Jul 27 2009 5:36pm

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.

1. cbyler
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.

One example of this that comes to my mind is The Curse of Chalion:

Palli glanced ahead to where Bergon rode with dy Sould, and signed himself in wonder. "The gods are on our side, right enough. Can we fail?"

Cazaril snorted bitterly. "Yes." He thought of Ista, Umegat, the tongueless groom. Of the deathly straits he was in. "And when we fail, the gods do, too." He didn't think he'd ever quite realized that before, not in those terms.

Although maybe that doesn't quite fit either; it's not really clear what "antagonist" means in The Curse of Chalion. There's a humanly comprehensible antagonist, but how much does he really have to do with the true causes of the conflict?
3. Elizabeth Moon
Seems to me that "numinous" depends on the reader's own sensitivity--their ability to be awed--more than many other aspects of fantasy. No matter the skill with which a writer deploys the language, a steadfastly mundane-minded reader can avoid falling into the spell.

The numinous pencil is not only a matter of how the writer writes about it, but of how the reader chooses to read. Awe is, after all, the recognition of something greater than self and the self's own familiar preoccupations. Admitting the existence of something mysterious and greater than the self is a scary proposition...even experienced as an attack on the self. Many people avoid that(and some avoid fantasy and poetry for that reason. They do not want anything that would shake their certainty that everything is normal, average, ordinary, mundane. They do not want to be awed; some may even consider an admission of awe to be a weakness. Yes, I've heard just this from some individuals.)

Fantasy that attempts and achieves the numinous appeals to those who are willing to risk the admission that they are not themselves (or through a human agency such as "modern science" or "technology) omniscient and omnipotent. These are the same readers who find the numinous in everyday life.
April Vrugtman
4. dwndrgn
Numinous - what a terrific word! (And a great post too!)
5. Foxessa
Katherine Kerr has included these various forms of magics in her Deverry series, which began in the 80's, and will conclude with the final volume to be published this year.

It's not quite up-to-date, since she recently turned in the final ms and has been drafting the proposal for a new work, but here's her website -- sorry that this site doesn't allow hot links:

This fine writer has earned far more attention than she's received.
6. p-l
@3: I think this is half-right. There are many steadfastly mundane readers who pass over Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun" or Paul Park's "Celestis" in boredom, but gibber in ecstasy before an elegant mathematical proof, a fact of physics, or a teaching in their religion.

People who recognize a presence greater than themselves are all over the place. But that doesn't necessarily translate into finding it in literature, let alone in fantasy writing.
7. firkin
one of the things i like (but didn't realize until i read Ursula's comment in the other thread) about Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, is that at first you think it's one kind of story (where magic is basically a tool), and then later on it's more of the other (where the very nature of magic becomes part of the conflict). that's also around where my sense of ambiguity in the story changed dramatically, and the tension around unraveling all of that was, for me, awesome in the way you are talking about.

Foxessa@5, you can use bbCode to add real links, see the link just above the comment box.
8. OtterB
Anything can be numinous, and anything can be mundane

A lot of urban fantasy seems aimed at making what was previously viewed as numinous, or horrifying, or both, into something mundane. This can be very amusing, but to me it doesn't hold the depth of something that acknowledges the numinous.

The fact that one can find the numinous in SF as well as fantasy makes me think of the Arthur C. Clarke quote, "Not only is the universe stranger than you imagine, It's stranger than you can imagine." I think that's one of the things that makes a good story with genuinely alien aliens so much fun; the "Wow!" factor is an encounter with something non-god-like, non-magical, but still numinous.

This distinction touches on something that I think of as "hopefulness." A worldview that says the apparently numinous should be debunked, that any thought of something larger than oneself is at best an illusion and probably a con game - I find those to be profoundly unhopeful.
les kaye
9. hapax
Thinking this over, for me, fantasy is not so much about the numinous as it is about the liminal -- fantasy takes place on the Borderlands, where the This touches the That, in Lord Dunsany's famous phrase, "beyond the fields we know."

Whereas sf is very much about showing us that That really *is* This, if we only understand it properly -- or perhaps, They are We.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Elizabeth Moon: Yes, this is true. But it doesn't stop horror defining itself by how it makes the reader feel, even though some people resist being terrified. And I think p_l has a good point -- people find the numinous all over the place.

Otter B: I really like your "hopefulness" distinction.
11. Shireling
So would it be fair to say that "numinous" equals, or shades into, what used to be called "sense of wonder" in SF?

OtterB, your "hopefulness" could lead into a discussion of the change in attitude of SF (and some fantasy). So much of current SF/F is dark, pessimistic and depressing. There have always been dystopias -- some of them are masterpieces. But the whole -- assumed background? -- has changed. Do readers and writers now think of themselves as too sophisticated for a sense of wonder and happy endings?
12. OtterB
Shireling, I agree that it seems to be a shift in the background assumptions, though I don't think it's unique to SF/F. Things lean too far toward Lord of the Flies and too little toward Lord of the Rings. Maybe it is that people think they're too sophisticated for a sense of wonder and a happy ending. The default perspective has become cynical, with a side order of noir, and the implication that only a chump expects a happy ending - or an encounter with the numinous. I'm as capable as the next person of enjoying a good graveyard laugh, and cautionary dystopias are a staple of the field, but still ...
Bruce Cohen
13. SpeakerToManagers
I'm not sure that sense of wonder is the same thing as perceiving the numinous, though they're clearly related. Larry Niven's Ringworld novels, for instance, are often cited as being full of sense of wonder (and I agree with this, at least for the first one), but I don't see much that's numinous in them (YMMV). The numinous is not uncommon in SF, though it is uncommon in many subgenres like hard SF and military SF (for many values of those terms). I agree with p_l that the salient issue is not whether the writer put in the numinous, as much as whether the reader is willing or able to get it out, but there's a tendency, I think, for readers to recognize and gravitate to writers who provide what they're looking for, whether the presence or absence of the numinous.

Awe is a useful word in this discussion; it's important to remember that awe can be associated with fear as well as wonder (and is often a mixture of both). It's not a comfortable thing to feel; if you're searching for comfort and security, you'd best avoid it. And the numinous is not always hopeful; one of the most awe-inspiring passages I've ever read is the scene in which Earth is destroyed in Greg Bear's "The Forge of God". It's the difference in scale between the human beings through whose eyes we see the catastrophe and the events they witness that makes it awful.
Clifton Royston
14. CliftonR
"Sense of wonder" could perhaps be seen as the scientific or secular expression of "numinous". It's certainly not the same thing to me - numinous really expresses feeling of the presence of the sacred, the unearthly, in whatever form.
Wesley Parish
15. Aladdin_Sane
Elizabeth Moon? _The_ Elizabeth Moon? I enjoyed The Sheepfarmer's Daughter and the related books - I think you made an earnest attempt to make your elves numinous, and I give you full marks on that, considering that to too many "Fantasy" authors elves are just people in funny accents and silly clothes. The military stuff I wasn't really interested in ...

What makes people feel awe? (There's a set of sayings flowing around the Net and other places, expressions such as "What happens when we touch these two wires toget..." that express a sort of awe - viz "They'd never (be stupid enough to) make him manager" - mostly at human stupidity.)

As far as I know, there's no hard-and-fast law about what makes any given human feel awe.

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