A Demon Did It: Breakdowns of Consistency in Fantasy Fiction

Elric of Melniboné
Elric of Melniboné

This article is by Stefon Mears.

Years ago, on The Simpsons, Lucy Lawless uttered the now famous line, “A wizard did it.”

In context the line was a broad dismissal of the myriad small errors fans are famous for finding in their favorite shows.

Found an inconsistency? Blame it on a wizard. Ironic, really, because by the end of its run Xena: Warrior Princess had more gods as recurring characters than human beings, but I’m hard pressed to think of a single wizard.

But then, “a god did it” might not have gone over so well with viewers.

I was thinking about that famous phrase recently as I read The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell. Fantasy fans expect a lot from their wizards. We don’t just want cool special effects, we want logic and consistency. We want to know what magic can’t do, so we have a clear understanding of the struggles that characters go through. We don’t need these things spelled out (though I salute Katherine Kurtz for publishing Deryni Magic, a handbook to the magic system of her popular Deryni books), but we do need the writers to understand the limits of their magic and to bring those limits across on the page.

For example, Corvis Rebaine, the main character of The Conqueror’s Shadow, has some small skill as a spellcaster, but not much. His ally Seilloah the witch expands his magical options, and the powerful sorceress Rheah Vhoune is quickly established in the novel as one of his most dangerous enemies. Through references to these three characters, Marmell brings enough across about his world’s magic system to clarify their respective stakes and capabilities. The balance of supernatural power in the story is clear, except for one wild card: demons.

Demons are present in the novel in two ways. The first is indirect: the Kholben Shiar, demon-forged weapons that take the shape most appropriate to their wielder. The wielder has no say in this appearance. Hunting spear, battleax, assassin’s dagger … the weapon chooses the shape and this shape never changes for that wielder.

This is an interesting concept, and not entirely without importance to the story. It does raise questions though: why do demons forge weapons? Why do the weapons change shape? Is there also demon-forged armor? These questions aren’t answered in the first novel, and honestly they don’t have to be. Those details are not necessary to the story, and not answering them leaves them open for discussion in the sequel, The Warlord’s Legacy (which I have not yet read). And if they aren’t answered there, the reader might be satisfied to dismiss the issue by saying, “A demon did it.”

Demon-forged weapons always remind me of Stormbringer and Mournblade, the two “hell-forged blades” of Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels. But Stormbringer and Mournblade were not forged by demons; they were demons. They were mighty and cursed weapons, and they drank souls.

The Kholben Shiar do not drink souls. That is a task Marmell relegates to the other form demons take in his novels: bound into jewelry. The primary jewel-bound demon in The Conqueror’s Shadow is Khanda, the ally of Corvis Rebaine in much the same way that Stormbringer was allied with Elric. The demons provide the powers and the humans (well, one was technically a Melnibonéan) provide souls to feed them. Stormbringer’s support was primarily martial, but Khanda’s is … more open-ended.

Khanda provides Corvis Rebaine general magic support, enough that the warlord passes as a more powerful wizard to the masses. But Khanda does not operate by the same rules as wizards do. Wizards study and cast specific spells, but Khanda’s power works along desire-fulfillment lines. Khanda needs to consume human souls to power itself, but otherwise its limitations are unclear. I’m reminded of what J. Michael Straczynski said about the speed of the White Star ships in Babylon 5, “They travel at the speed of plot.” And that seems to be Khanda’s limiting factor: Khanda is exactly as powerful as the plot requires.

That echoes some of Stormbringer’s behavior in the Elric novels. On two occasions Elric managed to call Stormbringer to him over a distance, even when it was held by an enemy. But, when the plot required other characters to bring Stormbringer back to Elric, on that occasion he could not call it to him. A minor discrepancy that had no terrible lasting impact on the story, much like the couple of small discrepancies in the powers of Marmell’s jewel-demons.

These small contradictions don’t ruin their books. Heck, the Elric novels are fantasy classics. So perhaps when readers find those small irregularities, what they should say is, “A demon did it.”

Can you think of other small story discrepancies in works of fantasy? Share your favorite examples below.

About the Author:

Stefon Mears has ninety-nine problems but a demon ain’t one. Stefon earned his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from N.I.L.A., and his B.A. in Religious Studies (double emphasis in Ritual and Mythology) from U.C. Berkeley. To date Stefon has published more than a dozen short pieces and one novel, Magician’s Choice. Look for him online at stefonmears.com or @stefonmears on Twitter.

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Alberto
Alberto
6 years ago

Given my limited knowledge of the Tolkien universe, I do feel things would have been resolved much quicker in the Lord of the rings trilogy had a certain wizard called on his eagles sooner.. Granted, from what I remember, in The Hobbit the eagles found them.

