What is magic? I think this is an important question for anyone writing fantasy. I guess at the simplest one could see it as an unexplained disturbance of the natural rules of the world? An illusion that breaks the laws of reality without any explanation of how it came to be. If it has rules then surely it is no longer magic as its effect has attained a cause – it can be explained and becomes a science.
Is magic the opposite of science in fact?
It’s a cliché that science to primitive peoples who don’t understand it can be viewed as magic, but in our modern world how many people understand much of the technology that we use everyday? Yet it is not seen by most people as magic. This is because they trust that there are those, scientists and engineers, who know how it all works and can explain it.
Which leads us to an interesting point – if say a fantasy writer has magic in their created world, is it really magic? Magic will often be part of what certain members of the world, magicians etc, do. Normal people won’t understand how it works, but will assume that the magicians have this all under control and understand it.
Could another part of the definition of magic be that it has a supernatural element? It seems if you look at the source of the word and its history that the origins are not just in the manipulation of nature through mysterious means, but actually the invocation of spirits for various purposes. This link with the supernatural then must be the main feature of magic that sets it apart from science as we have already concluded that science cannot always be explained by many people. It seems that the history of magic moves from the use of spirits in classical times, to the invocation of demons in the middle ages. Then in the renaissance and enlightenment eras magic took the form of alchemy and semi-scientific practice, thus disconnecting from the supernatural origin it once had. In effect magic became false science as science itself developed.
It could also be argued that magic moved at the same time as being something that most people actually believed in, for instance in mainstream culture many people believed in the magical properties of holy relics, to being undermined as belief in the mystical itself declined in the face of the age of reason.