Any Sufficiently Advanced Magick Is Indistinguishable from Magic

Arthur Clarke is dead, there was a LiveJournal strike, the Hugo nominations have just been announced, it’s Holy Saturday, the US Democratic primary is starting to get genuinely ugly, and the best cheese in the world turns out to have poison in it. So naturally what’s on my mind is the proper spelling of the word magic: with or without a k?

When this came up on the SFReader Forums I barked out my usual Pavlovian reaction:

“Magicking” is fine with me, but “magick” drives me crazy for some reason. It has a “Ye Olde” preciousness about it that makes me bite clean through my elbow.

Then I got to thinking. (Is this ever less trouble than it’s worth?) Magick(e) was fine in the English Renaissance: Shakespeare used it, Marlowe used it. But spelling hadn’t been regularized then, even for names. Marlowe sometimes signed his name as “Marley” or even, apparently, as “Merlin.” (You can bet that, as a teenaged fantasy-reader and addict of Marlovian bombast, I tried to make something out of that. Fortunately the world will never know how badly that story sucked and will simply have to take my word for it.)

And magick is clearly a back-formation. It comes from Latin magicus, which derives in turn from Greek μαγικός “Magi-like, Magian.” The k that appears in some forms (like magicking, magicked) is just to prevent the softening of the c to an s sound (like the k in mimicking, mimicked) and was misinterpreted as being part of the stem of the word. We don’t write mimick in standard English and we shouldn’t write magick either.

So: that was then; this is now. Magick(e) and its byforms was okay before the 18th Century, and if people want to use it nowadays in or referring to occult religious observances it’s no skin off my walrus. But it’s clearly not to be used in a fantasy novel written in standard English. Not to be used in any fantasy novel written within the last century. Certainly not in any 20th Century classic of the fantasy genre. (No. Stop it. I’m not listening!)

Oh, well: there it is in Chapter VIII of Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. And it doesn’t bother me a bit, though why it doesn’t bother did bother me, if you see what I mean. Then I looked a little closer at the context:

And were he so fortunate as scape these mantycores, yet cowlde bee never climbe up the gret crages of yce and rocke on Koschtre Beloorn, for none is so stronge as to scale them but by art magicall, and such is the vertue of that mowntayne that no magick avayleth there, but onlie strength and wisdome alone, and as I seye these woulde not avayl to climbe those cliffes and yce ryvers.

This is from one of the 2 or 3 densest passages of the book where Eddison actually inflicts on the reader a fair imitation of Renaissance English without the benefit of kindly editing. So this isn’t really a 20th century example. It’s a sixteenth century example, which just happens to have been written in the 20th C. I hold no brief for Eddison’s social opinions (he seems to have been been pretty antidemocratic) but stylistically he was no quack.

And that’s what bothers me when fantasists drop fake-archaisms like magick into their text to create atmosphere. It’s just quackery, like vendors at a Renaissance Faire who screech “melord! melady!” in fake-Cockney (I’ve-seen-Benny-Hill-I-know-what-English-people-sound-like) accents. The “atmosphere” created is ersatz: Shannara, not Middle-Earth.

Should fantasy novels be written in standard English, though? Why not move away from the standard–change the standard?

Well, aim high, I say. But asking people to learn a new dialect of English so that they can read your book is maybe asking a little too much. Burgess might have been able to get people to do it, but most people won’t have similar success. And I’d add that the greatest of all sf/f stylists, Ursula Le Guin, achieves her effects with very plain language. So you don’t need to mash up words to impress people. All you need is genius.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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13 Responses to Any Sufficiently Advanced Magick Is Indistinguishable from Magic

  1. A lot of neo-pagans consider the spelling “magick” to be a fluffy-bunny thing, just to make it look special or different, and blame an Aleister Crowley for starting it.

    • JE says:

      That’s what my neo-pagan friends tell me, but I mostly run into the Greco-Roman sort (because of my academic specialty); it’s good to have some more confirmation. Thanks for the link; this is a great site, level-headed in a way that sincerely religious people ought to be about their religion. (I especially liked the “fluffy bunny” icons and the motto “Fight the bunny.”)

      • I love the site, too. It shows that every religion has its fundies and anti-fundies. 😉

        • JE says:

          Yes, absolutely. My gold standard for this kind of thing is the Northvegr site. They’re just following Norse/Germanic traditions (i.e. not Celtic or Greco-Roman), but they have no patience with the kind of racist nonsense that sometimes marches under the banner of Odinism. And it’s a great site to find online reference works (like Zoëga’s Old Icelandic dictionary) and public domain translations & scholarship.

  2. peadarog says:

    You don’t *need* a new dialect to impress people. But if you do it well, you’ll impress me. That young Burgess chap did a spiffingly good job, if you ask me.

    • JE says:

      Absolutely. In fact, anything I’ve read by Burgess has been a joy on the sentence-by-sentence level. (The Enderby books are insanely great, I think.) So maybe I’m being too pessimistic about the reading public.

      And maybe the writing public, too: I remember seeing slushpile stories at Baen’s Bar (thought I haven’t visited there in a while) where the fantasy worldmaking seemed to consist largely of mushy spelling. I had a strong sense that the intended and the actual effects were quite different. But maybe this isn’t as general a problem as I’m imagining: I’ve never had to read through a whole slushpile (fortunately for my fragile sanity).

  3. al_zorra says:


    There was a LJ strike?



    By Whom?

    Love, C.

    • JE says:

      Re: Strike?

      It was on Friday, to protest some of the new management’s changes. There’s a writeup here. I don’t know whether it was (or is likely to be) effective. But it’s not a bad idea to remind the management that, although this is their business, we can vote with our feet and blog elsewhere.

      • al_zorra says:

        Re: Strike?

        Thanks for the information.

        By pure chance I didn’t blog on Friday, but it was chance not intention. I also have a basic account. As I’d said, I began with a paid account, but I didn’t use any of what I was paying for so I went to basic. The ‘premium’ — ugh, all those distacting ads. As it is, it’s becoming far too difficult to read certain news sites because of all the flashing, popping, etc. — and takes forever to load even with broadband.

        I have a blog elsewhere, and have for a long time. The only thing I don’t like about it compared to LJ is there are no filter and privacy options.

        Love, C.

        • JE says:

          I’ve thought about setting up a standalone blog somewhere. I like the connectedness of LJ, where you can get in touch and stay in touch with people of similar interests. I’d miss that if I left LJ behind, but: all forums are mortal, and LJ is just another forum, so someday…

          • al_zorra says:

            Yes! I really like the continually developing community on LJ that I feel a part of and I’d miss that very much.

            LJ has provided me an opportunity to meet some wonderful people in the last two years, including you, that I’d probably not have met otherwise.

            But all things outrun their time, eventually, as you say.

            Love, C.

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