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  1. #1
    Don Mcfarland
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    Critical Thoughts on the Fantasy Genre and its Connection to Real-life Mysticism

    Evidently, my post exceeds the character limit, so I post this link to a blog post I created for the sole purpose of circumventing such restrictions in order to post my writing without jumping through hoops. I hope this is acceptable. If not, mods, feel free to edit the link out.

    Alternatively, you can just await my "part 2" reply to my own post, (another 2000-or-so characters) to complete the thing. I really hope at least that much is allowed. Anyway, to my informal essay:


    I am an avid reader of fantasy--the epic sagas in particular, such as the works of Robert Jordan or George R.R Martin. The tales are told through many different character perspectives throughout the books, which change from chapter to chapter, all contributing to an epic story larger than any one person.

    The vast majority of fantasy is based in a medieval-type setting, a unique fantasy world created by the author, but one that usually draws upon many common influences. Most are either directly or indirectly influenced by Tolkien, and after reading as many books as I have, the repetetive tales have become somewhat stale.

    Most of the time, when I pick up a new volume these days, I read a chapter or two and feel as though I have already read the entire book before. The characters may have had different names, the landscapes unfamilar, but the actual stories are just the same tired few, constantly regurgitated by authors more comfortable with a tried, tested and true formulae than a bold new idea that may not sell.

    I have always known that if I were to write my own novel, it would have to be something unique and untraditional, although it would definitely have to be fantasy. Once an addict, always an addict. I have also decided that I won't write of a medieval-type setting. There is already more than enough of that. So my fantasy will be a contemporary tale, or perhaps taking place a few years into the future.

    One thing that often disappoints me in fantasy is the application of magic, which is nearly always devoid of explanation and utterly illogical. The purely unrestrained flamboyance of Harry-Potter-style magic is perfect for child fiction, and while I found the series thoroughly entertaining, it doesn't really fly in an adult fantasy.

    So I find myself thinking instead of all the myriad real-world myths and spiritual practices, many of which are equally fantastic as anything from Lord of the Rings. The difference is that millions of people actually believe in mysticism in various forms, but no one in their right mind would give Gandalf's fireballs a considering appraisal. So the key to using magic in adult fiction would be to determine just what it is that inspires.such seemingly blind faith in the believer. Hope, the denial of reality as some might say, is only a part of it. Radical theories nearly always come with a semi-compelling argument to justify the concept. And there are always those tiny kernels of truth mixed in with the BS broth to make it ever so much finer on one's palette.


    Canadian anthropologist and botanist Wade Davis spent at least several months living with a tribe of natives in the Amazon. He reported amazing rituals where the natives would become the god of their choice, invoking the spirit of fire, for example, and thus becoming impervius to flame. They would walk on coals, eat the coals, bury their hands in them and cover their bodies with embers, reveling in the glory of their god.

    Exactly how this was accomplished is up for debate, but for the sake of a good story, let's assume that it wasn't a mere trick. In another sacred ritual, they gave him a hallucinogenic made up of about a dozen different plants. If any one of the plants were to be missing from the concoction, it would have been useless as grass. He asked them how it was that out of the many thousands of different plants in the Amazon, they were able to discover that particular combination. They regarded him as a simpleton and explained that the plants spoke to them, as if saying that water was wet.

    The fact is that people are constantly doing things that can't easily be explained. Many could be simple or very clever tricks, others just flukes of nature. People seemingly cure themselves of cancer, sometimes claiming their deity healed them. Was it the strength of their conviction? The firm belief that they would be healed for a tally of good deeds, regular confessions and absolute faith? Or a simple amd unknown cure unwittingly stumbled upon?

    It is common knowledge that the mind has power over the body--hence the effectiveness of placebo--but how much? And even though the internal appilcation of will can be proven to some degree, what of the external? It is easy to make someone turn around and look at you by concentrating on the back of their head, well outside of peripheral vision. That can be done over and over, easily tested and proven. So whether they just have some sense of being watched and turn around, feeling "creeped out," or one's sheer force of willpower causes them to turn involuntarily is irrelevant.

