The Limits of Magic

Michael Kern '07, English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

decorated capital 'I' In the world of fantasy literature, each novel must have an element of the fantastic, which often takes the form of magic. That is, each novel must have aspects that are beyond the real in order to be fantasy. The actions of wizards, the casting of spells and curses, and even unique abilities of different creatures characterize the use of magic. The ways in which authors present magic vary greatly, as the nature of magic differs between novels, such as Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy, and many others. However, authors often limit the seemingly endless power of magic. Across the genre of fantasy literature novels, there exist patterns in which authors accomplish this task. Many of the novels place similar limits on magical forces and characters.

In several novels, the power of an individual parallels the depth of that individual's knowledge. In other words, wisdom or education allows one access to greater power, and thus one's knowledge essentially limits magical power. The greater the knowledge, the greater potential for power. The Earthsea Trilogy demonstrates this concept well, as Ged and his fellow students must learn the true names of objects within the world in order to gain power over them. In Earthsea, people speak the Hardic tongue as the common language. However, there exists another language, known as the Old Speech, the language of creation. Each object and being within Earthsea contains a name of the Hardic tongue, as well as a true name in the Old Speech. The power behind true names is great; knowledge of an object's or being's true name grants a person power over it.

Soon after Ged discovers his magical ability, the town places him under the tutelage of the local mage, Ogion. Ogion then gives him his true name, Ged, though he would still be known commonly as Sparrowhawk. Since the knowledge of someone's true name gives one power over them, it follows that people in Earthsea, especially wizards, guard their true names religiously. In Ged's case, very few people know his true name. He does share his true name with a few at various points in the trilogy, but the importance he places upon it is clear. When Ged enters the school at Roke, he and the other students spend hours upon hours learning the names of every object imaginable, even pieces of flowers. At the school at Roke, the teachers reinforce the importance of this concept again and again.

Thus, that which gives us the power to work magic, sets the limits of that power. A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly. And this is well. If it were not so, the wickedness of the powerful, or the folly of the wise would long ago have sought to change what cannot be changed. . . [A Wizard of Earthsea 47-48]

The knowledge of more names grants the mages more power. Yet, as so much power lies in the knowledge of names, this knowledge also restricts the power of a mage in Earthsea. In other words, the amount of knowledge an individual has dictates the potential for power.

In Lord Foul's Bane, Donaldson uses a similar idea to restrict the power of Thomas Covenant and the Lords of the Land. Kevin the Despoiler, an ancient legend who destroyed the land in order to save it, sealed the magic of the world away within seven wards. After Kevin died, people lost the knowledge contained in these Wards. Kevin gave the First Ward to the giants, who survived the destruction and passed the Ward on to the remaining humans after they became established again. At the time Covenant enters this world, the lords still only have possession of this First Ward. Yet though they have possession of the Ward, they have not been able to understand its complete meaning. The more they know about the Ward, the more they are able to access the power it describes. And thus the knowledge of the Wards limits the power of the lords, much like the power of the wizards of Earthsea would be limited if they did not recognize true speech. In their quest to recover the Staff of Law from Drool, Covenant and the lords manage to discover the Second Ward. Covenant tells the Lords, "This Second Ward -- it doubles your power" (Donaldson 432). Lord Mhoram regretfully informs him otherwise.

"Ah, my friend, you forget. We have not yet mastered the First Ward -- not in generations of study. The best of the Loresraat have failed to unveil the central mysteries. We can do nothing with this new Ward now. Perhaps if we survive this Quest, we will learn from the Second in later years. [Donaldson 432]

Mhoram places tremendous importance of understanding the First Ward before the Second. By attempting to use the Second Ward immediately, they "may be betrayed by powers [they] cannot control" (Donaldson 433). Though Covenant believed that the power lay in the simple possession of the Wards, Mhoram corrects him. The true power lies in the knowledge buried within the writings in the Wards. Thus Donaldson limits the magic users in his world in the same way as LeGuin, by requiring the accumulation of knowledge for power.

