Thursday, February 24, 2011

Elemental, my dear Watson!

When it comes to creating a magic system for a fantasy novel, it seems that many, many writers are drawn to the Classical Elements. Those would be Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. (Heart! Go Planet! Woah, I just totally dated myself.) I don't know how many stories and movies have used this type of system, but it seems to be everywhere. In early concepts for my fantasy world I used it as well. I came up with one of those "there are all these different lands and the people in the different lands have different elemental powers" ideas. Eventually I realized how unoriginal it was and I dropped it.

It has occurred to me to wonder why this theme is so prevalent. What is it about the Classical Elements that inspires people? Is it the feel of a connection to nature? Or is it the feel of power over nature? A little of both, perhaps? It's undeniable that the elemental model speaks to us on some level.

However, I made the decision to abandon it. Originality is important to me. And while I realize that originality today rests more in how you develop an idea than in the actual substance of the idea... I still think that the Classical Elements have been done so often in so many ways that it would be impossible to avoid comparisons. So I dropped all of the worldbuilding I had done so far and started from scratch.

But I still needed a "magic system" for my world. I intensely dislike stories where things are explained by simply saying, "It's magic!" but the magic its self is never explained. To me there needs to be rhyme and reason to magic in a fantasy setting. But I also dislike it when the magic feels like a game system. For me it needs to be organic and natural to the world. (Tolkien's magic is a perfect example, though most people don't understand how it works because it's only explained properly in material outside the main novels.) And since I have been developing a society based on Ancient Egypt, I had also to account for the way the Egyptians viewed magic as well as for the existence of real and very powerful gods who do get involved in the world. And honestly, I've been having trouble figuring out how to put all this together.

Enter my knight in shining armor, my husband and all the obscure stuff he reads on blogs and leaves up on his computer when he goes to work. He's a big fan of Sci Fi author Mike Flynn and reads the author's Livejournal regularly. So recently I glanced at one of the entries that was sitting there after he'd left for work and got completely sucked into it. For various reasons, Flynn started talking about Aristotle and his theories of a fifth element he called Aether. Here is some of what Flynn wrote about the Aether:

Look at it through Aristotle's eyes: it is a material sphere of some sort within which the stars are embedded, and it turns slowly on itself day in and day out.

It is:

* simple (not a compound of elements) effected by only one internal principle or cause
* ungenerable and incorruptible, incapable of growth or alteration.
* although subject to change in place, not subject to changes in substance, quantity, or quality.
* inalterable.

If aether is incorruptible, its prime matter and substantial form must be so perfectly united that the latter must actualize and thereby exhaust the potency of the former. That is, aether's prime matter is inseparable from its form, and in this sense is not really distinct from it.

If aether cannot be destroyed (or even altered qualitatively), it must somehow be intangible. It is not susceptible to the action of the tangible qualities of temperature and pressure.

If aether cannot be pressed upon by ordinary matter, then if some body were to try to press upon it, that body would cut right through the aether unhindered (which is why Michelson-Morely did not lay a glove on the Aristotelian aether.) That is, aether can "push" on ordinary matter without being "pushed back."

"While usually the thing touching is touched by what it touches--for nearly all the things we come upon move while also being moved -- still it also occurs (as we sometimes say) that only the mover may touch the moved, while the thing touched does not touch the one touching it. But because things of the same kind are moved [in return] when they move others, it seems to be necessary that [movers] be touched by what they touch. Whence if something unmoved moves another, although it will touch the thing moved, nothing [will touch] it."
De Gen. et Cor., 1.6.323a26-32

Having never read Aristotle and not being a scientifically minded person in general, I was amazed and fascinated by all this. And immediately ideas started springing to mind about how I could use this Aristotelian Aether as a basis for magic in my fantasy world. The basic idea that came to mind was this:

Aether touches, but is untouched. But what if certain people could touch it and affect it? The Aether is invisible and undetectable. If one person was able to create an effect through the Aether, a person who did not have that ability would see it as magic.

I immediately went to read more about Aristotle and his Aether. I discovered many other very interesting theories as well. Particularly, Aristotle's ideas of Potentiality and Actuality and Plato's theory of Forms. I am going to be trying to adapt all of these ideas to my fantasy world. I still have not worked out details, but I think this will lead to a very interesting and natural form of "magic system" to explore. In a way, I'm coming back to the idea of elements, since Aether was classically the fifth element after Air, Water, Fire and Earth in Greek thought. Though I don't plan to work with the other four in my system.

I am very excited about the possibilities.


  1. I'm touched and all warm and fuzzy. I think this is the first time I've been called her "knight in shining armor".

  2. Knight in shining armor indeed :D

    This is very interesting reading and wonderful basis for a magic concept. Best of luck in developing this!


  3. Very interesting. I posted on this today and we had a discussion of the gaming aspects of magic especially.

    My feeling too is that it's important to branch out, away from the conventions. This is a good take, and I can imagine it will be familiar and attractive to fans of steampunk. That might be another good place to look for ways in which the idea has been developed.

    I won't link, but also posted recently on how magic might be thought of as a function of dimensions in the physical sense, moving beyond three into others. If you're interested it's the top post if you search using '3D'.

    I look forward to seeing where you go with this too. Many vistas opening up here already!

  4. I'm not really familiar with the steampunk subgenre. Does it often explore Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics? I'm not really sure how Aether relates to dimensions.

  5. Just off the top of my head, I wouldn't think it relates to higher dimensions so much as it's an analogous device. For instance, Aether is described or imagined to be immutable, unable to be changed by the other essences, but can act on them in some ways. Similarly, an object in two dimensions, having length and width but no depth, could not act on a three dimensional object, but that 3D object could act on the 2D one.
    The main character in John C Wright's Orphans of Chaos books deals with the world in much the same way, able to bypass three dimensional restrictions because she herself is a multi-dimensional being.
    As a matter of fact, the way the five main characters all interact with each other, in various manifestations of irreconcilable worldviews and powers, may be of interest. I should make you read them. And not because of the naughty schoolgirl spankings, really.

  6. Mr McCabe sets out the basics well, and the two being analagous is the key point. This discussion is taking place on the basis of human perception and science, and any system of interpretation drawing on these is essentially related to every other.

    I think you can deal with the metaphysics in steampunk as well as anywhere, perhaps better than in some settings for our familiarity with the Victorian and Edwardian and the lesser leap of imagination required for the fundamentals.

    That said, I'm not sure how much contemporary steampunk actually does go so deep. I mentioned it more for the magic the word 'Aether' has for its many fans and how it could be expected to bring a wider audience.


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