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Lawful and Chaotic Magic

Rules make Magic.

As I was recently re-reading through Elantris, Brandon Sanderson’s fantastical novel on a city of gods falling into ruin, I was reminded of what I desire the most when it comes to magic in fantasy. Rules.

I find that there are generally two schools of thought when it comes to magic in fantasy and science fiction: the lawful system and the chaotic system. Many of Sanderson’s works, such as Mistborn, Elantris and Warbreaker, use lawful systems of magic with rules in place that dictate how magic works and, importantly, how it doesn’t. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, on the other hand, use chaotic systems with very little explanation as to how most of the magic works. While both of these systems can work fine, I often find myself appreciating the lawful systems while wishing the chaotic systems had a little more structure.

Mistborn may be the perfect example of how a lawful system can work wonders on a story and setting. Allomancers can eat metal to use a variety of powers, while Feruchemists can slowly store power inside of those same metals to draw them out all at once later on. How their powers work and who can use them is detailed throughout the story, and just when I thought I had a full grasp on how the system works, the book presented me with a question. What happens if someone was both an Allomancer and a Feruchemist? By building a lawful magic system, the book managed to explain all of the main antagonist’s seemingly rule-breaking powers with just a few lines.

While I love the Lord of the Rings series, its chaotic magic system has left many who read the books confused. What exactly was Tom Bombadil, what are the rules for wizards coming back to life as Gandalf did, and how exactly did the rings of power work? While there are hints at how all of this made sense in some other books, overall magic is an unknowable thing in the Lord of the Rings series. While this isn’t a terrible thing, it does make me wish that Tolkien had added some rules to make these fantastical elements even more fantastical. If we were told that only a few legendary wizards with great power had ever returned from the dead in the history of Middle Earth, it would have made Gandalf’s return that much more impressive.

In summary, there isn’t necessarily a right and wrong way to treat magic in fantasy and science fiction. Chaotic systems can be just as good as lawful ones, and sometimes a less structured approach can leave me with feelings of wonder and mystery. At the end of the day though, I find that I often finish books with lawful systems contented while I put down books with chaotic magic wondering why things worked the way that they did.

Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring uses a chaotic magic system
Sanderson's Mistborn uses a lawful magic system
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