When did "fast" magic show up in fiction?
August 23, 2018 11:57 AM   Subscribe

When did wizards/mages start throwing around fireballs, lightning, and other types of direct intervention in the world?

I've been thinking a bit about historical magic systems and modern depictions of magic. And almost all of the cultural/historical varieties have the practitioner doing a slow, methodical ritual to heal someone/contact spirits/etc. Meanwhile, magic in modern fiction is fast and flashy. While I understand that most of the magic in modern fiction is not something that would be attempted by someone like a hermetic mage in the 1600s (they were not looking to throw fireballs around), from what I've read, earlier depictions of magic in fiction have the wizards etc. divining the future or shapeshifting (like Merlin).

With all that said, when did the "wave wand, produce fire" type of magic start to show up in fiction? When did it turn from divination and talismans to combat and physical manipulation?

Also, if there are examples of this sort of thing in 19th century and earlier fiction that I just don't know about, please point them out.

(I'm mostly thinking Europe and the Americas, as I feel like I need to read up more on Asian/African/Middle Eastern depictions of magic (and really, the differences between Chinese, Indian, Kmer, Japanese, Korea, etc. depictions of magic for Asia and similar ideas for other regions/continents) before I even know if this is a question I can ask- if you want to reccomend resources on that, I'd be happy to read them. Extra points for anything from Sub-Saharan Africa, I have no idea where to even look for information on that.)
posted by Hactar to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Jack Vance, and Vancian Magic?
posted by zamboni at 12:03 PM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Are you counting fictional material derived from holy books in this? The Old Testament for instance has a bunch of examples of exactly this, some of which has made it into contemporary fantasy fiction. For instance the "Snake Staff" which has been in a bunch of incarnations of D&D has at least some of its basis in Exodus:

And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.

Another example would be the Seal of Solomon which has a few thousand years of tradition of legends about its rather flashy effects.
posted by A god with hooves, a god with horns at 12:13 PM on August 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

Yeah, and like, Jesus doesn't really use his powers for combat but he's all about flashy miracles when the situation calls for it.
posted by potrzebie at 12:46 PM on August 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Not to thread sit, but something I should have included: I'm looking for non-divine actions. Where the magic user (to use a D&D 1st term) is the one who is producing the effect, not a god. Gods have been smiting people since the beginning of time. I'm curious when people got that ability in fiction.
posted by Hactar at 12:47 PM on August 23, 2018

There is tons of basically instantaneous flashy and illusion-type magic in British lit; Faustus and The Tempest spring to mind immediately but there's plenty more. That said it generally isn't combat oriented -- Prospero doesn't literally throw lightning bolts, for example, but he does instruct his fairy servant to whip up a thunderstorm. Faustus turns straw into a horse (temporarily) and gets the apparent ability to regrow a limb. The way it works seems to be largely driven by the rule of cool, especially in theater: "a wizard did it" is a great justification for a cool magical onstage effect, and authors didn't really want to be slowed down by depicting a bunch of background or even a consistent system of "how things work" for it.
posted by phoenixy at 12:56 PM on August 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

So The Dying Earth came out in 1950, 4 years before Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was published in 1937 although Gandalf doesn't do a ton. But that's generally where everyone points to for the archetype of the D&D wizard. There are wizards in pulp fantasy fiction earlier like in Conan stories but even there they're not throwing lightning bolts and such.

Chainmail in 1971 was the first wargame to include a fantasy element with fireballs, lightning bolts, etc. Prior to that wargames were all pretty realistic afaik - knights and dudes with swords or WW II tank battles.

Most of the earlier examples of magic in literature is just a long list of people or creatures doing things other than what you describe - they influence, they summon, they enchant in indirect ways. But the modern vision is basically The Dying Earth to Fantasy Chainmail to D&D to now.
posted by GuyZero at 1:24 PM on August 23, 2018

Also the original "Reading List" from the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide lists pretty much all of D&D's direct influences, so if there's something earlier than Vance, it's probably also on that list.
posted by GuyZero at 1:45 PM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Does the fairy godmother from Cinderella not count? She was basically invented by Charles Perrault in the late 1600's. Most modern versions of the fairytales are from him. It is French, but I quote from an English translation:

Cinderella went at once to gather the finest she could get, and brought it to her godmother, not being able to imagine how this pumpkin could help her to go to the ball. Her godmother scooped out all the inside of it, leaving nothing but the rind. Then she struck it with her wand, and the pumpkin was instantly turned into a fine gilded coach.

She then went to look into the mouse-trap, where she found six mice, all alive. She ordered Cinderella to lift the trap-door, when, giving each mouse, as it went out, a little tap with her wand, it was that moment turned into a fine horse, and the six mice made a fine set of six horses of a beautiful mouse-colored, dapple gray.

Being at a loss for a coachman, Cinderella said, "I will go and see if there is not a rat in the rat-trap--we may make a coachman of him."

"You are right," replied her godmother; "go and look."

Cinderella brought the rat-trap to her, and in it there were three huge rats. The fairy chose the one which had the largest beard, and, having touched him with her wand, he was turned into a fat coachman with the finest mustache and whiskers ever seen.

posted by vacapinta at 1:52 PM on August 23, 2018 [7 favorites]

With all that said, when did the "wave wand, produce fire" type of magic start to show up in fiction?

Circe used a wand to turn Odysseus' crew into pigs, so that's around the 8th century BC.

But for modern fiction, I'd also say Vecn...I mean Vance.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 5:07 PM on August 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Not an expert opinion or anything, but I think Manga hugely contributed to the idea of this sort of "active magic," at least in fantasy novels, as opposed to chanting, incantations and the like, from the late 80's and early 90's onwards. However, it has existed for much longer then that, obviously.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 5:55 PM on August 23, 2018

Zatara the Magician was causing magical things to happen in comic books by speaking a couple of words backwards as early as 1938.
posted by hanov3r at 7:57 AM on August 24, 2018

Disney's Fantasia, in 1950, had Mickey Mouse as a wizard waving about a magic wand and ordering broomsticks about. I'm sure that was drawing on older examples.

What about Merlin? He's perhaps the earliest recognizable "wizard" I know of but I don't know what sort of things he did in the oldest stories.

There are a lot of very old stories about shapeshifters.
posted by tracer at 11:23 AM on August 24, 2018

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