In discussions of magic in Fantasy fiction, a frequently argued point is whether or not systemized magic somehow ruins the “magical” feeling of a work of fiction by making magic a poor copy of science. “Gamers” are regularly cited as the ones who introduced this element into Fantasy, an assignment of blame that completely disregards the fact that magical systems are as old as the concept of magic itself.
Magical systems are akin to ritual magic—that is, a magic where a ritual (or system) is used in the belief that following that system will achieve a set desired result.
Ritual magic permeates numerous cultures. The ancient Egyptians used it not only in those rites associated with death and judgement, but in daily life. (Do you think only mummies wore amulets?). Many European cultures possessed their own forms of ritual magic, dating far back into prehistory. (What do you think cave paintings are?).
Ritual magic is central to many Native American cultures. I’m married to an anthropologist who specializes in the Southwest. Despite the hard-held belief of many New Age practitioners that the Native Americans are simply “close to nature” and “sensitive to the Great Spirit” magical/religious rituals (there is no real distinction) are integral to the power/belief structures of these peoples.
Perhaps no culture so closely equated magic and system as did that which is my current obsession: the Chinese. Moreover, especially to the older Chinese cultures (although plenty of wonderful rituals are still practiced today), there was no distinction between science and magic.
When the first Chinese emperor was advised to burn all books except for technical manuals and handbooks (the history of his own lineage was excluded from this general attempt to erase all contradictory history and tradition) divination was included with medicine, agriculture, and arboriculture as what we would today term a “hard science.”
As a writer of Fantasy fiction, I have explored many types of magic. In my contemporary novels (ex. Changer and Child of a Rainless Year) I have dealt with more “numinous” or non-ritual magic. When I designed a imaginary world Fantasy for my Firekeeper novels, what form of magic was practiced in an area varies according to the culture that colonized an area. Some of these were ritual magics. Some were not.
However, when dealing with historical or living magical traditions—as I did with Legends Walking (West African, among others), The Buried Pyramid (ancient Egyptian), and my forthcoming Thirteen Orphans (Chinese)—I did not ignore the elements of systematized or ritual magic. Rather, I found within those traditions material as numinous and mysterious as any vague evocation of magical vibrations could be.
Let me return briefly to the Chinese. Over time, an elaborate system of correspondences has evolved, so that every significant plant, animal, number, element, star/planet, and suchlike is linked. These links are not simple. For every affiliation there is an opposition. Yin and yang keep principles that in Western traditions are distinct from becoming absolute, so that within darkness there is a tiny bit of light, within the male there is a touch of the female, within the domestic there must be the wild, and so on...
Talk about complex, mysterious, and full of wonder.