In The Last Unicorn, Beagle uses a similar technique to limit the power of Schmendrick. His ineptitude and lack of understanding how his magic works limits what he can accomplish with it. When Mommy Fortuna captures the unicorn for her Midnight Carnival, the unicorn meets the magician Schmendrick. The magician does what he can to free her from the cage, but he struggles. In his first spell, the unicorn finds herself in a grove of trees, yet soon realizes "the bars are still there" (Beagle 33). In his second attempt, Schmendrick tries to change the bars so they are "as brittle as old cheese" (33). He fails again, for when he grasps the bars he hands begins bleeding and the bars remain. After repeated failed efforts, Schemndrick gives up and resorts to pick-pocketing the keys to the cage. Schmendrick has been restricted in his magic to trivial tricks and stunts, many of which required no magical ability whatsoever. He does not have complete control over his power, which disappoints him. Schmendrick was taught by the great magician Nikos, who believed that he had tremendous potential. Nikos soon got so fed up with Schmendrick's clumsiness and ineptitude that he could no longer teach him. Much like Ged in Earthsea and the Lords of the Land in Lord Foul's Bane, Schmendrick can potentially wield powerful magic, yet cannot access this power until he understands the nature of magic within him. This knowledge, or lack thereof, limits Schmendrick from accessing the depth of his power.

Another common idea spanning a number of fantasy novels concerns balance within the world. In The Earthsea Trilogy, Ged's mentors teach that there exists an Equilibrium within the world which wizards must strive to maintain. The incredible power of the wizards has the capacity to shake the very balance of the world. As a result, the wizards of Earthsea must have a complete understanding what consequences the use of magic has. At the school at Roke, one of Ged's teachers, the Master Hand, tries to convey this idea to him.

But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow . . . [A Wizard of Earthsea 43-44]

The maintenance of the Equilibrium serves to limit the power of these wizards. Though they might have the ability to change the nature of things within Earthsea, they do not do so frivolously. The consequences of such actions, and how they affect the balance of the world, are all taken into consideration. Though the young Ged believes in that a wizard "was powerful enough to do what he pleased, and balance the world as seemed best to him," he soon understands the importance of Equilibrium. In essence, the mages' responsibility to maintain balance restricts the magical power they employ.

The idea of balance appears within Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane as well. While Covenant travels with the Lords on the way to retrieve the Staff of Law, he asks the Lords to tell him about the creator. As Tamarantha tells him about the Creator, she mentions a concept of balance similar to that in Earthsea.

"Opposites require each other. Otherwise the difference is lost, and only chaos remains. No, there can be no Despite without Creation. Better to ask how the Creator could have forgotten that when he made the Earth. For if he did not forget, then Creation and Despite existed together in his one being, and he did not know it." [Lord Foul's Bane 293]

Though in this case the balance Tamarantha speaks of does not limit the magic of the Lords directly, it still closely relates to the concept of Equilibrium in Earthsea. Each author presents the world as a series of opposite forces. The significant difference lies in the fact that Donaldson's land has a greater focus on the balance between good and evil. In LeGuin's world, the idea of balance permeates everything. Even "one grain of sand" has a part to play in maintaining the Equilibrium.

Magical objects appear as another common device that serve to limit or develop power. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings have many such objects that accomplish this end. In Lord Fouls's Bane, much of the power of the Lords of the Land lies in their staffs. The type of staff one uses governs the degree of influence one has over magic. When Covenant and the Lords come into contact with the ruined town of Soaring Woodhelven, a band of ur-viles and cavewights ambush them. In the chaos of the fight, Covenant forsakes his Hirebrand staff in favor of Lord Tamarantha's. When the dust clears, and the lords discover Tamarantha has died, Lord Prothall offers her staff to Covenant, claiming he "will find it readier to aid [his] ring than [his] Hirebrand's staff." Clearly the type of staff has a tremendous influence on the effects of one's magic. The Staff of Law demonstrates again the enormous power granted by staffs within the land. With it, the cavewight Drool wields tremendous power, turning the moon red and commanding hordes of evil creatures. However, once the Lord Prothall wrests the Staff from Drool's grasp, Drool collapses "at his feet, sobbing like a piece of broken rock." Clearly, the Staff was the source of much of Drool's power. In this way, the staffs of the land regulate the depth of power wielded by the both the Lords and some of their enemies.