    Some kind of nonphysical exchange has occurred. And with just those tiny nuggets of truth, creative minds have earned fortunes selling self-help books to awaken hidden powers, learn to levitate, read minds, heal the sick, and fly to Disneyland in one's sleep.

    You may find it truly shocking to know just how many people actually believe in some form of magic. Old religions have turned stagnant for many, but as soon as they give up on God, they often turn to something else just as questionable. Reiki, palmistry, chakra healing, tarot, shamanism, Malkeizedek, and New Age watered-down mysticism for the "modern man" are rather like the "level one" stage. The socially acceptable alternatives; we criticise, we speculate, tease them, humour them, simply tolerate or even join them. Whatever you think, it still beats bible quotes.

    Just a small step up is Wiccan spell-casting, (Grow a garden, get naked, find your power!) Anton Levay's black magic (Your orgasms can make you rich!) psionic domination, firewalking, levitation and psychokinetics. Whatever you think you can do, whatever you want to learn, someone out there will always be ready to take your money in exchange for a lesson. And there are so many buyers.

    I thought it would be fun to spin a modern tale working under the assumption that many of these old traditions, and some of the new, are actually valid in some form. After checking out of lot of these ideas in the past, I've noticed that many of them have certain elements in common, which allows me to lump things together into several different "Expressions of Will," as I call it. Sort of like ye olde-style fantasy spell schools.

    The more extreme shamanic traditions, like Amazonian voodoo, are very similar to witchcraft and Levay's black magic among other things. There is always a ritual that serves as a focusing point. Willpower and focused intention is key, and the ritual gets everyone in synch, everyone involved being focused on the task at hand and the ultimate goal. Then there is either a gradual buildup of emotion, and anticipation through something like frantic dance, building up to a frenzied peak, or an explosive burst of emotion triggered at the moment of "casting." Levay suggests masturbation for this as the easiest method--alternatively, physical pain, or just a thought, perhaps a memory to induce a powerful feeling of sadness, joy, exultation, anything potent. The raw energy is then harnessed by the "caster" to empower him in creating the desired effect. This is usually used to have a direct affect on the caster or another individual. Since it is virtually always targeted at a person, be it to aid or harm, I see it as dealing with the soul. I'm calling it the Primal Anima in my head, for lack of a better term. Anima simply means "soul" in Latin. Primal because it is perhaps the oldest (and thus original) magic tradition--a cave man could do it--and because it draws upon the beastial essense of a person, the animal nature within us all.

    On the other side of the coin we have the meditational aspect also dealing with the soul. Most methods of healing or soul travel involve meditation or relaxation techniques to prepare the mind. A state of perfect inner calm, of being "centered" and at peace is required.

    I see these as two halves of a whole, two types of expression to achieve similar goals. The effects vary in that the primal aspect, ruled by raw emotion is difficult to control and focus properly, possibly leading to an unpredictable and dangerous result. The other aspect, governed by purely focused intention in absolute calm and stillness, or in relaxing rythms, is much more specifically targeted and controlled, although proportionately more difficult to master. Both practices require a certain degree of skill to be effective and both have their pros and cons. The power is neutral either way, positive or negative depending on the individual, so the label of black magic is very misleading. Even so, it is obvious that the primal aspect would more often be used for malicious purposes.



  2. #2
    Don Mcfarland
    Guest

    Part 2:

    Part 2:

    Psionics would be a completely different Expression of Will, manipulating brain waves, possibly affecting the mood of an individual by stimulating specific points in the brain etc. Naturally, I've put a good deal of thought into this as well, and come up with my own little ruleset for how it would work--what can or can't be done. Reading minds? The human brain generates litereally thousands of thoughts that we are not even aware of, flashing by so quickly that a conscious mind could never hope to keep up with or make sense of it. The only way to possibly extract any meaningful information from a person in this manner would be to ask a question, at which point a very highly skilled practitioner may be able to catch the flash of truth that blossoms in the moment, overpowering other thoughts under the weight of a guilty secret or the like.

