10 Fantasy Series and Their Rules for Magic

When I started writing, I expressed to a well-read friend of mine that I was a fan of the fantasy genre. She told me that if I ever hoped to write fantasy, one of the most important things to do was to develop the rules for my world and then stick to them. She cited Terry Pratchett’s prolific Discworld series, saying that while the series follows a wide cast, Pratchett follows a consistent set of rules.

“The world is flat and rests on the back of four elephants standing on a giant turtle floating through space,” she said. “It may be strange, but it is part of Pratchett’s rules.”

Today, we’ll take a look at 10 Fantasy Series and Their Rules for Magic.

The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling

“I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”
J.K. Rowling

In the magical world of Harry Potter, people are either magical or Muggles (non-magical). They are born this way. One cannot become a witch or wizard any more than one could become a cat. Of course, Animagi, or witches and wizards who have an aptitude to transfiguration, may be able to become cats. Magic is performed by spoken word (in most cases) and requires a wand (in most cases).

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

“I have not used ‘magic’ consistently, and indeed the Elven-queen Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves. I have not, because there is not a word for the latter (since all human stories have suffered the same confusion). Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The ‘Elves’ are ‘immortal’, at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others*—speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans—is a recurrent motive.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

There are precious few wizards in the Lord of the Rings series and you have to read The Silmarillion in order to understand the rules of magic in Middle Earth. The world was created through song by Eru (the One), also called Ilúvatar (Father of All), who first created the Ainur, similar in power and function to the Greek pantheon, with specific Ainur in control of the air, water, earth, and afterlife. The greater Ainur were called the Valar, the lesser were called the Maiar. Together, they helped create (and re-create) the world before the coming of elves (the first folk), dwarves, and men. The wizards of Middle Earth are members of the Maiar, as are Balrogs (makes the fight scene where Gandalf falls through fire and death a little more meaningful, doesn’t it?), and in fact, so is Sauron. Magic, then, is performed by beings that are closer to gods than men.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

“‘But what does it all mean?’ asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
“It means,’ said Aslan, ‘that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.'”
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Evil is loosed upon Narnia when a pair of hapless children bring a witch from Charn through Earth and to the dawn of Narnia’s time. The magic that happens here seems to be of a mostly innocuous kind, and there are few who seem able to work it. The witch has the power to turn living creatures into stone. Aslan, the lion/creator of Narnia, can bring stone creatures back to life. And there is a wizard along the voyage of the Dawn Treader who has a book of magic and is able to render creatures invisible. Oh, and a magical bracelet transforms a boy into a dragon. The magic of Narnia is used sparingly and is not the main plot driver of the series, as it seems that only a few with an inherent ability use it.

The Books of Beginning by John Stephens

“It’s well known in Hollywood that if you want someone to write a conniving, back-biting seventeen-year-old, you get John Stephens on the phone. The only thing that set the Countess apart from others I’ve written was that she had magical powers.”
John Stephens

In The Emerald Atlas, three children are thrust into an adventure through time by the aid of one of three books of magic. Each child is somehow connected to one of these three books, and by them, the children wield a specific type of magic, though they were not born as magical beings. Led by a wizard, and battling against witches and those who would use magic to subjugate normal humans, the main theme of the series is more about equal rights for different people than is about how cool having power is. The magic in the Books of Beginning series is regarded as a power that must be held in check to ensure the safety and happiness of all people.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud

“Believe me, I know all about bottle acoustics. I spent much of the sixth century in an old sesame oil jar, corked with wax, bobbing about in the Red Sea. No one heard my hollers. In the end an old fisherman set me free, by which time I was desperate enough to grant him several wishes. I erupted in the form of a smoking giant, did a few lightning bolts, and bent to ask him his desire. Poor old boy had dropped dead of a heart attack. There should be a moral there, but for the life of me I can’t see one.”
Jonathan Stroud

Nathaniel is a magician’s apprentice in a world where magicians rule supreme. This dark series focuses on Nathaniel’s adventures with the djinn, Bartimaeus, his servant from the underworld, enemy, and friend. Magic is not performed by wand, but is achieved by summoning greater or lesser demons to do your bidding. If a magician is not careful though, he might find himself at the demon’s mercy (and demons aren’t known for their mercy).