MadLogician
MadLogician
Reply to  Alberto
6 years ago

Two reasons Gandalf couldn’t use the eagles earlier:

(1) the Eye of Sauron would have spotted them in the air, and then the Nazgul would have splatted them out of the sky

(2) if you gave the Ring to the eagles, they might just keep it 🙂

P. H.
7 years ago

Alas, even Tolkien got letters questioning consistency of details which he was known to painstakingly review. I like the idea, blame it on a character – or John Galt.

Emily
Emily
8 years ago

I can’t think of any off hand, but I do know that feeling of reading or watching fantasy and thinking, “hey, wait one damn minute… that makes no sense…”  Great post and it gives me something to be vigilant for when I write.

Roy Rogers
Roy Rogers
8 years ago

Interestingly, not all authors seem overly concerned about consistency.  Consider this quote from Arthur Conan Doyle:  “It has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it and I have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matter if I hold my readers?”

sanchezsez
sanchezsez
8 years ago

I recently read an article (I believe it was in the local newspaper) about how horror master Stephen King hires a superfan to be a constistency checker for his novels.  The article was talking about a new book that follows up on “The Shining” and the helper was proving to be very valuable given how long ago the original novel was written (around 1977).  Most of us here probably don’t have the budget for this type of system, but we can dream!

IPonder
IPonder
8 years ago

If you define limitations in a novel and later realize that your story can’t fit in, I suppose you can try to turn that inconsistency into a good twist!

IPonder
IPonder
8 years ago

If you define limitations in a novel and later realize that your story can’t fit in, I suppose you can try to turn that inconsistency into a good twist!

MsCawthon
MsCawthon
8 years ago

The first thing that comes to my mind is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Hogwart’s letter stated that you can bring in an owl, toad or cat, but Ron brought a rat Scabbers and didn’t face any problem. Well it’s a minor thing.

Max Belenky
Max Belenky
8 years ago

My hopes for originality have been dashed and scattered to the four winds…
In my novel, a magical race used weapons that took the shape most appropriate for the user…
It could be a single weapon(even bows, since instead of arrows it used the user’s magical energy formed into an arrow(like that god bow in “Immortals”)), or twin weapons.
It took me a month to come up with the mechanism required in “setting” the weapons’ shape, and now I find out that someone else thought of this AGES before me?
Originality is dead…

Tina Wagner
Tina Wagner
8 years ago

why don’t you just plae the blame on the writer? Afterall, shouldn’t they be keeping track of the story in their writing?

Archon Speculative Fiction
Archon Speculative Fiction
8 years ago

Aren’t there two wizards absent in The Lord of the Rings books? (The Trilogy, and the Trilogy.)

Max Wyght
Max Wyght
8 years ago

No!!!
I thought I had a good idea for the weapons that take the best form for their users!

I haven’t even read “The Conqueror’s Shadow”…

Originality is dead if someone completely removed from that universe came up with the same idea…

KuokMinghui
KuokMinghui
8 years ago

I find it easier to jailbreak whatever plot loopholes with “a demon did it!” rather than “a god did it!”. Why? Because we associate gods with the concept of order while demons are utterly chaotic. Order brings about stability, chaos creates unpredictability. I think one of the biggest challenge here is this: how are you going to create scenarios where you can convince said situation happens due to chaotic factors rather than something just unforeseen?
I still remember the concept of Chaos in the Warhammer Fantasy world and I really like how the powers-that-be shaped the whole chaotic factor. Try imagining this: If you’re a champion of Chaos, would you know what will happen to whatever mutations happening inside you? No. Every champion can choose his/her own Chaos god, but the rest will be just pure random wager where no one knows even vaguely the odds.

foolsage
foolsage
8 years ago

The closest analogous phrase, when saying “a god did it (i.e. forget continuity errors)” is of course deus ex machina.

I can find continuity errors with very little effort, truth be told. For instance, tonight I watched the new episode of “True Blood”. Eric Northman is a millenium-old vampire. Eric’s sister Nora was infected with Hepatitis-V (the anti-vampire synthetic disease) and Eric was desperate to find a cure. Putting aside their differences, Eric approached Bill Compton (now imbued with the power of Lilith, the first vampire) to cure Nora. The disease was ravaging Nora, a centuries-old vampire, and seemed about to kill her despite her powerful bloodline as a daughter of Godric, the creator of Eric and Nora and a sort of vampire saint (several millenia old) with special powers. Eric convinced Bill to help save Nora, and so Bill, now imbued with the power of Lilith, gave his blood to Nora. However, he did so by allowing her to feed off his arm… which would very probably allow the disease to propagate to Bill. It was cinematically pleasing to see her sucking blood from his arm, but in the context of the storyline, that was damned stupid. Bill could have given her the blood indirectly in quite a few ways without potentially exposing himself to the (apparent) ultimate vampire-killing disease. Bill was not affected of course, so it’s a continuity error, or at least very likely was one.

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