The Price of Magic


The following is a paper I wrote back during my sophomore year of college at BYU. I was just back from my mission to Leipzig, Germany, and one of the classes I signed up for was the History of the Epic Fantasy. It was taught by a law librarian over at the Hunter Law Library–I forget his name, sorry. We studied pretty much all of the works listed in the paper below, and it was a fun enough class. The idea for the paper came from a class I was taking at the same time from David Wolverton on creative writing with an emphasis on fantasy. Great class, great teacher, by the way–and a great author. He brought up the idea that magic always needs a price for it to work in fantasy, and I explored it at length in this paper.

The Paper

Since J. R. R. Tolkien gave life to the genre, many authors have attempted to try their hand at “world creation.”  In the modern fantasy epic, a system of magic is crucial to the development of the world and series.  It influences everything from what characters will believe to what they are capable of to how they think.  However, the creation of a believable magic system requires much forethought.  If magic could do anything in the world, then the need for the story would be useless.  Either a great powerful magician would come and annihilate the evil wizard or vice versa.  With this in mind, it is necessary to allot certain weaknesses to a magical system so as to restrain it. Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Timeclearly illustrates this principle.  Each of aspect of his magic system–the system itself, inherent magical abilities of characters, uses or effects of magic, prophecy, magical items, and magical creatures–gain an advantage for the user, but only at a price.  By examining each of these facets in turn, the nature and reason of giving magic a price becomes clear.  After this foundation is firmly laid, one can then use its groundwork to analyze other epic fantasies, comparing and contrasting them to arrive at a conclusion about the price of magic in the fantasy genre.

Jordan’s magical system relies upon the One Power (also known as the True Source), a seemingly inexhaustible source of strength which only certain people can use, and then at considerable danger to themselves.  “Most people cannot sense or touch the True Source…  Only a tiny portion of the population, about two or three percent, actually have the ability, once taught, to touch and draw on the One Power, and today many of those cannot utilize its power in any effective manner.” (Jordan 17-18)  Without this vital limitation,  magic would transform from the rare into the commonplace, simply adding another lowest common denominator, for being able to use magic would offer no new abilities or challenges.  For the few who can use the power, other obstacles add danger and caution to the mix, preventing them from becoming all-powerful.  Users can be “severed” from the Power, and the misuse or overuse of the gift can “burn out” the user.  In both cases,  the person cut off from the True Source “lose the will to live…  fall into a deep depression and often commit suicide soon after if not forcibly prevented.” (Jordan 21-22)  This limitation forces the magic users of Jordan’s world to use caution, thus eliminating the potential for a quick solution to the complex problems faced by Jordan’s characters.  Reducing the number of magic users to a select few and hemming the abilities of those few allows The Wheel of Time series to become complex and believable.

The trappings attached to a ta’veren illustrate well the pros and cons of inherent magical abilities in Jordan’s world.  “Sometimes the Wheel bends a life-thread, or several threads, in such a way that all the surrounding threads are forced to swirl around it, and those force other threads, and those still others, and on and on.  That first bending to make the web, that is ta’veren.” (World 554).  In other words, ta’veren affect those around them, often making them others follow the ta’veren’s will instead of their own.  Rand, a particularly strong ta’veren, repeatedly “twists” others to his will throughout the series.  When Rand meets to bargain with the Atha’an Miere, for example, his ta’veren attribute causes the normally shrewd traders to practically give in to all his demands.  (Swords 535-541)  However, being such a strong ta’veren also has its dangers.  “As the seals holding the Dark One’s prison weaken it may be inevitable that a … miasma … will escape even while he is still held, like bubbles rising from things rotten at the bottom of a pool…  Just as ta’veren bend the other threads in the pattern around them… Ta’veren will attract these bubbles more powerfully than others do.” (Shadow 101)  Thus Rand, Mat, and Perrin encounter assassin reflection, killer playing cards, and axes that have a mind of their own, merely because the three of them are ta’veren–a rather larger price to pay.

