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History of combat magic in epic fantasy

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Peregrine, Oct 2, 2019.

  1. Peregrine

    Peregrine Troubadour

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    In this thread I want to discuss the history of combat magic in epic fantasy itself, with an emphasis on projectile-based magic.

    In Lord of the Rings, magic is rare, and it is nothing like magic in many books and video games of today. In Middle-earth there are no mages trained for wars, sorcery as a profession/class (sorcerers, mages...), magocracies, magician guilds, commoner's magic, elemental magic or combat spells.

    There are no combat spells in Middle-earth during battles, battles are fought like in real life history. When elves fight orcs they use their weapons, not spells or fireballs.

    The first combat magic in fantasy started with D&D. How did Dungeons and Dragons shape our perception of what magic is, in epic fantasy? Why is there such a contrast between the low magic of Middle-earth and high magic of Dungeons and Dragons?

    I think that Dungeons and Dragons included combat magic because it wanted to have a class for magicians. The inspiration behind the creation of a class for magicians/sorcerers are the wizards of Middle-earth (the Istari), but we shouldn't forget that the concept of a sorcerer/witch/magician existed centuries before the Lord of the Rings was written. These figures often appear in folklore and fairy tales. Mythical or semi-legendary figures who have the ability to manipulate the reality around them (Koschei, Merlin, Faustus...). Therefore the original idea for creating a secular magical class in D&D is also inspired by the concept of the magician itself.

    The D&D creators of this class thought this class would feel kind of empty or unsubstantial if it didn't have a unique way of fighting. So to remedy that they invented magical projectiles. Along with magical projectiles hundreds of projectile-based spells were invented. The D&D secular magical class was envisioned as a non-melee class, that's why magicians have staves and not swords as primary way of attack.

    Merlin for example, didn't shoot purple mysterious energy. I have never ever read a single fairy-tale, legend or myth that describe fights with projectile-based magic. Magical projectiles seems a purely modern thing, a invention of D&D. Zeus for example might throw bolts of lightning, but that's not close enough (because no mortal dares to fight back Zeus), and he is a god after all, not a magician. And Greek gods don't exchange projectile-based magic with each other unless you are playing SMITE.

    Do you think that the elemental magic system (air, water, fire, earth) is a invention of D&D? If you disagree, note that the media you are referring to must have all four elements in its setting. Be aware that I am not talking about the classical elements by themselves, but the use of classical elements to manipulate reality.
     
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    I think I remember a ball of fire as a weapon in The Nibelungenlied but that might have been a description of the Dragon's breath.
    Actually I don't think I've read a book where there has been Combat Magic [elemental based or not]. Maybe I don't read enough or the right type of epic fantasy.
    If elemental magic was a device for D&D, I don't know. I don't think it was there in the first version of D&D, but so much of what we now call D&D wasn't in the first edition.
    Elemental magic is a useful and simple way to create a difference between magicians without favouring one type with more power.
    What I didn't like about Warhammer [when I payed it] was that Chaos magic was so much more powerful that the other forms available. One decent Chaos Mage could lay waste to a small army if played right.
    As an aside I know plenty of people who in real life describe themselves as elemental magicians/mages and follow traditions that are at least 80 - 120 years old [they say millenia but I go from the date it was first printed out and became better known]
     
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  3. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    The thing with Dungeon & Dragons is that when it first began and established most of the standards for what would come after, it was designed as a pure dungeon crawler. Go into caves and ruins, navigate around the obstacles, and haul out as much treasure as you can. That was it. It didn't have any narrative overlap with the epic genre. Elves, dwarves, hobbits, and orcs were in the game because Lord of the Rings was the big famous fantasy thing at that time, but that was really purely cosmetic at that point.
    There also was only very little elemental magic at that time. There was a fireball, a lightning bolt, a wall of flames, a wall of ice, and a wall of stone. Most magic was still subtle spells to manipulate and deceive or to gain knowledge of what lies ahead.
     
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  4. Dark Lord Thomas Pie

    Dark Lord Thomas Pie Archmage

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    Technically Chainmail also had it. And Gandalf could shoot fire and lightning, as could the god Zeus.
     
  5. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Going way back...

    Vance's 'Dying Earth' series of tales featured an assortment of wizards employing D&D style combat spells - well over a dozen years before Gygax came up with the game.

    Wizards played a major role in LeGuin's 'Earth Sea' tales from the mid 1960's. They boasted a wide array of abilities, with the most powerful (near legendary) able to raise or drown entire islands. Lessee here, from memory...illusions, summoning (dangerous), weather magic (which might have included lightning bolts of a sort), changing (shape changing, regarded as risky), healing, and an assortment of other charms (at one point, purely to make a point, an arch mage 'locks' every oar in the harbor of a fair sized city). Properly trained wizards were big on balance and generally contemptuous of female sorcerers.

    Andre Norton's 'Witch World' from the early 60's featured a nation ruled by witches with truly impressive power, which they employed to devastating effect against hostile neighboring countries, unleashing a earthquake that probably checked in at around 9.5. That act killed most of them, though. However, they were experts at using their magic in battle, and 'Witch World' boasted perils aplenty.
     
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  6. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Now...if you want to go back further...belief in magic and sorcerers was endemic in the ancient world. Magic was also illegal in various times and places, which means that the 'spell books' were so well hidden some remained undiscovered until the present day.

