Get Mythic, by Amatopia, commenting on a Twitter thread about the decline of a “mythical” feeling in fantasy. The gist of the idea, at the risk of simplification, is that contemporary fantasy has a materialistic feeling. It lacks “a richness, a whiff of the unearthly that permeates everything. Magic is the best word to describe it.” Wonder, awe, whatever you want to call it. Essentially the opposite of a setting where magic has been reduced to supernatural engineering or a form of energy manipulation described by a language (both by the narrator and characters) analogous to the one ushered by the scientific revolution.
As always there are many explanations given: modern ideologies, materialism, bleeding heart liberals, etc. It’s possible, but there’s a more immediate explanation: D&D is to blame.
There’s pretty much not a single fantasy writer out there who hasn’t played the game or its successors, and the implicit understanding they have of magic is mediated by its gamification.
I have heard that complain about modern fantasy many times: it feels empty, unlike, let’s say, The Lord of the Rings, Howard’s Conan, and, naturally, ancient myths. Now, I’m sure that being a middle-class nerd from the XXI century doesn’t help when trying to convey an archaic feeling like “magic”, something that presumes a supernatural understanding of reality, with a world that is possessed and alive with spirits and, more importantly, with meaning, and where the distinction between real and unreal, as well as other modern binary oppositions, is weak, but there’s a more immediate issue: in none of those stories the protagonist is a magic user.
The mage or druid or warlock or, yes, religious prophet (in many ancient cultures magic couldn’t be separated from religion) was never the protagonist. And in almost all the modern stories that somehow manage to convey that feeling, the same applies.
Conan was not a magician; he fought magicians or meet magicians, and that never lasted long. Odysseus didn’t cast spells; other people cast them for him, and that was a one-of-a-kind event. The LOTR is not about Gandalf (who isn’t that prolific a mage either,) but about the supernaturally-deaf hobbits. Etcetera.
Contemporary fantasy, on the other hand, has magicians as protagonist or, at the very least, as important characters whose actions and thoughts are closely followed. On top of that, these stories tend to be humongous, so you are following that magic user for hundreds if not thousands of pages. This causes an inevitable problem: you have to explain magic as you would have to explain any other activity. After all, you can handwave one or two magic miracles, but not a hundred.
And who is to blame for all these protagonists with magical powers? I guess some can be traced back to superheroes, but I believe it’s basically D&D, which gamified magic, something that had never been done before. Before Gygax et al. (PBUT,) in literature, magic was essentially plot-driven. You need someone to fly? Find a mage to cast that spell; once done, the wizard will go back to his tower, marsh, or whatever. Is the protagonist fighting a wizard? And if so, what spells should the wizard be able to cast and what “magic system” should he use? Who cares, he is going to be dead in two pages.
Wizard, magic users, warlocks, druids, and all those guys were secondary characters: teachers, advisers, plot dumpers, or villains. Aside from some mythological (and, therefore, short & lyrical) poems or stories from the Celts, where the hero is both a warrior and a magician, I can’t think of any pre-modern story (as in “novel”) with a wizard as the main protagonist or as an important focus of the narration. These, as well as all the other supernatural creatures, were always on the edge of perception, observing, helping, hindering, or tempting, but rarely openly present.
D&D changed that or, rather, Jack Vance did. He was probably the science fiction and fantasy writer who most influenced the original D&D, and he created the system now known as “Vancian Magic,” which, with some variations, is the one D&D uses. So, with magic systematized, it can be explained, it can be predicted, it can be, in other words, transformed into a skill or a technique. In other words, into a naturalized profession.
On the other hand, pre-modern magical thinking depends on obscurantism, distance, ignorance, mystery, and charlatanism. You need dark covens, hoods, candles, bizarre languages and cryptic signs, secret societies, blasphemous offerings to strange entities, etc. Or, if you want a less dark example, compare the Jedis in the original Star Wars trilogy, who are mysterious, mystical, and mythical (and quite secondary to the main story until Episode VI,) and where we only see a few, low-key uses of the Force, to the Jedis in the prequels, who are the protagonist and we see them everywhere, using the Force all the time to accomplish everything (and then you end up with midiclorians.)
However, what people forget is that Jack Vance created that system just for a few stories, and these were: not sprawling epics, relatively short, a mix of sci-fi and fantasy, humorous (which is important,) and with magic being unexplainable and in decline (it’s explicitly mentioned that nobody knows why magic works and that most spells have been forgotten; wizards just repeat the rituals and speculate endlessly and fruitlessly.)