One of the many effects or uses of magic in Jordan’s series, Healing immediately shows its benefits and cost.  First the person performing the Healing must pay a price.  “Some of the strength for Healing comes from the Healer.” (Shadow 97)  Thus a Healer cannot Heal an entire battlefield of men–they can only Heal as many as they have strength for.  The rest of the strength for Healing comes from he who is Healed.  “Rand lurched to his feet with a roaring gasp…  He shook like cloth caught in a windstorm.  Dark flakes of dried blood fell, and bits of glass tinkled onto the chest and floor, forced out of cuts closing up and knitting themselves together.” (Shadow 98)  Healing extracts a heavy toll from both Healer and Healed–even then, certain inflictions are beyond Healing.  Rand’s wound given him from Ishamael “will not heal completely,” (Shadow 99) and when Rand tries to Heal a dead girl Moiraine states, “Death cannot be Healed, Rand.  You are not the Creator.” (Shadow 198)  Jordan places these limitations on Healing to ensure that death and injury still exist in his World–without them, much of the danger and plot line would disappear.
As in most fantasy series, prophecy plays a large part in The Wheel of Time.  However, if all future events were known before hand, paradox and boredom would result.  The characters wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be able to change the future, and the outcome would be known from the beginning.  To counter this, Jordan makes his prophecies blurred and unknown, as exemplified by Min’s viewings.  Min says, “I just see things when I look at people, and sometimes I know what they mean.” (World 215)  Min sees the visions, but often cannot interpret them, thus rendering them useless except in hindsight.  The ones she can interpret are unavoidable.  “She had tried warning people about bad things…  Her warnings had only made matters worse, when they were believed at all.” (Dragon 45)   Using these two techniques, Jordan renders prophecy useless except as material for the reader to speculate about in an effort to out-guess the author.

Magical items in The Wheel of Time each have their own benefit and drawback.  Mat’s foxhead medallion, for example, brings him very little benefit in comparison to the price he paid.  First, he paid the physical price of near death.  He asked the Eelfinn (“Foxes”) to “be free of Aes Sedai and the Power.” (Shadow 402)  The Eelfinn mock him, though–for he was a “fool not to first agree on the price.” (Shadow 403)  Thus they set the price for him, giving him the foxhead medallion but sending him back to Rhuidean “hanging from a pole laid across two branches by a rope around his neck” where he almost dies until Rand rescues him (Shadow 437).  There are two basic benefits to the foxhead medallion.  Egwene tries to use the One Power on him and “the flows just…  vanish.” (Chaos 504)  The medallion makes it unable for chanellers to weave flows that touch Mat.  His medallion also is the only known item to be able to hurt a Gholam.  “The medallion fell against the [Gholam’s] cheek.  [It] screamed.  Smoke rose around the edges of the foxhead, and a sizzle like bacon frying.” (Swords 598)  The second price Mat pays, however, is that the medallion does not affect the Power when used to manipulate things around Mat.  At the end of The Fires of Heaven, for example, a Power-generated lightning bolt strikes Mat. (Heaven 915-916)  Thus the medallion offers little protection from the Power if the wielder knows its weakness.

Finally, magical beasts in Jordan’s series, not exempt from the price of magic rule, each have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Interestingly, the creatures of the Dark One have very little in the way of weaknesses compared to those few magic creatures of good.  Trollocs have low intelligence and are hard to control, but have great strength and size. (Jordan 72-73)  Myrddral cannot reproduce and are thus limited in numbers, but have tremendous skill with the sword, can move instantaneously through shadows, and inspire fear in all who gaze upon them. (Jordan 73-76)  Draghkar are easily killed–if the victim can somehow resist the croon that lulls the victim into a trance, allowing the Draghkar to suck their soul. (Jordan 78)  Darkhounds are difficult to kill and impossible to outrun, though they will not cross running water and can thus be escaped. (Jordan 80)  Gray men can hardly be seen, but are useless as anything but an assassin. (Jordan 81)  Gholam are impossible to kill, have super strength, can move through the tiniest of cracks, and have only one minor known weakness–Mat’s medallion. (Swords 597-600)  Ogier, on the other hand, have long life, great strength and endurance, and can “sing wood,” but are confined mostly to Steddings, thus drastically limiting their usefulness. (Jordan 191-196)  The Green Man, one of the Nym, could use the Power to benefit plants and living things (Jordan 31), but had to stay at the Eye of the World. (World 742-743)  It seems the tendency to stack the odds in favor of evil, thus making it all the harder for good to triumph.

