Fantasy and the Numinous

In comments to my post on Ambiguity in Fantasy, Ursula asked

I’m curious how your observations in this post mesh with your earlier observations of fantasy as being a genre that grapples with the numinous.

That’s a very interesting question.

The short answer is that it all depends what you mean by “the numinous.” I used that precise word for a reason. If I said “fantasy is about magic,” that’s pretty much a tautology, and that’s not what I mean. By “the numinous” I don’t mean magic as it can be codified in a magic system, I mean the kind of thing that genuinely makes you feel awe. Anything can be numinous, and anything can be mundane. You can have a numinous pencil and a mundane god, it’s all in how you write about it. It seemed to me that what united fantasy as a genre was that pretty much all fantasy tries to write about the numinous, from one direction or another, and with varying degrees of success. This definition allows you to separate fantasy from science fiction along different lines from the way the usual definitions do, and that was also interesting to me. It’s not very useful to package Rendezvous with Rama as fantasy, but it’s closer emotionally to The King of Elfland’s Daughter than the covers would suggest. Similarly, Darkover and the Vlad books become solidly SF—and that’s OK, that’s interesting. This is a definition of genre by how it makes you feel—and hey, it works for horror.

I first came up with this definition of fantasy when I was talking about Susanna Clarke’s wonderful and magnificent Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. That book has a lot of magic in it, and a lot about people learning magic, but it’s also about the process of magic starting off as numinous and becoming familiar, and as each piece becomes familiar further regions of the numinous open up. Mr Norrell’s real magic begins as the numinous, and then Jonathan Strange’s magic is, and then both of their magics are petty and accepted and it’s Faerie in contrast that’s numinous, and she just keeps on going. I remain deeply impressed by the book, and I’ve never read anything else like it. At the time I read it, I said most of us were building sandcastles on the beach and then Clarke came along and raised up a great castle out of sea.

Most fantasy does the “realist magicism” thing of integrating the magic into the worldbuilding. It’s science fictional, it is a science fiction technique, and yet with that done, fantasy’s still working on the numinous. Daniel Abraham has this solid solid world with the magic and the magic’s price worked out and integrated and realistic and yet there’s a passage in An Autumn War where someone’s actually doing magic that made the hair stand up on my neck.

There’s a tendency for fantasy writers to do magic as something—magic as creativity, magic as academia, magic as cooking, where you take the way the real thing works and have magic work that way. There really ought to be more ways, and more interesting ways, of doing magic—Justine Larbalestier’s magic as math really stands out for its originality. Larbalestier makes the math numinous, which is wonderful.

So, back to ambiguity. I think this is orthogonal. I don’t think how numinous something is reflects at all on how clear-cut it is. The numinous isn’t controlled or manipulated, it creates awe in the reader.

But ignoring this definition, and taking it just to mean magic, what Ursula says is very interesting:

Possibly that worldbuilding that incorporates the magical/numinous into the world that is built would lend itself to ambiguity, while worldbuilding that makes the magical/numinous a tool to be used in otherwise conventional conflict would tend towards less ambiguity.

This because if the magical/numinous is out in the world, the protagonists would have to struggle to control/understand it as part of the plot’s conflict. The magic or the gods are out there, and the protagonists must learn to deal with it. It has its own nature: the laws of nature, the will of the gods, etc. A Big Bad, or a clear good vs. evil would distract protagonists from having to learn to understand and work with the power that’s out there,within the limits of nature/consent from that outside power.

On the other hand, if it is a tool used by characters, it will be under their control (or potentially under their control if they study properly), and therefore the conflict must be elsewhere – with a political rival, a Big Bad, etc. Not that there couldn’t be ambiguity in that conflict, but rather that this type of conflict would be open to moral clarity in a way that learning to understand and control nature (even if that nature is magical/numinous) isn’t.

If the numinous is a tool, then you have a two-way conflict, between protagonist and antagonist. But if the numinous is a power in its own right, you’ll have a three way conflict, protagonist with the numinous, learning to understand it, and protagonist with antagonist, with the protagonist working with the numinous in a cooperative way to defeat the antagonist.

This really can be the case with magic, and I can think of examples. If magic is good or evil, or if there are good and evil kinds of magic, it defines where you stand in relation to it and affects ambiguity.

This also, the last paragraph there especially, reflects interestingly on An Autumn War, where the protagonists of the earlier novels have been keeping magic as a commercial advantage and a sheathed threat to the rest of the world, and then in that volume we see a protagonist from another country who is quite convinced that his quest to destroy magic is in fact saving the world. This is a book with high ambiguity and with magic itself in a very ambiguous position.


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