Teresa Edgerton on World Building and the Magical World View

Teresa Edgerton began telling stories as soon as she learned to talk; she began scribbling them down as soon as a teacher put a pencil in her hand;  and luckily for us fantasy readers, sixty years later she is still inventing them.  Teresa has published many short stories and novels full of wit and charm and intriguing creatures and characters. Her latest releases are Goblin Moon (being rereleased by Tickety Boo Press), and The Queen’s Necklace (being released by Harper Voyager on Kindle for the first time and currently available for preorder on Amazon). Also look for her work under the pseudonym of Madeline Howard. 

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World Building and the Magical World View

One thing that fantasy writers often forget is the question of how a belief in magic should shape a character’s world view, and how their culture should shape their ideas on magic. In different places and different eras the answer may differ greatly, or sometimes hardly at all, but here I am going to talk about the Western European Medieval era that inspires so many fantasy settings.

If real people who believed in magic did not see it as something apart but a natural component of a vastly complicated world, then how much the more would characters in whose world magic is a natural force try to fit it into their idea of the overall scheme of things?  Whether they practice magic themselves or have it practiced on or against them, if they want to buy a charm or a spell, they would want to know at least as much about how it works as the ordinary person knows about electricity or the internal combustion machine.

We can never know exactly how the people who lived in the Medieval period thought or exactly how they saw their world, but we can learn a lot from their writings, their superstitions, and their rituals.  We can pick up details that enrich what we write and lend it the kind of authenticity that makes what we write more convincing.  Although we have been trained to see the world differently than people in Medieval times, many of the same dreams and nightmares linger just below the surface of our minds.  You can call it the collective subconscious or whatever you will, but what it comes down to is that readers will recognize, on some level, that what you are writing is “true.”

Subjectively, Medieval people were surrounded by perils, wonders, and miracles, which permeated every aspect of their lives.  Practically speaking, if your crop dies and you don’t know why and there is nothing you can do about it anyway, it doesn’t much matter if you believe the pixies did it (because you happened to offend them) or it was really just a spell of freakish weather.  You are in exactly the same fix, but your internal world is much more fascinating—and more complicated—if you believe it was the pixies.

If it was just the weather, then you are helpless. If you think you’ve offended the fairies and they are taking their revenge, then you may ask yourself how it happened and what you can do to avoid it in the future.  Or, alternatively, how to protect yourself, your family, and your farm.  It was a common belief that iron repelled a variety of malevolent creatures (that horseshoe over the door was there for more than just luck) including the more dangerous sort of fairy.  Rowan repelled witches, sorcery, and demons.  In the countryside it was perilous to go out at night or even to open the door to travellers or neighbors, who might not be who they seem in any case, or because the devil himself might come knocking.  And it was prudent not to refer to the fairies by name.  They were the Good Folk (even when their behavior hardly warranted it), the Fair Folk, the Shining Ones, the Gentry.  As you can see, flattering them was another way of staying out of trouble.

Which brings us to the power of names.  While the common farmer or farm laborer  concentrated his efforts on appeasing or avoiding these often mischievous nature spirits, the educated sorcerer, learned in “natural philosophy” along with magic (the latter having its basis in the former) and who was sometimes, surprisingly, a cleric as well, was largely engaged in calling up ghosts and summoning spirits in order to learn what they could tell him or to bend them to his will.

While the country witch might curse someone by sketching a sign on the air and gabbling a few words, a sorcerer’s practices were more arduous as his aims were higher, or at least more ambitious. The spells of the magician usually required considerable preparation.  First he studied his books, considered the season and the stars, the reigning “intelligences” (angels associated with the heavenly bodies), in order to choose precisely the right hour on the right day.  When the time arrived, he put himself through lengthy rituals of purification, set up his paraphernalia (much of which he made himself—a magician did not buy a magic wand or talisman because part of the spell was making it), chalked an elaborate figure of geometric shapes and mystical words on the floor, and began to recite his spell, which was almost invariably a long one, and invoked a great many names.

These chants were much like prayers, and those that come down to us, it might surprise you to know, more often called on God and Jesus Christ, as well as angels known and unknown to us today, than they did on evil spirits (even if the purpose was to summon one).  However, even those who practiced magic of the very whitest variety made a study of devils, evil spirits, and the Princes of Hell, in order to understand them, recognize their influences, and to protect against them.

These devils, or fallen angels, were all ranked in strict hierarchies, as indeed were the angels in Heaven, and every aspect of the natural world, including plants, animals, metals, and of course men and women.  Because the Natural, the Divine, and the Infernal worlds all observed these hierarchies, it was contrary to God’s plan not to know one’s place in society, to be discontent or rebellious with the role assigned at birth.  There was some chance for advancement through the church. Rich merchants might become richer and as powerful as princes. Serfs could become free if they escaped and lived for a year in one of the towns. But all of these were extraordinary circumstances.  To better oneself was strongly and stringently discouraged. Thus, the order of society influenced philosophy and magic, and philosophy reinforced the order of society.

This web of connections was, of course, far more complex than I have detailed here, far more complicated and intricate than anything a writer could devise in his or her own world building, short of devoting an entire lifetime to the process.  But the various parts fit together like an immeasurably vast puzzle, where by knowing and arranging the right pieces it is still possible to suggest the whole.

This, I believe, is what we should try to do in constructing our imaginary worlds: lay out the basic structure, adhere to it, and let everything proceed from there.  If nothing else, your world will be consistent, and if you devote enough imagination and ingenuity to the process you will create a truly magical experience for your readers.

3 Responses to Teresa Edgerton on World Building and the Magical World View

  1. Pingback: World Building Article |

  2. That’s a great piece – good to see a proper description of mediaeval magic, rather than the RPG interpretations of historical magic I’ve seen elsewhere online!

  3. That’s the best kind of fantasy fiction, what sweeps you away to another world not just in the cool bizarre things that happen but in characters who think and view the world in a completely different way. Thanks, Teresa, for sharing some of what goes into creating a magical world!

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