That most writers are thinking about magic in terms of video games or RPG’s can be shown by pointing out the peculiar fact that, in these modern stories, nobody is terrified or, at least wary, when a hostile wizard appears; they all assume he is, to use the gaming lingo, of a “level” similar to their own. This is a consequence of roleplaying games being tactical games with “encounters” with magic reduced to power levels, which means that characters of a low level are not going to encounter things way above their ability.
Now, if a low-level character meets a dragon he knows he can’t beat it, so he flees, but what about a wizard? In real life, a level 1 charlatan may look exactly like a level 30 wizard that can boil your eyes just by looking at you. Every time anybody meets a hostile wizard, the natural reaction should be to start shitting bricks because it’s not possible to know what he knows or can do*, and no wizard has any incentive to be forthcoming about what he can or can’t do (the main corollary is that all magic users should be pathological liars—just like in real life!)… But not in a game, because it has to be “balanced” and wizards are just a “class”, like a “profession,” whose abilities are resources understood tactically and logistically, not unlike a modern army would understand its artillery.
So, that’s fine and fun in games, but in tales written by people brought up with those games, any hostile (or even allied) wizard in the story becomes not a supernatural threat, not a mystery or an unknown factor, a strange character attuned to mysterious powers or even in contact with the gods, but just some dude who, instead of using a sword, throws fireballs; but it’s all the same, really. You could substitute it by an incendiary grenade or a flamethrower and the difference would be minimal.
Therefore, my recommendations if you want to make a fantasy story feel more “mythical” or less, you know, “gamey”, are:
1. Don’t make your main protagonist the magic user. And if he is, the story should be quite short.
2. Never keep the focus on the magic user or magic creatures for more than a few pages. They should do their thing and then leave, disappear, or die.
3. There are no levels in real life. Stop thinking about stories as if they were video games.
4. For similar reasons, the magic user doesn’t have to be “balanced” nor his powers nerfed so characters can “roll” an implied “saving throw” or “dodge” the spell. In fact, he or she should be the most powerful character in the scene and should be beaten only through other magical means or cunning.
5. Don’t write following the internal, “deep” point of view of a magic user. And if you have to follow him, the narrator should be distant, like an ethologist observing the behavior of a peculiar animal.
6. Don’t be ashamed to use magic in a plot-driven manner, meaning that it happens because it’s cool or the plot needs it. Remember that the authors of those stories that felt “fantastic” didn’t know what being an 8th-level Wizard means and they never played a “fantasy game.” They just added weird stuff when the story needed it or because it added a new layer of symbolism or meaning.
7. The magic user shouldn’t accompany the main protagonist as if he were any normal companion. He is not. If anything, everybody should be following him. The same applies to “clerics.” I mean, seriously, Holy Men who cast miracles as “support” characters? If in your story your miracle worker is not the undisputed leader of a group of blind followers, you are pretty much admitting you are writing a story based on an RPG session.
8. If any event, if he accompanies them, make sure he is really needed. If you notice that he is there just to inflict casualties in an idiosyncratic way (e.g. burning or freezing them) but none of the powers he uses has any real relevance to the plot and could be replaced by mundane means of causing bodily harm, then replace them and remove the magic user because he is clearly not needed.
9. Unless you believe you are good enough to write in High Vancian, avoid “magic systems,” which are a consequence of gamifying magic.
10. Unless your story is an allegory, you are consciously copying the style of ancient pedagogic legends or fables or something like that (and here I’m assuming you want to write adventure stories filled with magic and nonsense) don’t take the supernatural/magical/occult too seriously. In fact, if in real life you believe it’s all bullshit, that may help you. But don’t write contemptuously about it. Pretend you believe in it. Self-awareness or even a bit of humor is fine too.
11. What is explained and understood about magic & the supernatural should always be a subset and a fraction of the “real truth.”
12. There’s actually no “real truth” because you (the writer) are just making up shit as you go or as you need it. See point 8.
13. Go crazy. There’s more to magic than fireballs, telekinesis, or lightning bolts. Pyrotechnic and flashy magic is a bit of a modern invention. Chocking someone with the Force like Darth Vader or tricking someone with “these are not the droids you are looking for” may actually be closer to what primitive people understood by magic: invisible, unexplainable, impossible (and impossible to defend against.) You are not making a movie or a video game, so you don’t have to add sound or visual effects to highlight that, yes, there is magicks going on.
None of that will save you from sloppy writing but at least you’ll avoid the inevitable problems that arise from trying to write D&D fan fiction. Not that it’s impossible to write a good story with such systems, mind you, but it seems to be very difficult (not even their tie-in novels are good at representing their own magic system.)
* That may apply to other classes too, like a fighter, but one could argue that, in real life, you can see if someone is a good fighter pretty quickly. But with a wizard, you will only know how powerful he is when it’s already too late and you are a pile of atomized ashes.