In every aspect of magic, Jordan has inserted advantages and disadvantages.  The prices magic users must pay at times outweigh the benefits.  However, this “price of magic” allows the series its complexity and believability.  If unbridled magic could be used by all equally, then the series would be one of swordplay and strategy, for magic would cancel itself out.  The world readers are used to is filled with two sidedness.  Thus the double effect of magic makes the unbelievable believable.  Although magic accomplishes wonderful and unexplainable things, readers still see that it is limited to a common and familiar rule–the rule of pros and cons.  Once recognized, this single rule makes the entire system of magic seem more real.  In the fantasy genre, where most of the story is fantastical and unlikely, the few points of plausibility are vital for the story to reach readers.  Thus the “price” in The Wheel of Time is one of the keys to the series’ success.
Similarly, other authors set limits to the use of magic in their fantasy realms.  J. R. R. Tolkien, the father of the modern epic fantasy, first employed this technique in The Hobbit, the prologue to The Lord of the Rings.  Unlike Jordan’s in-depth magic system, Tolkien opts to leave his story fairy tale-esque by not going into depth about how magic works in Middle Earth.  In “Sleeping Beauty” for example, the audience is unconcerned about the details when the thirteenth fairy curses the new born child.  Indeed, talk of the One Power or ta’verenwould seem grossly out of place.  Fairy tales leave out all but the bare essentials, and The Hobbit is no exception.  However, the magic still has its limits.

One of the most visible magic element in Tolkien’s work is the One Ring.  Although the specifics about the Ring do not become clear until The Lord of the Rings, it plays a large role inThe Hobbit, and Tolkien assigns it limited powers–with a price.  “It was a ring of power, and if you slipped that ring on your finger, you were invisible;  only in the full sunlight could you be seen, and then only by your shadow, and that would be shaky and faint” (Hobbit 75).  “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them” comes later in the series.  For now, Bilbo’s ring merely acts as a means to almost full invisibility.  However, Tolkien does hint at another perilous price of wearing the ring.  “Gollum used to wear it at first, till it tired him;  and then he kept it in a pouch next to his skin, till it galled him” (Hobbit 75).  Even treacherous Gollum now loathes to touch it except in real need.  In The Lord of the Rings one finds out the whole truth–Sauron forged the One Ring, and his evil taints the wearer of until they end up as Gollum, twisted and corrupt–a high price indeed.

Terry Brooks carried the fantasy torch forward in his Shannara series.  In The Sword of Shannara, Brooks continues to follow that price of magic pattern set by Tolkien, basing his entire magic system on price.

“The Sword of Shannara cannot be an effective weapon unless the one holding it believes in his power to use it…  Through human misunderstanding and historical misconception, the universal belief grew that the Sword was the weapon of the Elven King alone and that only those descended of his blood could take up the Sword against the Warlock Lord” (Shannara 164-165).

Brooks bases his magic on the Heirs of Shannara, limiting it from the very start.  Since only an elect few can use the magic, and then only if they believe in their ability to do so, Brooks sets a high price on all magic use in his series.

Interestingly, Brooks does something neither Jordan nor Tolkien did and assigns a very large price to the magic his villain uses.  The Warlock Lord is set up through the whole book as an all powerful wizard content to toy with the people foolish enough to defy him.  However, at the climax of the novel, when other authors make the villain most powerful, Brooks chose to reveal the price the villain had paid for his power.  The Warlock Lord’s “existence was only an illusion.  Long ago, whatever means he had employed to extend his mortal life had failed him, and his body had died…  Denying his own death, he held his lifeless body together to achieve the immortality that had escaped him…  Now the lie was exposed” (Shannara 701-702).  Suddenly, he goes from being one step away from supreme victory to being nothing more than a vanished memory.  In this case, Brooks uses magic’s price incorrectly.  The villain’s powers and weakness must be firmly established throughout the novel so that the reader can comprehend how the villain is vanquished.  To withhold such vital information while all the while showing an invincible villain causes the reader to be disillusioned, an action akin to the author of a murder mystery introducing a new character in the last chapter of his book and proving HE killed everyone.  Thus, while the price of magic usually makes fantasy novels more believable, its incorrect use can alienate the book’s audience.

The Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson illustrates another author’s misuse of the price of magic.  In Donaldson’s world, the price of magic for the protagonists is set too high in every aspect, starting with Covenant’s White Gold.  In order for Thomas to gain full power of the White Gold, he would have to totally submit to the hew world he finds himself in.  However, to do so would force him to sacrifice the hard developed discipline he must have as a leper.  The doctors have specifically told him “one fact will remain constant:  from now on until you die, leprosy is the biggest single fact of your existence…  You can’t take vacations from it” (Foul 18).  Having drilled this into his memory, Covenant faces almost everything that happens to him in the Land with the same statement.  “That’s not possible” (Foul 55).  With such a high price to be paid, one would expect that White Gold would be of great value.  However, Thomas doesn’t understand its use and also chooses not to believe in it.  “Acknowledge the white gold and use it to aid the land.  Impossible, Covenant replied” (Foul 244).  Donaldson makes him pay the price, but then doesn’t let him use the item he bought.