    Rushing right along, we also have dreamwalking, where a person may accomplish many things, such as locate a person, communicate, see past, future, or "what if" events. This is extremely difficult to control, usually so upredictable or incomprehensible as to be useless, so the truly adept would be very few and far between. The expert may even be able to extract him/herself from the lucid dream state without waking, shifting into an out of body experience in order to travel to another location as an ethereal observer.

    The "Sleeping Prophet" Edgar Cayce came up with literally thousands of medical cures which were beyond his time, often completely unheard of. Many of his cures are still used in hospitals today. Cayce would enter a trance state while lying down as his wife asked him predetermined questions and wrote down the answers verbatim. Over ten thousand questions revealed a plethora of concepts at odds with Cayce's own Catholic beliefs, including reincarnation and historical events that conflicted with biblical accounts. To this day, some of the historical events and old land formations mentioned by Cayce in his trance are still being proven, as archeologists dig ever deeper to find the truth. He eventually came to theorise that he was not acting as a channel for any deity or all-knowing entity, but rather the universally linked consciousness of mankind. He called this vast reservoir of information the "Akashic Records," and contained within it was all the accumulated knowledge of humanity through the ages. It was the only reasonable way to explain the uncanny accuracy with which he could answer any sort of question. He was the psychic Google of his time.

    Allowing that the Akashic records are actually real goes a long way towards explaining the more obscure aspects of mysticism, such as fortune-telling, Amazonian herb lore, seeing past lives, finding lost items and missing people, and even dreaming of a real place you have never been to before.


    In summary, why not use the myriad real-life references to generate a system of magic in fantasy that has equal appeal and believability? To me, the more believable a story is--from the characters to mechanical elements, such as the application of magic--the more immersive it becomes. And that's exactly what we fantasy novelists hope to achieve: a story so immersive, captivating and believable, it almost seems as if such a story could actually take place on another world, or even this one.

  3. #3
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    There is magic in the mundane. My second novel (due to be published independently by end of 2011) was written with the intent of blurring the line, like Aussie Aboriginal dreamtime or Asian mysyicism. It's the same to them, the 'normal' and the 'paranormal' (I have first-hand experience of this having lived in Asia for a time). This world is the next world, so why not go there?

  4. #4
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    sorry about the typo--- MYSTICISM ---badfinger syndrome (sure, blame the keyboard) ;-)

  5. #5
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    One thing that often disappoints me in fantasy is the application of magic, which is nearly always devoid of explanation and utterly illogical. The purely unrestrained flamboyance of Harry-Potter-style magic is perfect for child fiction, and while I found the series thoroughly entertaining, it doesn't really fly in an adult fantasy.
    Not only does it not fly, but it causes huge issues. For example, Robert Jordan, in his Wheel of Time series, was constantly jumping through hoops trying to find ways for magic NOT to be the solution to every problem. Often he failed completely, and just ignored some very obvious magical solutions in favour of political or physical solutions. Hell, the entire premise of that series is broken because Rand Al'Thor can wreak massive amounts of destruction with magic and can travel anywhere he wants instantly. He could have just decimated the trolloc armies three books into the series.

    When magic can do anything, it becomes the obvious solution to everything. Putting severe constraints on magic actually allows story to make sense.

  6. #6
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    One thing that often disappoints me in fantasy is the application of magic, which is nearly always devoid of explanation and utterly illogical.
    It's called deus ex machina, a dramatic technique that precedes modern fantasy by a couple of millinnea.

  7. #7
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    Except that deus ex machina is normally used to dig oneself out of a hole. Magic in fantasy tends to make the holes in the first place, which are then covered over with liberal applications character stupidity.

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