Tiffany Aching: A Story of Discworld by Terry Pratchett

“It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.”
Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

On the Discworld, there are two main approaches to magic. There are the wizards of Unseen University who use magic, largely, as a replacement for technology. And there are the witches, who use magic sparingly (because magic is dangerous, what with the things from the other side always trying to break through the rift). In the Tiffany Aching series, set on Discworld and meant for a younger reader, the main character is a witch coming into her witchhood with help from her mentor Miss Tick (get it?) and the Nac Mac Feegle, tiny blue skinned fighters/drinkers/kilt-wearers. Magic for Tiffany is a means to defend normal people against magical enemies, and is performed by sheer force of will.

The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson

“There’s just something about the way he sings. It makes me think of when it snows outside, and the fire is warm, and Podo is telling us a story while you’re cooking, and there’s no place I’d rather be–but for some reason I still feel… homesick.”
Andrew Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

In his first children’s fantasy series, musician, Andrew Peterson, writes with equal parts humor and suspense. His series focuses on the three children of the Igiby family and the secrets that make them targets for the evil Fangs of Dang. Magic is a minor part of this series, but the few appearances that it does make are momentous. The most common form of magic usage, appropriately enough, given Peterson’s more famous creative outlet, is through music.

The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini

“You would be amazed how many magicians have died after being bitten by mad rabbits. It’s far more common than you might think.
-Angela the Herbalist”
Christopher Paolini, Brisingr

When Eragon unwittingly hatches a dragon egg, he is swept into a world a danger, dragons, and magic. There are a few different races in the world of Alagaësia, but aside from a relative few humans, the knowledge of magic resides with the elves. Its use is conducted through an ancient language and exacts a physical toll on the user, thus anything you do by magic would feel as though you had done it without magic. If a user were to cast a spell that required more energy than the user possessed, he would die. Fortunately, dragon riders and others can tap into the life force of those around them to share the burden of using magic. Of course, this also opens the possibility of expending their life force, but magic is a dangerous game.

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

“I was vanquished by a deer!’
A giant magical flying deer with fangs,’ Seth said, parroting a description Gavin had shared earlier.
That sounds a little better,’ Warren conceded. ‘Seth is in charge of my tombstone.”
Brandon Mull, Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary

Meet Seth and Kendra Sorenson, children pulled into a world of magic sanctuaries. In this series, magical creatures have been confined to reserves spread across the continents. Along the way, Kendra develops a special relationship with the fairies of the world, while her brother Seth develops his own relationship with demons. Magic here is woven into the nature of each creature, and in rare circumstances, certain attributes can be transferred to normal humans.

The Old Kingdom Trilogy by Garth Nix

“‎”It always seemed somehow less real here… a really detailed dream, but sort of washed out, like a thin watercolor. Softer, somehow, even with their electric light and engines and everything. I guess it was because there was hardly any magic.”
Garth Nix, Lirael

In the world that Nix creates, the line between magic and non-magic follows the boundary between the Old Kingdom and the New. In the Old Kingdom, there are three main families of magic, the Abhorsens, the Clayr, and the Wallmakers. Sabriel follows the title character in her journey to become the Abhorsen, a person who crosses over into Death to perform her magic. In Lirael, the title character shows the world of the Clayr, largest of the magical families whose job it is to look into the future. And in the final book, Abhorsen, we learn more about the Wallmakers, as well as the royal family, which is where the “kingdom” part comes in. In his trilogy, Nix has his characters perform magic with the aide of bells and pipes, but there are some free magic creatures as well, to whom the normal rules of magic do not necessarily apply.

Hopefully, this has been some help in showing you the different types of magic one can find across the fantasy genre. Certainly, there are more options than just these for how magic might work, but these are the ones that I one or have read.

What is your favorite series with magic? How is the magic controlled?

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3 responses to “10 Fantasy Series and Their Rules for Magic

  1. Got to give props to David & Leigh Eddings in The Belgariad, which kicks off the rest of their books. The Will and The Word – speak the word, and if your will is strong enough, it happens. Simple rules, and a rich journey through two 5 book series and two prequels. Love ’em!

  2. Pingback: One Week Left… | Josh Mosey | Writer·

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