The Magic of Limitations

Limitations are more important than Powers, Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic.

Say one thing for Brandon Sanderson, say he’s unparalleled in creating hard magic systems. (Some of you may have caught what I did there*; 50 DKP Minus if you didn’t.)

One of the key Aesir is Heimdall who “requires less sleep than a bird, can see 100 leagues, and can hear grass growing in the meadows and wool growing on sheep.” In the myths, Heimdall guards the Bilrost (Snorri calls it the Bifrost) and watches for Asgard’s enemies. In my books, he’s not quite that Aesir. Not yet.

These are the limits I put on Heimdall’s powers of sight and hearing:

  • He can’t see through solid objects, clouds, fog, etc.
  • Just like we have to focus to hear in a loud pub, so too does Heimdall have to focus to hear certain things. I also thought of his hearing as a keyword search. Listening to everything all the time might drive a man mad.
  • And, what might someone do to cripple Heimdall’s capabilities? Someone who maybe has a vicious streak and a deep hatred of the Aesir. 😉

Consider, too, that the Jotunn know that Heimdall has these abilities. So, in my world they developed a sign language to keep their secrets. And, they moved underground not only to escape Utgard’s unforgiving climate, but also to shelter what words they did speak. Maybe that’s not particularly inventive, but these actions do seem like logical responses to an enemy’s advantage.

Not only do the Jotunn have to deal with Heimdall’s prying eyes and ears, but Odin sends his ravens (Huginn and Muninn) out in the morning to fly around the whole world. When they return, they whisper all the news they saw and heard into his ear. Odin also has two wolves, Freki and Geri. I have them act in a similar capacity to the ravens — except they mostly travel at night. And, Odin’s Hlidskjalf…his High Seat…lets him see out over all the worlds.

Sucks to be a Jotunn, eh? But wait, there’s more!

In the Hovamol, stanzas 147-165, Odin lists all the “songs he [knows] | that king’s wives know not, nor men that are sons of men.” Beyond those songs Odin knows many other types of magic. He learned one type from Freyja and other magics from his time upon the tree.

In all, I found six sufficiently different types of magic in Norse myth: gandr, galdr, necromancy, rune magic, shapeshifting and what I loosely call “proto-familiar spirit” magic (disir/fylgja).

That’s a huge amount of different magic to deal with in a series let alone a single book. In his third law, Sanderson suggests that writers expand what they already have before adding something new. Given my goal (faithfully retelling Norse myth) I couldn’t cut magic types — they’re all used at different points.

Instead, I tied them all back to a single power source which practitioners would have to harvest, refine and then use.

At various points in the narrative, then, practitioners use up all the magic they have. That’s all they get until they put some work into getting more. I have an entire scene dedicated to Odin harvesting and refining “magic.” Beyond that, once the magic is consumed, there are consequences. Vidar experiences that firsthand.

Additionally, I further limited the magic by sticking to what the sources said that magic could do (with some conservative, logical, interpretative leeway :)). As an example, I have two different ways for the characters to shapeshift — greater and lesser. The lesser is really freakin’ creepy & is based entirely on an account in an Icelandic saga.

That said, those who know multiple types of magic can do the most things. Odin knows all types of magic; Freyja knows almost as many as Odin. Vafthrudnir knows almost as many as Freyja. Loki only knows one type. Vidar knows one, is learning a second and will, eventually, learn more.

What I ended up with were enormously powerful characters. Since I didn’t want them a-whompin’ and a whoopin’ every living thing to within an inch of its life, I pitted my Aesir against opponents who were equally powerful. And then I showed the strongest Aesir (Odin) getting the crap kicked out of him — while also showing normal folk getting their asses kicked by the beasties that Odin, Vidar, etc., can easily dispatch.

So, long post, right? And I haven’t even hinted at how magic is used by the Alvar, Svartalvar and Jotunn. Maybe in the future. Oh yeah, that reminds me, prophecy is a huge part of Norse myth. I guess I didn’t discuss that, either.

 

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*This is what I did there. 🙂

mattbishopwrites

New fantasy author working on the first book in series inspired by Norse myth.

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