This is an intriguing question regarding fantasy that has many more layers than you might think.
I came upon this query when I was contemplating whether or not a fantasy novel could be written without the use of magic. I decided to explore this curiosity on my own, researching the Internet and searching for any examples of fantasy novels where magic is absent.
This column is the summary of my findings. In this article, we will finally investigate and answer the long debated question “Does fantasy need magic?”
Fantasy stories do not need to incorporate magic to be categorized as fantasy. Stories that emphasize otherworldly components are typically classified as fantasy even if there is no magic present. By definition, otherworldly components fit the fantasy criteria since they cannot exist in reality.
This is not to say that the majority of fantasy stories are created without magic. In fact, a fantasy story that strictly incorporates otherworldly components to the exclusion of magic is a rare occurrence. Later in the article, we will investigate why this is and how a fantasy story without could be constructed.
How a Fantasy Story Can Exist Without Magic
This comes as a shock to most fantasy fanatics. After all, magic is one of the premier archetypical elements associated with fantasy. People forget that archetypical and essential are two completely separate things.
To clarify why fantasy stories can exist without magic, it is necessary to first take a look at the definition of fantasy itself.
The Two Definitive Points of Fantasy
The explicit meaning of fantasy involves two distinct elements. Only one of these two criteria need to be fulfilled for a story to qualify as fantasy.
Point 1: The presence of magic that cannot occur in the real world serves to classify a fictional story as fantasy.
Point 2: The presence of otherworldly components that cannot exist in reality serves to classify a fictional story as fantasy.
Many people forget about the latter point when defining fantasy. This is because the dominant influence that magic has in the fantasy genre overshadows the significance of the otherworldly components.
The Difference Between Magic and Otherworldly Components
To the casual onlooker, magic and otherworldly components may appear to be identical. This is not the case. Although both magic and otherworldly components cease to exist in the real world, this does not make them equal in the fantastical sense.
Magic is defined as the creation or utilization of supernatural powers to perform a specific task. The only stipulation with otherworldly components is that the object, being, or activity is unable to exist in the world as we know it.
By nature, magic is otherworldly. But this does not mean that things that are otherworldly are automatically considered magic. See the difference?
Thus, what falls under the realm of “otherworldly” lies beyond the scope of just magic alone. Contrary to popular opinion, there are otherworldly elements out there that completely lack magic. This is what makes fantasy without magic possible.
To help solidify this concept in your mind, we will take a look at some examples next.
Examples of Otherworldly Components in Fantasy that Do Not Involve Magic
There are several ways that otherworldly entities can be described in a fantasy story without the use of magic.
Example 1: Unconventional Fantasy Races
Fantasy races are a perfect example of otherworldly components that do not involve magic.
Intelligent races that are not human are depicted all the time in fantasy works. Dwarves, elves, goblins, and trolls are simply just sentient beings that exist within a fantasy work. They are similar to humans in that they want to live out their lives. If you want to browse through additional examples of fantasy races, check out my article Full Rundown of the Most Exotic Fantasy Races.
If the author so desires, these fantasy races do not have to be linked with any sort of magic whatsoever. An author can assimilate them into the fictional world without any magical context. It is hard to classify a novel that integrates elves and dwarves into the storyline as anything other than fantasy.
Example 2: Exotic Fantasy Creatures
Again, this same logic applies to fantasy creatures.
Fantasy creatures like dragons and sphinxes will never exist in the real world. Thus, they are otherworldly. This begs the question, “Does the introduction of fantasy creatures automatically warrant the use of magic?”
The answer is no. In certain fantasy contexts, it is commonplace for these fantasy creatures to be a part of the world, just like a dog or a cat is part of our world. Their existence just means that their world is completely separate from our own. No supernatural powers have to be involved to conjure these beings to life.
The Importance of Otherworldly Components to Fantasy
The significance of otherworldly elements to fantasy cannot be overstated.
Although the element of magic grabs the most attention when it comes to the fantasy community, the presence of otherworldly elements is what further expands the scope of the story beyond reality.
People overlook the fact that fantasy is not about destroying possibilities, it is about creating new ones. Introducing otherworldly aspects such as fantasy races and fantasy creatures opens up the story to fresh opportunities to take the story in an entirely different direction.
Readers and viewers flock to the fantasy genre because of these original possibilities. Needless to say, the genre would not be the same if otherworldly components were absent.
Addressing the Common Misconception of Why Fantasy Is Irrevocably Linked with Magic
Most people have been led to believe that magic always accompanies fantasy no matter what. How can this be?