The staff serves to limit the power of magic-users in Tolkien's trilogy as well. Both Gandalf and Sarumon, wizards of a powerful order, seem to channel their magic through their staffs. When Gandalf confronts Sarumon after the battle at Isengard, the power contained within the staff becomes clear. Gandalf offers Sarumon a chance for freedom, but first he must surrender his staff and a key as "pledges of [his] conduct to be returned later." Sarumon refuses, preferring to retain the physical manifestation of his magical power and remain loyal to the dark lord Sauron.

He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a cold, clear voice. "Saruman, your staff is broken." There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman's hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf's feet. "Go!" said Gandalf. With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away. [The Two Towers 569]

By destroying his staff, Gandalf strips Saruman of his power. Immediately after losing his staff, Saruman transforms from a powerful wizard to a bitter failure. Clearly, the staffs of wizards are instruments of tremendous power. Gandalf also uses his staff as a light in the Mines of Moria, demonstrating again how wizards channel power through the staff. So the purpose of the staff in Lord Foul's Bane relates closely to that in Lord of the Rings, as the wizards in each become helpless without them. It follows that the lack of a staff acts to limit the power of these wizards.

In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses rings as incredible instruments of power as well. The evil wizard Sauron created the ring as an instrument of incredible power, along with several other rings that the One Ring was designed to control. He gave these rings to the leaders of the men, dwarves, and elves.

"He only needs the One; for he made that Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his own former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others. If he recovers it, then he will command them all again, wherever they be, even the Three, and all that has been wrought with them will be laid bare, and he will be stronger than ever." [Fellowship 50]

The wearer of the ring wields enormous power. As Sauron transferred so much of his power into the Ring, he has become very weak without it. In this way Sauron's One Ring acts much like Sarumon's staff; once removed from them, they become much weaker. The One Ring however, differs from the staffs as it corrupts those who use it. The evil that Sauron poured into his Ring seems to seep into those who use it. Furthermore, the Ring generates a lust for power in those who surround it. Frodo, the bearer of the Ring, offers the Ring to others he deems better suited to the task before he fully accepts his responsibility. He first asks if Gandalf will take the Ring. Gandalf refuses the Ring, claiming with it he would "have power too great and terrible." He continues to explain that the ring would soon gain a power "greater and more deadly" over himself. Frodo later offers the One Ring to Galadriel, believing she might be able to wield it for good. "I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer," she answers. "In place of a Dark Lord you will set up a Queen." Galadriel refuses also, demonstrating that many realize they cannot withstand the immense power of the Ring. Even Frodo, who bears the Ring always, must not use the full power of the Ring or it "would destroy [him]." These scenes demonstrate how power and constitution limit who can wield great power of the One Ring. The powerful magic-users of Middle Earth realize that it will corrupt them. And even the stalwart hobbit Frodo will be utterly destroyed should he try and access the complete power of the Ring.

A remarkably similar scene presents itself in Donaldon's Lord Foul's Bane. When Covenant enters this new land, the people assail with comments regarding his likeness to the legendary hero, Berek Halfhand. They display tremendous excitement over his old wedding band because it is made of white gold. White gold has tremendous power within the land, even though Covenant does not understand it. Since he does not understand its power, he offers the ring to Foamfollower, a giant who he believes will comprehend the ways to access the power of the white gold.

"Do you want my ring?"

