Lyonesse - 6: The Magic of Lyonesse

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6: The Magic of Lyonesse
The world of Lyonesse is full of magic, but most of it seems to be in the hands of the fairies. Human magicians are few, and perhaps not fully human. In any case, they seem to perform magic by harnessing the power of faerie, rather than by direct spell-casting. What did you think of the magic and wizardry in Lyonesse? How would you work this into an RPG to capture the flair of the novel?

Comments

  • 1

    As I mentioned in the fairy thread, I like how magic is presented in the book. It seems to have its own internal logic, but it's nothing like the logic of the Enlightenment and science. I'd like to know more about the "rules" of magic that lead to the spells and enchanted items having the abilities and limitations they do.

    How would this work in a game? Things like Mortal Coil come close, with someone stating an effect and someone else stating the cost or limitation of it. It's also something that could stand having a "side-effects and limitations" table that is randomly rolled on.

  • 1

    In RPG terms, being an actual magician is out of the hands of the player characters, apart from rituals, appeals to the fae, and magic items, which are just as likely to be taken away or be one-shots. Reading the book, it added to the fairy tale feel of the whole, which I liked. Magic felt like something genuinely beyond ordinary mortals.

  • 1

    I hadn't picked up that magicians were "harnessing the power of faerie", but thought rather that they were rather gadget driven. A bit more like Tekumel's Eyes than it's magic, if you don't mind the analogy.

    Casmir's magical lab (and the room before it with the thrones / seats) seemed to me very much a Chekhov gun - we had a whole lot of build up on Suldrun's part about its potential, but in the end only the mirror actually came to anything plotwise. What about those two gremlin thingies that seemed initially to be helpful but weren't? Or all the other gizmos there? And the whole minor plotline about the seats having personality in the end dwindled out as simply a tangible signal that she had grown up and was less impressionable (or maybe, less sensitive to the true nature of things). I couldn't work out if Vance was pitching him as a wannabe magician, or maybe as a collector, but then dropped that line of thought and simply made him into a political wrangler.

  • 1

    I agree with much of the above, but although magic is gadget driven, most of the gadgets themselves seem to harness fairy or natural powers. re: the Chekhov gun principle, we must note that some of things things may come back in another book in the trilogy. But anyway, if some of those items are not relevant to the story (the imp does reveal early that fairies and magic are dangerous and not trustworthy) they may still be relevant to the setting. Chekhov, so far as I know, didn't write fantasy, and had no reason to reveal a larger world, a larger reality, that what was obvious. But Vance did. What kind of magical cabinet only has the things that are useful to the story in it?

    I think the seats indicated she had grown up, but also that she was discerning beyond reason, and thus perhaps also foreshadowed events to come.

    I do think understanding magic is largely beyond mortals, but harnessing it need not be. I think there could be a lot of creative scope for playing magicians. Or, as was suggested in the fictoplasm episode for this book - the lovers of magicians. But I think you'd want a freeform narrative system, with some rules around how to create magical effects, which is what @NeilNjae was saying, though I'm not familiar with the game he mentions.

    The world is certainly full of wonder. There's planar travel, time travel, teleportation, summoning, wish-granting, curses, and very specific effects, like the Never Fail. Not to mention pomade. Feel the unction!

  • 1

    @RichardAbbott said:
    Casmir's magical lab (and the room before it with the thrones / seats) seemed to me very much a Chekhov gun - we had a whole lot of build up on Suldrun's part about its potential, but in the end only the mirror actually came to anything plotwise. What about those two gremlin thingies that seemed initially to be helpful but weren't?

    Indeed. What about those strands of hair the gremlins snatched from Suldrun's head the first time she went into the room? Loads of setup about it and nothing happened.

  • 2

    Magic works on several distinct levels. Faerie Magic is unique to the faeries, and seems to follow its own strange logic and rules. The magic used by magicians such as Shimrod is more akin to cantrips/simple spoken charms, a touch of alchemy, and the use of Sandestins. This last bit is really quite important, and they're not fully explained in 'Suldrun' which makes understanding how magic works at the really high levels tough to grasp.

    Sandestins are better described in 'Rhialto the Marvellous', one of the 'Dying Earth' books, and they are demons that work magic on behalf of those who command them. As a gaming analogy, they're a little like bound demons from 'Stormbringer', but they're much more complex than that. The true sorcerers - Tamurello, Murgen, and so on, know very few 'spells' as such, but have countless Sandestins, who are 'halflings' like the fairies (and thus inherently magical, but at an almost extra-planar level), at their beck and call.