The Precedent Set by J.R.R. Tolkien
For one, J.R.R. Tolkien set an enormous precedent for fantasy authors with the use of magic in The Lord of the Rings. For those of you that do not know, this piece of literature is what jumpstarted the fantasy genre and solidified it into the world of literature forever.
Many up and coming fantasy authors wanted to model their work after J.R.R. Tolkien. For this reason, many writers adopted their own version of fantasy magic and incorporated it into their fantasy novels. Soon, this trend spread like wildfire until fantasy without magic became extremely difficult to find.
The ramifications of the precedent set by J.R.R. still linger today, as many fantasy writers opt to model the framework of their story after The Lord of the Rings.
The Reigning Popularity of Magic Systems
The continuing popularity of magic systems in contemporary times has also fueled the misperceived linkage between fantasy and magic.
After all, it is challenging for fantasy readers and viewers to separate the entities of magic and fantasy in their minds if that is all they have ever read or seen. At the end of the day, perspective is everything.
If a great deal of fantasy fanatics have never been exposed to a fantasy work without magic, it will be extremely difficult to persuade them that fantasy can exist in the absence of magic. That is, unless you have really convincing evidence (which is essentially what I am trying to do right now).
You are probably asking yourself, “Why do the majority of fantasy works involve magic anyway?” We will take a look at this question in depth in the next section.
The Reasons Why Most Fantasy Stories Integrate Magic
The fact that magic has been a pillar in the fantasy genre for decades is no coincidence. Fantasy authors implement magic for a variety of reasons. The most notable of which are scrutinized below.
Enhances the Quality of the Plot
The number one reason that magic is incorporated into a fantasy story is to add to the intrigue of the plot.
It is no secret that individuals embrace the fantasy genre because of the role that magic plays in the story. People are drawn to the idea of changing up the laws of the real world in a creative yet sensible manner. Defying the confines of reality is an art form of its own. When done correctly, it can change the entire makeup of the story for the better.
Think about classic fantasy works like Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia. Without the presence of magic in these works, there would be no story to speak of. Magic is absolutely needed in these novels to construct the enthralling, captivating plot lines we came to know and love.
To put it simply, the inclusion of magic allows fantasy authors to make their story that much more original and enticing. The better the plot, the better the sales, the better the payout. Everything comes full circle.
Opens Up New Avenues for Characterization
Magic can also serve to further the development of a character in a fantasy work in ways that simple dialogue and plot events cannot. The use of magic can be reflective of the internal thoughts and feelings that a character is experiencing at the present moment.
For example, if a character has recently undergone a traumatic event, they may conceal these feelings of sadness and misery from other characters. However, magic can act as a conduit for this character to unleash these feelings on the outside world. They may craft dark magic or entertain the idea of necromancy instead of revealing their somber emotions.
Progression of magical skill can also be directly linked with the overall growth of the character. This phenomenon is commonly seen with the young, up and coming protagonist that is seeking to gain a foothold within the magical universe. At first they lack confidence in their abilities, but then they start to make progress bit by bit until they are full fledged magical experts.
In summary, a lack of magic would detract from the reading experience since these subtle avenues of characterization would vanish.
Effective Way to Subtly Communicate Overarching Themes
Lastly, magic is a fantastic means to place a heavy emphasis on central themes throughout the novel.
Authors are always looking for clever ways to communicate a certain takeaway point to the reader. In writing, repetition is key to getting your point across. The element of magic offers fantasy authors an original way of sending a message to the reader without being too conspicuous about it.
For instance, an author may aim to emphasize courage as the underlying theme within their fantasy work. Magic is perfect for this type of theme since it allows authors to force the characters to tackle their fears head on.
In a great deal of fantasy contexts, there is a certain aura of mystery and unfamiliarity that surrounds magic. It comes as no surprise then that the characters within the work may fear magic initially. If an author wants to promote the theme of courage, they can simply have a character conquer these fears of the unknown and expose themselves to the effects of magic.
This is just one example, but there are plenty of other instances where magic has been used to sharpen the theme in a fantasy work.
Examples of Fantasy Works Without Magic
Although magic is in the majority of premier fantasy works, there are still some famous fantasy pieces that have reached success without the presence of magic.
One notable example of this is the Scavenger Trilogy by KJ Parker. In this trilogy, no magic exists. However, every other aspect of the novel spells out fantasy. From the fantastical war torn world to the larger than life nature of the protagonists, this trilogy just goes to show that fantasy does not need magic to flourish.
If you are interested in checking out the Scavenger Trilogy by KJ Parker for yourself, click here to get more information on book one in the series, Shadow, at Amazon.