Magic and the fantasy fiction genre, they go together like Bert and Ernie – or should I say Frodo and Sam? Wherever you look in fantasy, you’ll see examples of magic. Lord of the Rings, of course, is a famous example, but if you were to talk about more or less every major fantasy work, you’ll find yourself counting off series after series that employs the magic trope.
All the best fantasy books* use magic elements, but is magic an absolute necessity of fantasy?
Is magic and fantasy mutually inclusive, or can you build a fantasy world without magic?
To answer this question, we first have to look at what fantasy is as a genre… which is easier said than done. Defining fantasy is like trying to define love itself. It’s nearly impossible to give a clear and finite answer. Even when Googling ‘definition of fantasy genre’, the results don’t quite work for me. In short, ‘What makes a Fantasy Novel’ means different things to different people.
The problem is that fantasy can essentially be anything that differs from normality. Fantasy can be as sprawling and epic as the churning cataclysm of Eeres breaking apart thanks to crystal resonance, or it can be as innocent as finding out that your protagonist may have lived a few times before.
Fantasy falls across a very, very broad spectrum of fiction that encapsulates that which is not real, and which could never conceivably be real. A crime fiction set in London is not fantasy, because it is based on the real world. A crime fiction set in London where the city is underwater and everyone has gills is fantasy because, well, you guessed it.
Magic in fantasy is often a force that can be controlled by individuals within that world. Sometimes by all, but more commonly by a select few. Again, magic is seen in a broad spectrum across fantasy fiction.
It is always, though, an unexplainable phenomenon (for us) that falls outside of the laws of nature and physics. Whatever form magic takes in fantasy, it is not something that could conceivably happen in our current world. (Although there are plenty of nods to the ‘science-fantasy’ genre, where technology is so very advanced it may look (to us) like magic. Lab-generated gene mutations, anyone?)
A fantasy world without magic isn’t as restrictive as it might sound. There are plenty of classic fantasy tropes that seem magical that make a fantasy fantastical and otherworldly without actually being supernatural.
Examples of this are different races, such as dwarfs, goblins and so on. These are famed fantasy tropes but their inclusion in fantasy does not mean that magic exists. Race is the result of biological diversity, which means you can have strange creatures exist thanks to the environment and world from which they come, not because they were created by magic forces. You could even, conceivably, introduce worlds with monsters like dragons if you can find a realistic way to plot their evolution outside of being created by magic [editor’s note: The late Anne McCaffrey does this with her PERN books, for example]. If dinosaurs could be real in our world without magic, why not some other fantastic animals?
Then you have mythology. Fantasy is built on unique cultures and mythologies. Of gods and monsters, stories of legend and powers greater than our own. The history of the human race is littered with examples of these, but that does not mean magic exists within our own world. Fantasy can be built on mythos and lore that includes magic, in the same way that many real historic cultures were. Just because characters believe in magic, doesn’t make it true for the fantasy world. The idea of magic doesn’t have to be removed for it not to actually be real.
We can also take this idea even further. What about fantasy worlds with unique weather patterns or landscapes, like floating rocks or flames falling from the sky? Again, it all depends on how you frame it. A fantasy world could have ten moons and still not be magic, and those floating platforms of rock could all be built around the nature of the world itself. Air currents, strange new elements and materials, etc. And what about that raining fire? The fire doesn’t have to fall from the sky because of magic; it could be a chemical reaction in the air.
The simple answer to this question is: Yes, of course.
The concept of fantasy books might be hard to define, but it doesn’t have to be. Fantasy is just things that are not real. In fantasy, you need to have a world that is at least in part not of our own. It can be totally different, or it can be very similar with a few new tweaks.
You could conceive a world where races of half-men, half-lion beings worship an ancient crow that died thousands of years prior to unify the people. They could all live on wooden platforms built into the side of a waterfall, and war with giant wolves whenever the blue moon rises every hundred years. None of this is magic, it’s all based on constructs of the world, biology, and mythology, but it’s still undeniably fantasy.
It’s not necessarily good fantasy, but that’s besides the point.
There’s no single trope that must be employed, because there are so many different elements that can be used to turn a take into a fantasy. Magic is often employed in fantasy because it’s an exciting method of developing a world or drawing out plot threads that couldn’t otherwise exist without it. However, it is not a definitive part of the fantasy genre.
What do you think, readers? What are your favourite non-magic fantasy books? Let us know in the comments below.
* The best fantasy books that I have read so far, in my opinion. Comment below with recs if you think I’m wrong!