Genders & Magic Systems
With mentions of Uprooted by Naomi Novik
& a few others
As part of TBR Con, I had an interesting chat about magic systems on a panel entitled Hard VS Soft Magic Systems. The question briefly came up as to whether magic systems are gendered – I’d like to argue that historically they have been (although they needn’t always be) and that sometimes a gender-divide in a magic system can be done successfully.
Let’s define some terms. Hard magic systems are traditionally magic systems with set rules which the reader understands beforehand (often very technical rules, as in you need one ounce of this and two grams of that and it has to be such a time of day for the magic to function) and soft magic systems rely on skills which are less easily measured (either social skills, or simply fairytale magic, which obeys cultural rules or the needs of the story – for example, the magic lamp and ring Aladdin uses in One Thousand and One Nights, or the way holding your breath prevents demons from seeing you in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away).
Uprooted by Naomi Novik has a young woman, Agnieszka, learning magic alongside an established sorcerer, called the Dragon.
He has a ‘masculine’ approach to magic, which corresponds to a hard magic system, where everything can be explained: it can be codified, it can be reduced to a formula, and if the ingredients are dosed right and the words said right, it will always work. Agnieszka, who turns out to have magic powers, has a ‘feminine’ approach to magic, which corresponds to a soft magic system – if your heart is in it, dosage and spells come naturally, the words needn’t be perfect.
This echoes a sentiment I’ve seen in magic systems before, this divide between hard/soft as male/female.
For example, it can also be found in Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites, where the wizards have a much more ‘scientific’ approach to magic, if you want to call it that, and don’t recognise soft power or social magic, like the headology used by the witches. So, historically, there is a belief, encoded in magic systems in fantasy, that some magic is inherently masculine or feminine. I don’t believe that’s always useful, or that we should encourage rigid gender-norms in our magic, but it’s interesting that it exists.
Uprooted uses this differential approach to magic to achieve a few interesting things. Notably, Agnieszka has one way of learning, and doing things, and having another way or learning imposed on her is counterproductive. She needs to do magic the way she wants to do magic, the way that feels right – and there’s no point forcing the wrong pedagogy on her.
So the divide in the magic system also serves the idea that one mould doesn’t fit all, and that believing there is only one way of succeeding is wrong. That we need to make way for other points of view and ways of doing things.
Another interesting aspect, I found, was that Agnieszka and the Dragon performed best when they were doing magic together. That’s when it really sings, and some especially difficult spells can only be done by both of them together. I like that touch, the idea that true magic comes from working together – and of course, if two brands of magic bring together a man and a woman, especially in the charged, intimate way it works for Agnieszka and the Dragon, we’re reminded of sex and childbirth. I’d argue that some of what Uprooted does is call upon the biological fact that men and women can create new things together (babies) that they cannot do separately, and encodes it into the magic system.
It isn’t the only book to do so: in Silver Moon by Catherine Lundoff, the menopause turns women into werewolves. The idea of taking a biological specificity and making it magic is powerful, and often underused.
There are limits to trying to blend gender dynamics and magic systems. Authors don’t always remember to include trans or gender-bending characters – for example, I remember being annoyed that, in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, a trans female character wasn’t able to use witch’s magic. The magic didn’t ‘recognise’ her as a woman, which must be very alienating to trans readers. But when authors do remember to address this, it can be wonderful: Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara is about a trans man being turned into a vampire, and how vampirism negatively affects him. It explores what happens when a magic linked to biology tries to assert itself over someone, and how we can reclaim control over our bodies – the changing into a vampire is paralleled with transitioning, and the focus is on how the MC claims control over that process.
There is a lot that can be done with magic systems, and we have only partially explored what we can achieve with them. I’d love to see more teamwork magic which only works if two or more people work together; or magic systems which have to contend with modern definitions of gender; or a magic system which challenges the cultural aspect of soft magic systems, and how you might subvert those expectations.
21 Feb. 23