    But essentially, real, powerful magic is beyond human capabilities. Murgen, Desmei and the rest aren't really human at all; and Shimrod, Melancthe and Carfilhiot or 'scions', or personality constructs given flesh, of the great wizards. The real magic is so world-shaking (literally), that Murgen created his edict to prevent it from destroying everything. It's also corrupting unless one has the ability to control it properly, which the fairy and Murgen do, but Tamurello and Desmei struggle with. And Twitten was so corrupted by his power, he had to be turned into an iron rod...

  • 3

    @Apocryphal said:

    The world is certainly full of wonder. There's planar travel, time travel, teleportation, summoning, wish-granting, curses, and very specific effects, like the Never Fail. Not to mention pomade. Feel the unction!

    >

    Ah, the Neverfail...

  • 1

    Fascinating. A lot of that didn't come through in this book, but I can see where I got the idea that magic was fueled by fairies (sandestins, in particular). Sandestin seems to be a made up word (though I do find a resort by that name in Florida).

  • 2

    I am familiar with Sandestins through the Dying Earth books, and so I kind of knew how they worked.

  • 1

    There also seems to be some Lore or ritual aspect to it. Not so much in Suldrun, but later some lesser magicians interpret the schedule of dimensions aligning.

    (It’s hard to stay focused on the first book after learning more later.)

  • 0

    @hasaph said:

    (It’s hard to stay focused on the first book after learning more later.)

    I wondered that as I read it, and especially when lots of the discussion comments say things like "ah, in book 3..."

  • 1
    > @RichardAbbott said:
    > @hasaph said:
    >
    > (It’s hard to stay focused on the first book after learning more later.)
    >
    >
    > I wondered that as I read it, and especially when lots of the discussion comments say things like "ah, in book 3..."

    I'm guilty of that, but in my defense, I think that the three volumes of Lyonesse are sufficiently tightly intertwined that only reading the first volume gives the reader only a very partial and incomplete view of the fictional universe.
  • 3

    Regarding Apocryphal's comment:

    ...most of the gadgets themselves seem to harness fairy or natural powers.

    I disagree. :)

    While some of the 'gadgets' mentioned by Vance in this series involve fairies -- specifically Sandestins -- many of them don't (e.g., Persilian the talking mirror, Shimrod's boots that enable him to fly, etc.). (I'm not sure what you mean by 'natural powers'.)

    Perhaps I am projecting onto Lyonesse the magic system found in Vance's Dying Earth stories (though the similar use of Sandestins suggests at least a strong overlap). But I read the kind of magic used by human magicians (and their 'scions') in Lyonesse as different in kind -- more 'mechanical' (the boots, activated by an incantation) and less 'innate' (e.g., the curses that afflicted Dhrun) -- than that used by the faeries.

  • 2
    edited January 5

    @Loz said:

    But essentially, real, powerful magic is beyond human capabilities. Murgen, Desmei and the rest aren't really human at all; and Shimrod, Melancthe and Carfilhiot or 'scions', or personality constructs given flesh, of the great wizards.

    I'm not sure I agree with this (or perhaps I simply misunderstood your comment). The powerful magicians in Lyonesse -- like those in the Dying Earth -- strike me as very human. Their various quirks and vices are magnified by their great power (this is clear with Desmei and Tamurello, both of whom are driven by very human lusts), but they seem quite human nonetheless. Even the scions seem human (and they strike me as more 'clones' of their creators -- this seems clear in the case of Murgen and Shimrod; Melancthe and Carfilhiot are created from different 'aspects' of Desmei), as can be seen in Shimrod's destructive infatuation with Melancthe.

    Murgen, though, strikes me as the least 'Vancian' magician in any of the works by him that I've read. He's the most 'Gandalf-ish' wizard described by Vance. He doesn't seem to suffer from the kinds of character weaknesses that afflict all of the other magicians (except perhaps a certain aloofness owing to his great age).

    (Everything else in that post, Loz, strikes me as spot on.)

