originally from modern Japan and now stuck in the past, can bring to life the amenities and inventions he can remember in this new, archaic, magical fantasy land, building more modern roads and homes and imitating hot water taps with magical runes. It creates quite an endearing and comfortable atmosphere, like watching someone play Sim City or some other resource management game: the magic provides many means towards the construction and function of the surprisingly modern city of Tempest. In this way, Fuse’s story benefits from both elements of the traditional medieval fantasy style archetype as well as blending magic with a modern style.

But how does magic in a more modern setting really compare with the tried-and-true fantasy archetypes? 

How does the setting of, say, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, with its cast of demigods and mythical creatures with magical abilities and weapons, hold up against Game of Thrones, with its mysterious gods, shady priestesses, icy necromancy, and sacrificial rites?

When a writer sets out to tell a fantastical story, should their setting determine whether it’s worth investing in a magical subtheme, or even as the backbone of the story itself? What choices have to be made to weigh whether or not the story will make sense in a modern, technology filled world as compared to a world without common things in the 21st century, such as working showers or fridges?

There is certainly a lot to be said for the advantages of not needing to balance a magic system against technology in particular, whether a hard magic system such as Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Sequence’s enslavement of demons in a 1900s London through strict rituals and formula, or through soft and vaguely defined parameters, such as the mysterious mystical fantasy land and its allegorical lion-god in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. 

There is something fantastical and hard to explain, beyond the mundane nature of our everyday life, in a medieval-set hard magic system.

The more medieval or archaic the setting, the easier it is to justify magic being uncontested as a trump card, as a way of making certain characters special and villains more threatening. When the next most threatening thing at any sort of range is an arrow from a bow, explosive spell casting or subtle magical tricks feel that much more impressive. However, the reader ends up missing out on the myriad of potential combinations and interactions that come with utilizing magic in a modern setting too. 

Aside from the obvious benefits of recognizable and familiar modern elements that can make a story feel more immersive, such as a smartphone, a laptop, buses and cars, kitchen equipment, or even just a modern office or school classroom, introducing magic into a modern setting can somehow feel more natural. As though in our hearts and minds, it was always meant to be there. Whereas there is something fantastical and hard to explain, beyond the mundane nature of our everyday life, in a medieval-set hard magic system. 

Be it Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, there’s something unspeakably compelling about a story that mingles the supernatural with modern frustrations, indulgences, dreams and struggles. Because sure, everyone loves to see the clever wizard fend off orcish foes armed only with cruel medieval blades and other archaic weaponry, but there’s a special kind of enjoyment to be found in joining the spiritual detectives that hunt down spectral threats in the streets of our modern world which the local authorities are ill-equipped to handle. 

Maybe the truth is that magic, in all its forms, is integral to fantasy fiction as a whole. That is not to say that you can’t find great fantasy fiction without it, but no matter what your setting, you can’t go far wrong with a little bit of magic… or a lot.