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On Dark Magic

Some metaphysics on the workings and nature of Dark Magic in a fictional setting. Written by Jeff Mach.I wrote “On Dark Magic” as a fictional essay within a larger fantasy work. I thought you might like it. It’s told from the part of a fairly classic-style Dark Lord, within a fantasy fiction context; but I go over a little bit of the philosophy of “dark” magick versus light.
-Jeff Mach

At this moment, the Chosen One is being inculcated with the idea that I do Dark Magic, and thus I am most thoroughly evil. I’m pretty sure the White Wizard has a fairly expansive knowledge of the subject, and I’m not exactly sure where he gets all this stuff about the use of virgins for altars, or strange rites of the forest involving a great deal of wine and very little clothing.

I really think the White Wizard needs to get out more.

(Either that, or he’s confusing me with Dionysus. I suspect the White Wizard really believes that, somewhere along the paths of learning, there were all manner of secret and terrible rituals to which he was not invited. I mean, sure, he missed out on a kegger or two, but honestly, you should have heard that guy go on when he had a few drinks in him; unbearable. For a being of awe and wonder, that son of a crossbow sure can ramble on.)

But speaking of rambling. I digress. So, is Dark Magic evil?

No. Consider: How would that even work?

Or to ask a more relevant question, what would it take for magic to be evil?

This might seem simple on the face of it, but examine the idea for a moment. It’s not as if our ideas of morality are static. In one age, we fight and die for the divinity of the monarchy, and to contest it is to go against all the decency and ethics in the world. In the next era, we overthrow the monarchy, and perhaps consider the entire institution to be utterly and completely wicked. After that, perhaps we believe that each individual should be treated based on merit. And then we change our ideas of what is and is not “meritorious” in such complexly human ways.

Or in other words, the incantation which slays a king is monstrous in one epoch, heroic in another, useless in a third. How would the magic know which is which?

I’ll grant that magic is an unpredictable, semi-sentient, capricious force (telling magic “Do as you will!” is much the same as telling a Grand Vizier “Oh, nobody’s counted the treasury in years, and we lost the key, too, but hey, we’re sure all those rubies the size of plums and those emeralds the size of fists are just fine.”) Noting that magic has something like intelligence, and therefore might be capable of actually possessing moral qualities, we still run afoul of many rocky questions. Can “light” and “dark” be determined by your motivations? In other words, does magic read your intentions?
My dear sweet collection of glands and stimulus responses, you may not know your own heart completely, and the same goes for your soul. Do you expect sorcery to both do your bidding and diagnose your innermost reasons? Magick is untapped power stolen from the laws of physics when the Universe wasn’t looking; it’s not your therapist.

And then—what of consequence? If magic is somehow inherently good or bad, then it surely needs to understand not only why you desire to do something, but what the effects will be. Context matters. If you intend to save a person who is drowning, and instead sink a fully-crewed ship, is that white magic or black?

Consider how much processing power we would need in order for magic to be evil by any definition at all. It’s significantly more than what’s requisite for most spells. Killing a human being, for example, doesn’t actually take all that much sorcerous work; a slight surge of electricity into a heart, the coincidence of a misdriven vehicle, the errant entrance of bacteria into a morsel of food; the brief moment of lethargy which makes you stay in the bed of someone else’s marital partner for just a minute longer than is prudent.

(The difference between “fate”, “bad luck”, and “a magical action determined to achieve your death” can be measured in inches, much like the arrow that misses you by just a little bit, versus the one which strikes full-on and opens a terribly important artery.)

These are minor alterations of reality—hardly the giant work of metaphysics involved in making a work of magic “evil”. If you try to make it “simple” (in other words: if you’re going to be too lazy to really consider the problem), you start running into difficulties immediately. Take a common thought—“Magic which kills a human being is Dark Magic”. Is it, though? If it’s always evil to kill another human being, you’re going to categorize so very many people as “evil” that the term starts to lose meaning—not just soldiers, but doctors who try and fail (or don’t try hard enough); bad carriage drivers; the makers of that one deep-fried pork-stuffed turkey leg that they do over at the Pig and Poke tavern on Grease Street…

No, the only reason that the actuality of enchantment is workable at all is because all of these complex considerations come from the human side—the interpretation, the names we give to certain spellwork, the way others tell the story later. It isn’t inherent to the spells themselves. Classifying magic poorly is the fault of those who’ve tried to pin it down in books and twist it into something which fits the shape which pleases them, not the fault of the living paranormal power which pervades the multiverse.

Here’s the way this really plays out:

If it’s outside of what is accepted, if it argues with the Lore, if it seeks to do that which is said to be impossible, then suddenly, it can’t be “light”. Apparently, if it’s not something we’ve already seen and done, if it’s not something that has a natural home under the Sun, then it is to be feared.
If you ask me? Not so at all. Dark Magic is merely spellcraft which is found in the cracks, the holes, the hidden “dark places” where ordinary magic leaves off. Dark Magic simply begins when the assembled Lore says, “This, you cannot do”, and you reply,

“Why not?”

It’s not simply about defiance, of course. I might not agree with every grimoire, but I’ve sought and found and read every single strangely-bound collection of oddly-dancing words I could possibly find. (That’s part of why I’m writing this; always try to leave the ladders with more rungs than when you found it.) And all the runework and the study and the alchemy and the conjurings and the battles of wits with the speaking dead, they’re essential, as well. You can’t gain sorcerous dominion without the work and the risk.

This is the heart of a Dark Lord. This is why societies—rightfully, mind you—push us out. Society needs those who are abhorrently different; from us come science, medicine, homicide, religion, cultural improvement and cultural disruption. Society needs us, but it often doesn’t want us.
We become their leaders, their witch-doctors, their eccentrics—or their ostracized.

That is what makes our magick dark. We question the world. We question our realities. We seek out change when sameness is safety and comfort. We are makers and shatterers. We are phoenixes; both incineration, and new birth. We’re not the only ones who do that. But we’re the ones who fit in least. And when you don’t put in the work to fit in, you signal that you are some kind of threat to the culture. Even if you might be a positive threat, you still activate societal antibodies.

So all dark magic starts with stepping outside of unseen barriers, not of magic, but of tradition and taboo. And again—some taboos exist for protection from harm, some exist for protection of the status quo. Seeing someone break them feels the same, regardless of purpose.

And thus, dark magic originates, not with the spell itself, but with that simple act of defiance. First you question. (Pesky things, questions. They’re inconvenient, particularly to those who like to get up a good head of steam and roll a story over everything and anything in its path).

Then you start to wonder, and when rebuked, you don’t jump right back on the approved path, but rather, ask again.

It continues when you get frustrated—with the answers you get, with the people who give them to you, with the things they start saying when your queries begin to sting, most especially if you poke a few untidy holes in the not-as-airtight-as-originally-thought structures which others venerate.

And it culminates in the catalyst: that moment when some elder, or some daemon, or some God, or the Universe itself, tells you, “You can’t”, and your soul replies, “Just watch me.”

What do you think?

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Clare Urbanski