The denizens of the Land also pay high prices for very little in return.  Rhadhamaerland Lillianrill, Loremasters and the Giants of Seareach–each of these have a little magic power allotted them, whether it be in the working of rock or wood or knowledge of magic.  All of it combined is not enough to combat the forces of Lord Foul, however, and the reader sees the protagonists slowly being whittled down before the all powerful juggernaut.  For example, the Loremasters have the Seven Wards of Lore, ideally.  The price they must pay to use these wards (scrolls of knowledge) is intense study.  Donaldson again makes the price too high, however–Mhoram explains, “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” (Foul 432).  Thus they discover the second Ward but “can do nothing with this new Ward now” (Foul 432).  Donaldson follows this pattern throughout the novel, limiting the power of his main characters at every turn.  Where Brooks limited his villain too much, Donaldson goes to the other extreme.  In the real world, usually a balance of pros and cons is present, and this lack of balance in these two worlds reduces their believability.

On the other hand, David Eddings uses the price of magic quite well in The Belgariad.  In Pawn of Prophecy however, magic is for the most part non-existent and unexplained.  Only at the end of the book does Eddings give the explanation of the Will and the Word.  “You simply will something to happen, and then speak the word.  If your will’s strong enough, it happens” (Pawn 255).  Here the essential price of magic for the Belgariad is established.  For a select few people, magic is possible, dependant on the strength of their will.  Possibilities also limit the magic.  Belgarath can turn into an eagle and fly somewhere very quickly, but willinghimself there brings no result.  Eddings goes into the intricacies later on in the series.

The main magical object of the series, the Orb of Aldur, is also limited in users.  “Only one without ill intent, who is pure enough to take it and convey it in peril of his life, with no thought of power or possession, may touch it now” (Pawn 3-4).  Like Brooks, Eddings thus establishes a separate magic system based on heirs.  Garion is the only one able to use the Orb in his day, and it relies on him to wield it properly.  Eddings avoids Brooks’ mistake, however. “Now when Torak raised the living Orb against the earth, it awoke and began to glow with holy flame.  The face of Torak was seared by the blue fire” (Pawn 2).  The villain pays a price for his power, but that price is balanced and not a secret.  Torak and Garion’s strengths and weaknesses are well known through the whole series, allowing the ending to be fulfilling and believable in contrast to Brooks’ stunted climax.  Eddings’ magic system works where Donaldson’s and Brooks’ failed due to his good use of checks and balances.

By studying the price of magic in these fantasy books, certain elements become clear.  First of all, the believability of the series is directly affected by the believability of the magic system.  Authors compete with each other for readers–readers that can be very demanding in terms of what they expect from a fantasy world.  Just because magic is possible does not mean it should be common-place or without bounds.  A magic that is too expensive or too cheap does not seem as true as one that gives as much as it takes.

The complexity of the magic system offers a view into the amount of effort an author put into the series.  Tolkien and Jordan both have vast backgrounds for their series, and the magic in their worlds matches that complexity.  (It must be remembered that Tolkien’s first work, The Hobbit was intended for a younger audience.  Only in The Lord of the Rings does magic’s true intricacy begin to show.)  Brooks and Eddings’ systems are both less complex and detailed, matching statements both authors have made to that effect.  Instead of creating detailed worlds and histories, both these authors focused on a more formulaic approach–creating that which was directly necessary to write their novels while omitting extraneous material.  This works for a plot drive work, but not for the deeper pieces.  Donaldson, on the other hand, assigned simply too many prices to his magic, while still avoiding the deep history and undercurrents of Jordan and Tolkien.  Every novel in the fantasy genre could be dissected while paying attention to the price of magic in that world.  For a work to be truly believable, it is essential that its system be balanced and well thought out.


  • Brooks, Terry.  The Sword of Shannara.  Ballantine Books, New York.  1977.
  • Donaldson, Stephen R.  Lord Foul’s Bane.  Ballantine Books, New York.  1977.
  • Eddings, David.  Pawn of Prophecy.  Ballantine Books, New York.  1982.
  • Jordan, Robert.  A Crown of Swords. Tom Doherty Associates, New York.  1996.
  • —.  The Dragon Reborn. Tom Doherty Associates, New York.  1991.
  • —.  The Eye of the World.  Tom Doherty Associates, New York.  1990.
  • —.  The Fires of Heaven. Tom Doherty Associates, New York.  1993.
  • —.  Lord of Chaos. Tom Doherty Associates, New York.  1994.
  • —.  The Shadow Rising. Tom Doherty Associates, New York.  1993.
  • Jordan, Robert and Teresa Patterson.  The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Tom Doherty Associates, New York.  1997.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R.  The Hobbit.  Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.  1996