The Rules of Magic
April 1, 2017

Neil Gaiman

WARNING: This post may contain spoilers for a variety of fantasy books.

So, I’ve now read three Neil Gaiman books: Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and American Gods, and I wanted to take a moment to jot down some thoughts I’ve had about them.

First, let’s talk about the good. I really like Gaiman’s poetic style. Everything is similes and metaphors. Here’s an excellent example from American Gods:

“Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine. First they were driving through countryside, then, imperceptibly, the occasional town became a low suburban sprawl, and the sprawl became the city.”

It’s hard to say whether or not allusion is being used in the stories because so much is direct reference to rather than indirect acknowledgement of other stories. American Gods is pretty much all allusion, and it’s carried to the degree that the story almost becomes allusion-less.

But look: I’m not really a literary critic. I don’t know much about language and story. But what I do know is this: as much as I like his use of language, I have a really hard time liking the stories themselves. I’ve tried really hard, really honestly, to like them, but they simply always fail to spark my sense of wonder and awe and mystery like some of my favorite authors. I think that the reason I’ve wanted to like his writing so much is that I like all of the things he does. He seems to draw inspiration from so many of the authors I like. In his interviews and podcasts, he’s always so eloquent and funny and genuine and likeable. He seems to be a deep thinker. He wrote comic books, for crying out loud! How cool is that?! But, for some reason, his books just haven’t captured me in the way that other authors have. I feel no ill will towards him; in fact, I still think he’s an awesome guy. Neil, if you’re reading this, please don’t take offense to this review. You’re a cool dude!

So, I’ve been mulling the books over, trying to determine what’s wrong with them. I think I’ve figured something out, something that I think may be the main flaw. I suspect that if this particular flaw were fixed, the books would be magnificent, and would fall into the pantheon of my favorite books because, in all other respects, they’re really cool. The problem is this: the magic in the stories doesn’t follow any obvious rules.

The Love Potion

I’m not saying that the magic doesn’t follow any rules; it just doesn’t follow any obvious rules. Gaiman may have had rules in mind when he wrote, for example, American Gods. He may have thought about whether or not gods can die, and, if they can, whether they can be resurrected, and by what processes and under what conditions, etc. But, even if he thought about these things, he didn’t make his readers aware of them. Of course, he’s not required to do so; it’s his right as an author to tell his readers whatever he darn well wants to tell them. But the lack of communicated rules comes at a cost: readers don’t know what’s possible and what’s not, and so everything that happens feels (ironically) like a deus ex machina. In other words, protagonists’ choices don’t have any weight of inevitability, of the narrowing of options as the enemy cuts of lines of attack. Consider how you feel when you play chess. Because I suck at chess, there always comes a moment when I encounter the feeling of oh-crap-I’m-screwed. Note that that feeling doesn’t usually come at the moment of checkmate; it usually comes a few moves before, when I begin to recognize the inevitability of my doom. That feeling of inevitability is essential for creating tension in stories. It’s produced in chess when my knowledge of the rules and their inflexibility leads me to the terrible conclusion that I’ll lose soon. It’s produced in stories in a similar way: when the reader understands the rules of the world and their inflexibility, it leads them to the conclusion that the protagonist is screwed (or at least severely limited in options). But consider the alternative: imagine that I’m a spectator of a chess game, but I don’t know the rules. I can imagine other spectators ooh-ing and aah-ing as the players make their moves. I can imagine them gasping at the decisive moment where one player finally backs the other into a corner. I can imagine my own confusion, my own sense of feeling left out because the movements of the pieces seem random and unpredictable to me because I don’t know the rules. And it’s this last feeling that I experience when I read Gaiman’s books. Since I don’t know the rules of the worlds, how can I feel much tension or worry about the characters? Their choices seem random and unpredictable to me.

Let’s take two quick case studies in fantasy stories that show how this tension can be properly built in worlds in which the reader is informed about the laws.

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and is trying (we think) to find Harry at Hogwarts. In fact, in one scene, the Gryffindor kids return to their common room to find that the painting of the Fat Lady on the door has been viciously slashed with what appears to have been claws. The Fat Lady tells them that Sirius Black has been there. Now, Rowling has spent over two books telling us repeatedly through Hermione’s mouth that it’s not possible to Apparate in and out of Hogwarts. So, through Hermione, Rowling is teaching us a magical law. (To be fair, there’s a tiny bit of worry about this “law” because the enchantment that prevents Apparation in and out of Hogwarts was implemented by Dumbledore, and perhaps Black and/or Voldemort are more powerful than Dumbledore and can break or bypass it. But, generally speaking, we’re led to believe that Dumbledore is the greatest wizard of the age, and that even Voldemort fears and respects him. So, perhaps it’s less a “law” of magic and more a “rule,” but because Dumbledore made it, it’s a pretty sturdy rule.) This allows us to draw a conclusion, then: Black must be getting into Hogwarts some other way. Either he’s slipping past the dementors, or he’s being helped into the castle by someone on the inside. And both possibilities are terrible to consider, which causes a massive increase in our worry about Harry and company.

And in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged goes to Roke to train to become a wizard. While there, he learns the fundamental law of all magic in Earthsea: it’s only possible to have power over something if you know its true name. In public, then, Ged uses another name: “Sparrowhawk.” The idea, of course, is that if someone tries to cast a curse on you but only knows your public name, then the curse won’t hurt you. But a horrifying moment comes late in the book when the villain greets Sparrowhawk with his true name: “Ged.” Readers feel real terror in this moment because they’ve had the fundamental magical law firmly imprinted on their minds and they comprehend the dangerous situation Ged is in.

So, the moral of the story is this: readers need to know how the world works if they’re to feel any sense of tension or excitement or fear or relief. If I ever try to write my own book, I’m definitely going to try to keep this in mind. Anyway, do you have any thoughts? Thanks for reading!

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