I Wanna Cast Magic Missile: Art, Science, Spellcasting, and Making Things

The Dead Alewives comedy skit reference aside, there are two classes of spell-caster in Dungeons and Dragons that have always interested me. I would imagine that most people who are familiar with the fantasy genre know what mages are. Mages are essentially spell-casters that use magic through rigorous study, research, and memorization of rotes and ritual. Much of the phenomenon that they create and observe is practised in a manner not unlike science: although inevitably it is a science based on a different kind of reality and series of physics intrinsically different from our own. Essentially, add animism–the idea of a sentient or semi-sentient spirit–inside all organic and inorganic matter and you see how mages can create a science of pacts, magic circles, and artifacts to understand, classify, and control their surroundings.

Then you have sorcerers. Sorcerers are also people who use magic. However, they can’t learn to harness their power through textbooks or even teachers. Whereas mages have a very stratified and hierarchical arrangement of knowledge–of learning and politics–sorcerers tend to be loners, and have to learn how to use their power through trial and error. You will notice that I make a distinction. Mages use magic and work with or twist the rules that exist around them. Sorcerers have their own power. It is, at least in some depicted worlds, inherent within them. In some D&D worlds, they are considered Dragon-Blooded or something along those lines. Essentially, sorcerers have a power that they can only access through experimentation and direct experience: and the power expresses itself differently depending on the personality and the focus of the person that harnesses it.

I’m also not saying that sorcerers can’t have teachers, but these teachers are generally more like mentors: in that they can give them hints and show them how they use their power, but in the end it is ultimately up to the sorcerer to find their own way.

As you can imagine, mages have an advantage with regards to resources and guidance. They have a craft or a science with very clear rules that they can work with or seek to circumvent entirely. Basically, the most ambitious mage operates on the principle that it is only by knowing the rules that you can eventually get around them, make new rules, or surpass all of them entirely.

However, the sorcerer does not solely depend on a book of spells or external sources to empower them. They have that spark inside of them and, if they survive long enough or adapt to that point, they can summon the power they need and do it in a way that is customized solely to their touch. In other words, no one else can cast magic the way that one sorcerer can. In addition, they do not have centuries of tradition or hierarchy to limit their very perception of what can be experimented with.

Mages are usually part of an academy. Sorcerers are often autodidacts: those people who teach themselves what they need to know. You could make an even greater generalization and state that mages are the academics of a relatively established system of magic while sorcerers are artists of their own personalized mystical arts.

But here is the thing that always strikes me: where is the line?

Let’s say that writing is magic. There is a large amount of theory and documentation about writing. Universities and colleges teach one about grammar, spelling, and various conventions and genres. Schools have teachers. You are taught to view something analytically and you are exposed to various selected texts to influence you. It is also argued that at least in the Modernist era many writers had this form of formal education and knew what the rules were before experimenting with them. You can also apply this model to fine art: learning the basic shapes of various elements before you can experiment with them.

It might be tempted to say that people that work with such matters would be the equivalent of mages. But then consider this. After the academy, the mentorships, and the peer-reviews you are left to your own devices. Or better yet: you were never exposed to these. You were taught just enough to know the basics and then encouraged by something inside of you to seek out those things that greatly interest and resonate with you and work with them. You are not in the classroom with its specialized language and jargon. You often find yourself in strange and unconventional places: perhaps doing even more unorthodox things. You keep recording these experiences inside of you and you express them in different ways: making as though you are dreaming, or screaming, or just being.

But where is the line? Isn’t it possible to have that spark in you from the very beginning: to learn the rules and conventions of an established system and then go out into the world and learn your own words with and beyond that structure? I know that I may have merely described another mage with this extended analogy, but consider when a science and craft verges past that line into personal art. Sometimes a person can’t learn how to use their power of expression through established or conventional means. Sometimes you make or conceive something that can’t be replicated through a formula.

But is it at all possible to learn the basics from a formal education and then use personal experience and that spark–whatever it is and if it even exists–to make something new: or at least a really interesting variant of something that already exists?

I think, for me–in this analogy–that I was born a sorcerer but trained as a mage for most of my life. In my time at the academy, I sought to follow my own work through less travelled paths and eventually came to a point where I realized that I needed to pursue the knowledge I needed on my own. My teachers and my University gave me tools and selected readings and their own perspectives. But I know, after my time in a Creative Writing Program, that while teachers can teach you how to write or how something works, it is ultimately up to you to express your own personal voice. No other writer, artist, academic, book or work can do that for you. It is both a difficult challenge and an incredibly awesome task which, in the end, is entirely up to you.

Therefore, in the end–having gone far past the danger of making faulty analogies and false dichotomies–I feel like a mage with the heart of a sorcerer.

And with that, I cast magic missile into the darkness.

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