  • 1

    @Akrasia said:

    I'm not sure I agree with this (or perhaps I simply misunderstood your comment). The powerful magicians in Lyonesse -- like those in the Dying Earth -- strike me as very human. Their various quirks and vices are magnified by their great power (this is clear with Desmei and Tamurello, both of whom are driven by very human lusts), but they seem quite human nonetheless. Even the scions seem human (and they strike me as more 'clones' of their creators -- this seems clear in the case of Murgen and Shimrod; Melancthe and Carfilhiot are created from different 'aspects' of Desmei), as can be seen in Shimrod's destructive infatuation with Melancthe.

    I shall try to explain my statement... :)

    In the Glossary section of my e-copy of 'Suldrun', the section concerning Fairies says:

    "The ‘heavy’ fairy is abusively ejected from the shee as a boor and lummox, to
    wander the countryside and eventually merge into the human community, where
    it lives disconsolately and only rarely exercises its fading magic. The offspring
    of these creatures are peculiarly sensitive to magic, and often become witches or
    wizards: so with all the magicians of the Elder Isles.
    "

    Emphasis mine. Thus, Murgen, Tamurello, Desmei and the other great magicians are descendants of 'heavy' fairies where they have, in time, adopted human semblance and customs due to the 'earth stuff' that's led to their ancestors being ejected from the shee. However, while they appear human, I do not believe they truly are: they are innately magical, but they also appear to be immortal, and so far removed from human temperaments that they constitute their own small subset of existence. They are certainly not numerous, and the fact that Desmei is able to split her very nature into two separate forces that assume physical presence (Melancthe and Carfilhiot) suggests a very inhuman nature. Similarly the scions, while able to function in the human world, are not born as human children are, and have a great affinity with magic in ways true humans do not.

    I do agree that all the magicians display very human traits and tendencies though. Murgen is more Merlin than Gandalf I think, and Tamurello is closer to some of the Dying Earth wizards with his strange affectations.

  • 1

    @Akrasia - Welcome to the Book Club!

    By 'natural magic' I mean the power that seems to be inherent in fairies to cast curses or fling people abroad without having to resort to some ritual or formula. It's as natural to them as breathing. As the section @loz quoted points out, that magical ability fades for heavy fairies when they are ejected from the shee.

    Humans seem to have no natural magic, and heavy fairies gradually lose this magic (which must be supplemented by devices), and no other source of natual magic is mentioned. So, if true fairies are not the source of all magic, what other source is there? Thus I have surmised that true fairies are the source of all magic.

    How do you know that the talking mirror wasn't a bound fairy, or a person bound to the mirror by a fairy? Or that the boots didn't harness fairy magic?

  • 1
    edited January 5

    @Loz said:
    Emphasis mine. Thus, Murgen, Tamurello, Desmei and the other great magicians are descendants of 'heavy' fairies where they have, in time, adopted human semblance and customs due to the 'earth stuff' that's led to their ancestors being ejected from the shee. However, while they appear human, I do not believe they truly are: they are innately magical, but they also appear to be immortal, and so far removed from human temperaments that they constitute their own small subset of existence. They are certainly not numerous, and the fact that Desmei is able to split her very nature into two separate forces that assume physical presence (Melancthe and Carfilhiot) suggests a very inhuman nature. Similarly the scions, while able to function in the human world, are not born as human children are, and have a great affinity with magic in ways true humans do not.

    Ah okay, I missed the "so with all magicians of the Elder Isles" bit. That's interesting -- and a bit disappointing (to me). I guess I had assumed a stronger similarity to way that magic works in the DE novels.

    (It still strikes me as odd to think of characters like Visbhume as in any way related to Faerie...)

  • 1

    @Apocryphal said:
    How do you know that the talking mirror wasn't a bound fairy, or a person bound to the mirror by a fairy? Or that the boots didn't harness fairy magic?

    When Sandestins are used to power magic Vance explicitly mentions this. There is no such mention with respect to the boots -- or with respect to many of the other magic items that are described in the novels (and there are many). Hence I didn't see any reason to assume that they had anything to do with faeries (or at least are not 'powered' by Faerie magic like Sandestins) -- especially given how differently Faerie magic often is described (Faeries don't seem to need to utter incantations to make devices work, don't rely on tomes and 'librams', etc.).

  • 1

    A more general question: what are the similarities and differences with respect to the 'systems' of magic in the Lyonesse novels and Vance's Dying Earth novels? (Perhaps this warrants a different thread?)

