Pigblister’s School of Magic

Yeah, Hogwart’s is a better name, but today is the second in my series on magical systems, and I’m going to talk about schools of magic. Specifically I’m looking at “school” from two different directions: different specialties of magic, and the fact that most wizards aren’t born, they’re taught.

Explosions, Enchantments, and Elementals

In most magical fiction I’ve come across, magic is broken down into various types. The taxonomy is far from universal, and in many cases, it’s not even terribly strict, allowing different types of magic to be mixed together. Still, most magical systems have different types of magic, and while most wizards will learn at least a little of everything, many end up specializing in particular kinds of magic.

Probably the most common magical taxonomies are based on the effect. Categories in this organization would include things like curses, enchantments, transformations, healing, and so on. Dungeons and Dragons had a taxonomy like this, and the different classes at Hogwart’s suggests a similar structure in Harry Potter’s universe.

Probably the biggest advantage with this kind of taxonomy is that it’s easy to explain to the reader. A summoner can call forth a nasty demon, an illusionist can trick you into thinking he has, an alchemist can brew you up a potion of demon-resistance, and the healer can fix you up after you take the demon-lust instead.. Just the name of the specialist gives you some idea of what he can do. Telling the reader that our hero is a brown wizard doesn’t do much for us, nor do we know what to expect when an oak mage faces his nemesis, the great igneous wizard of the east.

But that doesn’t mean that all taxonomies are like that. Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series classified various practitioners into elemental schools: earth, air, fire, water. Wardens who could work with air tended to focus on the weather, but they could also suffocate you simply by moving all the oxygen away from your face. Earth wardens could mitigate earthquakes, but they could also bury you in a moment by liquefying the ground beneath you. Jim Butcher’s Furies series had a similar taxonomy where even the commoners had various elemental familiars made of earth, wood, water, etc.

Last week I mentioned a magic system based on eye color – though I still can’t remember the author/title – where magic came in different colors, and using that magic drained the appropriate color from the wizard’s iris. The actual breakdown of which effects went with which colors may not have been that different from the kind of taxonomies used at Hogwarts, but since you only had so much of a particular color in your iris, that determined what kind of magic you were going to do the most. With my eyes, I’d have definitely been a blue mage, not a brown one.

Charming Classes and Thaumatology Tutors

Choosing which specialty to pursue (or having fate choose it for you) brings up the fact that most magical skill is not innate. It is learned. Certainly, some have more talent than others, particularly when you consider niche talents, but this only makes sense. In our real lives, we all have varying degrees of talent for different skills. I have no talent for dance, but I took to mathematics like a dragon to fire. That doesn’t mean I was doing trig in the womb, though. I had to survive Mr. Wolhgehagen’s class for that. (And if ever I had Severus Snape for an instructor, he was it.)

So how, exactly, does a young boy with a talent for fighting dark wizards learn such skills? Well, I presume we all know the answer for Harry Potter. He went to Hogwart’s School for Wizardry and took part in all the usual English boarding school shenanigans, but with dragons. That’s a reasonable solution for a world in which magic is fairly common. Replace trigonometry with transformations, and you’ll be cranking out wizards faster than we make engineers.

But what about worlds where magic is not so common? One-on-one instruction is the answer there, typically in the form of master-apprentice relationships. Clean my cauldron, wash the wands, dust that demon, and if there’s time before dinner, I’ll teach you a little more about levitating the laundry. This kind of craftsman’s instruction has been around since the days of smiths, coopers, and cobblers. It doesn’t have the fun of boarding school, but it has its own charms, particularly in that master-apprentice relationship. Just ask Mickey.

But whether your young wizard is in a lecture hall or a laundry room, he has to learn the magic. That means trial and error. A lot of error. Sometimes I’m amazed wizards survive to adulthood at all. Trying to master a fireball without incinerating yourself reminds me of all those six-year-old Jedi wannabe’s playing with their light sabers, but as surely as the Old Republic was good at limb replacement, wizards must be reasonably good at healing burns.

At least, I say they need to learn through long and arduous trial and error. I say it fairly strongly, in fact, but I’m afraid that isn’t always the case. I’m setting up my soapbox over there, but I’m not getting on it quite yet, because apparently some wizards don’t need much practice at all. These are the chosen ones, destined for greatness. Their talent is almost a fully formed skill. All they need is a little direction and within days or weeks they’re throwing magic against ancient evil and powerful sorcerers. Yep, they’ve just got that knack for it.

Ahem… soapbox. I personally think this sucks the life out a magical story. Magic is outside of our experience in the ordinary world, and if our hero is moving from the ordinary world into the extraordinary world of a wizard, then that journey should not be an easy one. It’s wish fulfillment at its worse. I’m the special snowflake, and everyone is in awe of my natural abilities. Bullshit! Slap that kid around. Make him work for it. Make him bleed for it. Make him wish he’d never started this journey in the first place. Only then can he let loose with fiery destruction and have us readers feel like he earned that power. Only then does it feel righteous. Only then does it…

Hey, come back here with my soapbox!

Well, fortunately, these special snowflakes are rare in fiction. I’ve probably run into them in movies more often than books, simply because a movie can’t do a seven-year training montage.

Firing up the Illusion with Limits

Put these two aspects together, and you can have some fun. Ron never took to potions, while Hermione excelled with charms. Harry Dresden was never good with illusions, but he could burn through steel with hellfire. Dante never paid much attention to demonology, but she could speak to the dead – even the cremated. Yes, some of it can be natural talent, but maybe they just didn’t like that instructor back in school. Maybe their master was more of a diviner than a destructor, so poor Sally has been left knowing when and where the evil will be but can’t do much about it when she gets there.

It can put these would-be gods back in their place as mere mortals. Fantastic mortals, yes, but still average Joe’s like you or me, with things we just can’t do. It’s not a limit on their ability to invoke power, but it does limit the kinds of tools they carry with them into the story’s conflict. It let’s a schmuck like me arrive at the final battle and panic: “I didn’t know there’d be dancing!”

So, what did you learn in your years at Pigblister’s?