Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thoughts On... Swords & Sorcery

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a big fantasy fan. When it comes to fantasy, there are only 3 types of story: mystical, martial, and a mix of both. And in most cases, my preference is those fantasy stories that involve some form of magic or mysticism. Up until recently, I never really thought about why magic appeals to me. Especially considering that I’m an extremely logical (and scientific) kind of man. So, the idea that magic represents (the disruption of the natural laws of the world by the conscious will) should be anathema to me, but it isn’t. And I couldn’t help but start wondering why? 

To really understand this, you have to understand that no matter what type of character you’re looking at, mystical or martial, it all comes down to power and the capacity in which one can use said power. Everybody knows the saying, “Knowledge is power”. At first glance, it looks like the point of the saying is that power in and of itself is the reason to acquire knowledge. But the part that everyone misses is that power is worthless if it’s not UTILIZED. The real benefit to gaining any type of knowledge is the avenues that knowledge opens up for a person to act. Now, let’s look at the two types of person we’re dealing with on an abstract level.

Generally speaking, the two types of characters, martial & mystical, are startlingly similar in nature. For both mystical and martial characters, it’s all about having a natural ability or disposition for a particular talent and then working hard to develop, expand, and master that talent. Usually this requires a great deal of study, interpretation & internalization of vast amounts of knowledge, and lots of practice using the talent. In most of the best stories, part of the mastery of the character’s ability includes developing the self-control needed to not use said talent for malicious ends. But the similarity stops when you get down to the core of each style of thinking.

For a martial character, the main point of their training is to bend themselves to the nature of their talent and the world around them. They study the various weapons available to them, and the various tactics those weapons allow them to employ. They train to strengthen their bodies to endure extended battles. They learn to separate their minds from their bodies in order to think THROUGH a fight, and so utilize the tactics they’ve internalized to ensure the best possible outcome in any given combat.

Now, as I said earlier, the real advantage to having knowledge is the doors it opens, the additional opportunities that knowledge gives someone for taking action. With a martial character, given what they are trained to do, the options are fairly limited. If they are facing a problem, they can attack, run, or surrender to that problem. There really aren’t any other options.

For a mystical character, the point is pretty much the exact opposite. In the mystical training, the character must bend the nature of their talent and the world around them to their will. They study the various effects that their ability offers them, and the various tactics those effects allow them to employ. But they also train to expand their minds in order to create more effects and thereby create NEW tactical avenues to explore. The idea being that with a mystical character, the more knowledge they attain, the more options for action they have. When faced with a problem, they are not just limited to attack, run, or surrender. A mystical character can fundamentally alter the nature or scope of the problem and by doing so open up more ways to resolve the challenge they face.

And while both types of character need a firm grounding in self-control, each type faces a different challenge when dealing with the self. At a certain point, the physical body can no longer handle the stresses of combat, so a martial character has an upper limit to what they can do, and consequently how far that self mastery has to go. While they can train to extend that limit, (increase strength, stamina, reflexes, etc) the physical body can only go so far. Therefore, the self mastery only needs to go so far.

For the mystical character, the matter of self-mastery never truly ends because their power is always growing. The more they learn and expand their mind & understanding, the more power they have. The more power they have, the more important their self-control becomes. After all, this is a type of character that can bring about any effect they choose. And, these effects are not limited to those solely pertaining to people. Unlike the martial character whose ultimate effect is killing someone or not, a mystical character, provided they have the power, can alter the physical world around them in whatever way they choose.

Because the power of the mystical character exists in their mind, it is an ever present temptation. A martial character is slightly less able when they’re taking a bath, or eating. But, the mind is always there. And the temptation of the type of power that the mystical character has access to only grows stronger as time passes. Their battle with self control is always there, lying in the background, just waiting for them to lose focus. That never ending challenge is the ultimate appeal of the mystical character for me. It’s the basis for the appeal of magic itself for me.

In modern day science, we have accomplished things that were previously unimaginable. And we did so by applying our minds to the world around us, gaining mastery & understanding of the rules of nature, and manipulating those rules to our benefit. That manipulation is essentially what magical characters do in fantasy stories. It’s the purpose of magic in general when it comes to fantasy. Magic is solely the realm of knowledge and the application of that knowledge to the fantasy world. Science is the same in the real world. In fact, modern day science faces the same temptations as magic in fantasy stories. And that is why I find magic and mysticism so appealing. In the end, magic in fantasy stories is appealing to me because of how much it reflects the role of science in the real world.

Now, I’ve stated in other posts that the best stories come from the blending of two polar opposites. And in the case of martial vs mystical characters, this most definitely holds true. And the best fantasy stories bear my theory out. No matter what, I’ll always have a special love for magic & mysticism in fantasy and no matter how great a story is, I’ll always hope for a little bit of magic to round it out.  

1 comment:

  1. Great post, very well written. I really liked this one. Glad you are out of the hospital and good luck with the process.