    I had always assumed that they were quite similar. For one thing, there is the use of Sandestins by magicians in both series. (The way that they're used is exactly the same, as far as I can tell.) And both series describe alternate dimensions/planes, magicians who create 'scions' or 'clones' in vats, etc. The role of books and 'librams' (the latter is a Vancism, I believe, ported over to D&D) also seems quite similar.

    These similarities led me to think that magicians within Lyonesse also use 'spells' and 'magic items' in the same way that they do in the DE stories. But judging by some of the comments in this thread (esp. from Loz and Apocryphal) perhaps this assumption is unwarranted?

  • 2

    @Akrasia said:
    A more general question: what are the similarities and differences with respect to the 'systems' of magic in the Lyonesse novels and Vance's Dying Earth novels? (Perhaps this warrants a different thread?)

    It's a question I've asked myself a few times. I do believe that Vance was making a conscious effort to link Lyonesse with DE, and the use of Sandestins, commanded by 'spells' (which is how the spell/Sandestin relationship is supposed to work in DE), is very deliberate. There are quite a few similarities between magic in both books, and I know that Pete Nash is working through both sequences as he creates the magic systems for the Lyonesse game. I'll share more when it's revealed to me!

  • 2

    @Apocryphal said:
    ...no other source of natual magic is mentioned. So, if true fairies are not the source of all magic, what other source is there? Thus I have surmised that true fairies are the source of all magic.

    As for 'other sources of magic', I'm jumping ahead to the second book, but in it Aillas comes into possession of a magic item (a wineskin) that seems to be powered by a local god (the name of which escapes me right now).

  • 1

    Thanks for that post Loz. I think that I agree with you say there. I had always assumed (perhaps unjustifiably so) that the Lyonesse trilogy and the DE stories were part of the same fictional universe (albeit separated by countless aeons), and so that magic operated in (largely) the same ways in both series.

    I'm very much looking forward to seeing what Pete comes up with for Lyonesse's magic system!

    Here are some more thoughts on magic in DE + Lyonesse...

    @Apocryphal said:
    Humans seem to have no natural magic...

    I'm not sure, Chris, why you think it's necessary to have "natural magic" in order to learn and use magic. The humans in the DE stories lack what you call natural magic -- yet some become extremely powerful magicians (Rhialto is probably more powerful than even Murgen). One key feature of the DE magic system is that humans can learn how to use magic -- cast spells and create items -- and thereby become powerful wizards.

    In the DE stories magicians seem to use magic through the following means:

    a. Spells (here 'librams' are important: magicians 'memorize' spells from them, and then cast [and 'forget'] them -- this is, of course, the inspiration for D&D 'Vancian' spell system, although in Vance's stories most magicians can only keep a few 'spells' in mind at any given time).

    b. Sandestins (which are not described as faeries in the DE stories, but rather seem to be weird extra-planar creatures; and, as Loz mentioned in an earlier post, are bound and commanded via spells [a]).

    c. Alchemy and enchanted devices/items (which also, I think, involve spells in their creation and/or activation). (I include the creation of creatures and clones/scions via 'vats' in this category.)

    In Lyonesse, there also are the Faerie (which don't exist in the DE stories [unless Sandestins count] although there are 'magical' creatures in those stories, generally from other dimensions/planes).

    I had assumed that the magic systems were (largely) the same. So humans could 'learn' how to use magic, whereas the faerie naturally can do so. (I read the passage cited by Loz earlier -- viz., "The offspring of these creatures are peculiarly sensitive to magic, and often become witches or wizards" -- as suggesting that humans with faerie/halfling blood have a greater aptitude for learning how to use magic, rather than innately being able to do so.) Vance briefly mentions magicians in other parts of the world, and there is no reason, I think, to infer that those magicians also are part faerie (i.e., descended partially from halflings). But of course Vance doesn't say much about them...

    I haven't reread the third book yet, but one thing that I noticed in rereading the first two books is that 'spells' (of the sort memorized and used by Turjan, Rhialto, et al., in the DE stories, that is, category 'a' mentioned above) are barely mentioned. Sandestins, in contrast, play a central role in both series...

  • 2

    @Akrasia said:
    I'm not sure, Chris, why you think it's necessary to have "natural magic" in order to learn and use magic.