"Want?" Foamfollower croaked, looking as if he felt he should laugh but did not have the heart for it. "Want?" His voice quavered painfully, as if were confessing to some kind of aberration. "Do not use such a word, my friend. Wanting is natural, and may succeed or fail without wrong. Say covet, rather. To covet is to desire something which should not be given. Yes, I covet your un-Earth, wild magic, peace-ending white gold . . . I admit the desire. But do not tempt me. [Lord Foul's Bane 197]"

Foamfollower's response is virtually identical to those of both Gandalf and Galadriel. However, there exists a distinct difference between the responses of Foamfollower and Galadriel. Galadriel refuses because she believes the power of the ring will corrupt her completely, causing her to become terribly evil. Foamfollower refuses because he does not feel the power belongs to him. Though he says that "power has a way of revenging itself upon its usurpers," he does not believe that he will become corrupted. This subtle difference describes the essential difference between the One Ring and Covenant's white gold. The people in Donaldson's world believe it is Covenant's place to wield the white gold, and therefore respect his possession of it. In Middle-Earth, the people do not respect the fact that Frodo bears the ring. Many of those he encounters, even some within the fellowship itself, attempt to wrench the Ring from his grasp. The cause of this essential difference lies in the fact that the One Ring invokes a longing for power in those around it. The white gold, while incredibly powerful, does not have this effect. However, despite this difference, each ring serves to enhance the power of the individual, who wields it. In turn, the power requires one to physically wear the ring, which acts as a limit on that power.

The mysterious nature of magic used by wizards appears in several novels as well. This air of mystery does not serve to limit magical power, rather it hides whatever limits the wizard or magician might have. Tolkien demonstrates the use of this technique through the Gandalf's mysterious power. At no point does Tolkien concretely define the nature of Gandalf's power. When Gandalf reunites with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as Gandalf the White, they ask him how he survived the fall from the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. He says that even if he had a year to tell them, he "would not tell them all." Though Gandalf has a vast amount of knowledge and has complete control over his magic, it remains unclear what he can actually accomplish with this power.

Beagle uses a similar idea in The Last Unicorn. Though Schmendrick's ineptitude and lack of understanding limit his magical ability, in the end he overcomes these barriers. With his newfound power, he transforms Amalthea to her original form, that of a unicorn.

Then Schmendrick stepped into the open and said a few words. These were short words, undistinguished either by melody or harshness, and Schmendrick himself could not hear them for the Red Bull's dreadful bawling. But he knew what they meant, and he knew exactly how to say them, and he knew that he could say them again when he wanted to, in the same way or in a different way. Now he spoke them gently and with joy, and as he did so he felt his immortality fall from him like armor, or like a shroud. [The Last Unicorn 185]

Such an act requires tremendous power, evidenced by the fact that Nikos, Schmendrick's powerful mentor, was unable to accomplish the same feat. Though Schmendrick overcomes his magical disabilities, Beagle still does not define the true depth of his power. Much like when Gandalf becomes Gandalf the White, it remains unclear how powerful Schmendrick has finally become. Beagle does not clearly define limits on Schmendrick's newfound magical ability.

One can see that authors use similar methods to control magical power within their fantasy worlds. Essentially, these authors place limits on the power of magic. Many authors emphasize the idea that knowledge gives one access to power, demanding characters acquire this knowledge first. The concept of balance also serves to limit magical forces within many fantasy worlds. Characters must consider the possible consequences of magic before they put it to use. Some authors use instruments of power to limit the magic of individuals within their worlds, forcing them to maintain possession of such instruments to maintain their power. Lastly, some authors surround characters in air of mystery to veil the limits on magic within their worlds. Although magic in the world of fantasy commands tremendous power, it nonetheless has limits, for if magical power becomes infinite it also becomes unbelievable.


Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: Roc/New American Library, 1991.

Donaldson, Stephen R. Lord Foul's Bane. Part I of The Chronicles of Thomas Coveant the Unbeliever. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin, Boston: 1966.

Wolfe, Gene. The Shadow of the Torturer in Shadow & Claw. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1981.

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Last modified 17 May 2004