    Big powers were Divination - actually, something of a region wide obsession; Charms and Hexes (Love spells, 'persuasions,' and curses - lead curse tablets turn up at archaeological sites often enough); illusion; Healing (very big - the best wizards could occasionally restore the recently departed to life); Necromancy (speaking with the dead rather than animating corpses), shape changing, weather working (with an eye to storms), and summoning (beasts, spirits). Lightning bolts (except maybe as part of weather magic), fireballs, and projectile spells were unknown, though some ancient wizards could reputedly fly (Simon Magus in the bible being a prime example).

    The big goal of many mages was to learn the 'true name' of a demon, god, or spirit - possession of such gave the wizard power over said entity, and could command it to work wonders. Most of the 'great' wizards were believed to possess the true name of some supernatural entity or other. (such is mentioned repeatedly in the bible in both a positive and negative context - first thing Moses ask at the burning bush is the (true) name of the entity with whom he is dealing, and there are multiple warnings against 'familiar spirits.')
     
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  7. Nighty_Knight

    Nighty_Knight Scribe

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    The Wicked Witch of the West threw a fireball at the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz back in 1939. I know, a movie, but still the idea of a projectile attack magic.
     
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  8. Dark Lord Thomas Pie

    Dark Lord Thomas Pie Archmage

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    The Journey To The West had a hellfire fan, and a demon shot fire out of his face.
     
  9. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    As a runaway medievalist who's major area of study was the rise of English nationalism and the development of Merlin and the Arthur stories as nationalist rhetoric, I can tell you that the concept of wizards in the style of Gandalf and Saruman and their ilk was familiar enough to include in the written narrative as early as the 13th century, at least in Western Europe. I have a copy of The Brut by the English Lackaman (a very early history of Britain that included many nascent Arthur stories and claimed them as its own), notably the first time we see English return as a written language after the Norman Conquest, and already we're seeing magic as a secular idea which indicates that it was familiar enough to its audience to be included as a feature in a book dedicated and presented to kings and queens.
     
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  10. Cargoplayer

    Cargoplayer Acolyte

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    Katherine Kurtz published her first Deryni book, Deryni Rising, in 1970. The combat magic was very well defined, including formal duels. One of my favorite series, well crafted, great characters and plots, excellent world building.
     
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  11. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    Uhhhhhh... while D&D did start out as exclusively dungeon diving like Yora said (to the point that you used the treasure you gained for XP) it has origins as a wargame even before that. Now, if you put Gandalf in the middle of a pitched battle between humans and orcs it'd be out of character for him to toss around a fireball, but if you're playing a game and you invest in this cool, wizard-y guy only to have him fight with a sword like any other schlub, well, what's the point? Wargames generally start with both players putting their overpriced, painted miniature figure representing their armies on the table so there isn't exactly a lot of space to have your army's wizards do divinations or proclaim a curse on the enemy king's head. They need immediate magic capable of affecting armies. Hence, basically fulfilling the role of living artillery and tossing fireballs.

    Ahem, that said though, in actual D&D play blaster wizards that just toss around fireballs aren't really considered the most efficient way to play them. Crowd control spells like summoning grease or spiderwebs under the enemy or buffing spells like giving your fighter temporary superspeed have a greater effect.
     
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  12. Dark Lord Thomas Pie

    Dark Lord Thomas Pie Archmage

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    Ah, the classic fireball happy wizard.
     
  13. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Minstrel

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    When we create fiction, we take from what we know. To all of us, warfare is guys with guns shooting at each other over a distance. The wars our grandparents fought in were the same, just with worse guns. Even in history, projectiles were incredibly important; the reason the Mongolian Empire did so well is because they had mounted archers and could outmaneuver everyone and shoot them down. They didn't give their enemies the chance to poke them with spears or even hit moving targets with their own projectiles. So if we're going to have magic users in a battle, they're probably well trained (and cost a lot of money to hire/train), aren't wearing heavy armor (because wizards don't do that), so they won't be in the thick of fighting since they would die very quickly. So how do they fight? Projectiles are really the only option they have.

    If you look at any MMO or video game, most magic-using characters are using ranged spells (fireballs, energy bolts, what have you) since they don't wear heavy armor and they have small health pools, because reasons. So it's easy to mirror what you see in a game in your own writing.
     
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  14. Dark Lord Thomas Pie

    Dark Lord Thomas Pie Archmage

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    Gandalf was a pyromancer...
    He romanced pie.
     
  15. He actually was. Besides the scene on the side of Caradhras where he starts a fire in a wet pile of wood, there's also a battle scene in the hobbit that has Gandalf throwing "fireballs" down from a tree at a bunch of wolves, by lighting pinecones on fire and throwing them.
     
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  16. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Minstrel

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    The elemental based system of magic familiar from D&D is largely based on European alchemy from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, since this is where the concept of those elements comes from. It doesn't bear any resemblance to the sorts of magical powers that appear in Swedish or Norwegian folklore, which are based on the concept of asking spirits for guidance or help. Spirit based magic isn't directly used in combat in any of the tales I've heard, but can be used to protect someone or something. Such requests for help or support usually take the form of a rhyme or song ("galder"), most often spoken or sung by a woman ("sejdkvinna"). In some cases protective or strengthening words could be inscribed on an object or painted on a person using runes ("rungalder"), but these were not used to make a weapon more deadly or more powerful.
     
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