    I don't. The point I was hoping to make was that since humans don;t have natural magic, they have to harness another source in order to use magic, and the most obvious other source is the fairies (including Sandestins and heavy fairies in that category) - and, as you pointed out, Gods.

  • 1

    Apocryphal: It's interesting (to me anyway) that our perceptions of how magic works in the novel differed so radically when reading it.

    I first read the Lyonesse trilogy over 25 years ago, but I had read Cugel's Saga before that (and had been familiar with the general workings of 'Vancian' magic from articles in Dragon, etc., even before that). As I've already mentioned, that informed my interpretation of magic in the Lyonesse novels (it seemed to me to be the same magic system).

    But I wonder if I had read Lyonesse 'fresh' -- with no previous DE experience or assumptions regarding 'Vancian' magic -- I would've interpreted it some other way (such as your 'there-is-ultimately-only-faerie-magic' way)...

  • 1

    @Akrasia Interpretation is probably a function of all kinds of things we read and absorb before hand. I seem to remember a debate we had around here about how important the reader is in determining the meaning of a text. @RichardAbbott was involved in that, if I recall.

  • 1

    @Apocryphal said:
    @Akrasia Interpretation is probably a function of all kinds of things we read and absorb before hand. I seem to remember a debate we had around here about how important the reader is in determining the meaning of a text. @RichardAbbott was involved in that, if I recall.

    Yes, I think I was. Broadly speaking, my view is slightly complicated and probably slightly inconsistent, but such is life... So I would say
    1. The author of a work decides what they want to say and how they want to say it, which in my understanding includes literary form as well as selection of words - so it makes a difference to the meaning that an author chooses song, poetry, elevated prose, everyday language, or a mixture thereof. Tolkien, for example, is very good at indicating something about a character's background and personality by means of how they speak (consider the difference between some dialogue from Elrond, Gandalf, Treebeard, Denethor, Theoden, Frodo, Sam Gamgee, and a random orc. More widely, it's common practice to use "rougher" language to signal either a baddie or else a simple-but-loyal sidekick.
    2. When a work is read, the reader brings to it their own ideas and presuppositions which may result in quite a different internal impression than the author intended. So individual readers might well perceive Gandalf as wise, friendly, stern, cold, etc depending on how they internally 'hear' various things he says. When reading as a group we have often realised that different group members have had quite different reactions to the same passage of dialogue, and I suspect this is because of these internal preconceptions. With Suldrun's Garden there was the added effect that some people had read later books in the series and were therefore responding to situations in the book out of a wider base of experience.

    The preconception thing arises, I think, more acutely when there has been a film version of a book, as it's often hard to separate out in your mind the film version of the character or event, from the book version.

    In short, the end result of a reading is (in my view) a blend of author intent and reader reception, occupying a kind of uneasy middle ground between the two. Group reading is a great way to explore how much of our feelings about the book have to do with the author's writing and how much are personally located.

  • 1

    @RichardAbbott Nice! And there's a blog post in your back pocket, too.

  • 1

    On the nature of magic in the Elder Isles, I found this discussion (from Chapter 4, section 3, of Madouc) illuminating:

    "Madouc said wisely: 'Magicians must consort with fairies, since both are adepts in magic.'
    Shimrod gave his head a smiling shake. 'We use different magics. When first I wandered the world, such creatures were new to me. I enjoyed their frolics and pretty fancies. Now I am more settled, and I no longer try to fathom fairy logic. Someday, if you like, I will explain the difference between fairy magic and sandestin magic, which is used by most magicians.'
    'Hm,' said Madouc. 'I thought that magic was magic, and that was all there was to it!'
    'Not so. Sometimes simple magic seems hard and hard magic seems simple. It is all very complicated.'
    [...]
    'If the magic had been done by fairies: perhaps, perhaps not. By sandestin magic, your coins are gold and will remain gold. In fact, the sandestin may well have purloined them from King Casmir's strongbox to same himself effort.'"

    So magicians (mostly) use 'Sandestin magic' which Shimrod explicitly distinguishes from fairy magic. Magicians command (via spells) Sandestins to do various things, the effects of which are permanent. Fairies can use magic innately, without Sandestins, but their magic is less consistent, permanent, and 'logical'.

  • 2

    Nice work @Akrasia! Why I was thinking that way which otherwise seemed unsupported! :smile:

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