The question is drawn from the Greenhaven Tradition; the YaaD course is not published on the Greenhaven Tradition website, but is made available on a person-to-person basis. Material that is not so closely held is available at http://greenhaventradition.weebly.com/
Class 9, Paper 1 (after reading, before class discussion): Think of a story you have read that involved the most plausible majikal system. What made it stick in your mind? Why did you especially like this system? Do you think any part of it could work in actual practice? Why or why not? Discuss your answers in a one-page paper, giving the title and author of your chosen story.
Assignment submitted July 1, 2012
Writing Assignment: YaaD Class 9 - Waving the Wand: The Science of Magick
System 1 – the Harry Dresden universe by Jim Butcher
Magic and the supernatural are more common in the Dresdenverse than most of the people living in it realize. Harry Dresden makes his living as both a wizard ("no everlasting purses, no love spells, no children's parties") and a detective, and uses both sets of skills in both contexts.
Magic is performed essentially by channeling personal and external magical energy and focusing one's will for a desired effect on surrounding energy and matter, possibly using an item as a focus (such as Dresden's blasting rod, staff, shield bracelet, and pentacle necklace), although there are also magical items (which have been enchanted by someone focusing his/her will on the item) and potions (which are created by mixing an appropriate base with a relevant component for each sense plus mind and spirit, while focusing the will on the desired effect), as well as magical beings (primarily vampires and various types of Fae, but also Christian angels and fallen angels). Dresden himself is best at quick-and-dirty, high-powered, make-it-go-boom magic; his apprentice Molly Carpenter is best at quiet, subtle types of magic like veils, illusions, and mental manipulation (some of which also uses considerable power), but pretty much any magic user can cast pretty much any spell (with greater or lesser success).
Thinking about and planning a spell in advance makes it easier to cast; it also gets easier with practice. Depending on the magic user and the spell itself, it may be necessary or helpful to use verbal, somatic, or physical components while casting the spell. Dresden typically uses pseudo-Latin; he explains at one point that using an unfamiliar language to channel magical energy helps protect the caster's mind from the raw energy.
There are laws regarding the use of magic, and breaking those laws, even unknowingly or accidentally, almost always leads to being executed by the White Council. There are also laws of magic, such as contagion (using a piece of something to create a tracking spell to follow that thing). The Dresdenverse doesn't seem to have some of the problems of the D&D system, such as magic-users forgetting how to cast a spell after casting it (unless they've memorized more than one copy of the spell). It does recognize that people get tired, that using magic can be exhausting, that magic can backfire on the caster, and that "evil" magic (typically causing harm other than in self-defense, and especially manipulating others' minds even with good intent) will always eventually damage the caster.
System 2 – the Lord Darcy books by Randall Garrett
Magic is studied as a science, practiced by those with the Talent, both within the Church and by secular magic users. All magic users are required to be trained and licensed by the Church. Magic is based heavily on theoretical mathematics, and the recurring character Sean O'Lochlain frequently stops to discuss the reasons why he's doing what he's doing. There is very little quick-and-dirty magic, although an experienced magician can pull a spell out of his or her pocket fairly quickly in an emergency; most spells are carefully thought out and meticulously planned, using appropriate laws of magic (contagion, similarity, knowledge, and polarity to name a few), wands of appropriate materials, other physical components, and words of power. Magic is treated as a tool for use in daily life, as in creating cold boxes to preserve food, healing the sick, and investigating crimes.
As in the Dresdenverse, magic users don't forget a spell because they've cast it, although they can become tired and need to rest; also, in general, practicing "evil" magic damages the user (although there is some argument made for the magic user having to be psychologically damaged in the first place in order to be able to practice evil magic). There are ethical strictures about using magic; for example, it's unacceptable to use magic to manipulate someone else's free will, unless done at the behest of the legal system or the Church. Thus, someone who uses evil magic may not be executed but rather stripped of the ability to use magic at all by a more experienced practitioner; someone who is mentally ill may be treated by a Clerical healer. It is permissible to use magic against another person, even to that person's detriment, as in the story where a channeled entropy device is developed as a military weapon (when pointed at someone, it causes the victim to fumble every possible action).
These two systems came to mind because I've been reading Bonewits's Authentic Thaumaturgy, and he speaks well of Garrett's system, so it was fresh in my mind; and because I've read so many of the Dresden books, read the last one fairly recently, and really like Harry Dresden's attitude.
I like both systems because they seem to have sensible limits on what can be done by a magic user, limits tied to his or her physical health, length of study, degree of practice, and personal talents (or Talents). I especially like that in Garrett's ficton, magic is studied as a science and practitioners aim for results that can be replicated by others using the same spells in the same circumstances (although every magic user has his or her own special tricks, like Master Sean's enchanted carpetbag). In both fictons, magic itself is essentially morally neutral; the decision of good vs. evil is based on the use to which the magic is put, and by whom, in what circumstance: symbolism and intent, as Master Sean points out.
I find both systems plausible and potentially workable in actual practice in this particular universe, with some caveats. I think both systems have magic that is much more powerful and predictable than I think is believable for the world in which I live (although not unbelievable for its context). Further, I think the Dresdenverse, in which no two wizards will cast exactly the same spell in exactly the same way (but two different wizards may get the same result from totally different spells), is perhaps more probable than the Darcyverse, in which the same spell, cast with the same components and words of power, will work the same way every time. Finally, if I had to pick a universe in which to live, I'd go with Harry Dresden's in a heartbeat, simply because the idea of all magic being controlled by the Church makes me nervous.