6

It seems a common trope in universes with magic that the most powerful spells are ancient and no longer in practice either because they were forgotten or forbidden. New wizards learn the basics but are rarely given the opportunity to learn these powerful ancient spells aside from the protagonist or antagonist of the tale.

Technology seems to improve over the generations, but for some reason magic frequently does not.

What's the logic behind this? How do most stories justify the most powerful spells being part of the past rather than improving over time?

5
  • Some spells might have been deemed dangerous and hence their use discouraged/outlawed. The method to perform these spells might have been forgotten. Might also be because magical power/ability is decreasing over generations (depending on the story). Jan 16 '16 at 6:30
  • 1
    "Technology seems to improve over the generations." That illusion is the result of living at a time when technology is near a relative maximum. Our great-grandchildren, living in post-apocalyptic times, will have legends of the powerful technology of us ancients.
    – user14111
    Jan 16 '16 at 7:01
  • @user14111 Are you implying that these universes have magical-apocalypses that wipe out most magic?
    – KOVIKO
    Jan 16 '16 at 7:12
  • In the Circle of Magic series, old magical places are powerful because they are old - different mages with different abilities have refreshed and reinforced the magic over the centuries, causing it to be embedded in the objects/locations more strongly each time
    – Izkata
    Jan 16 '16 at 7:58
  • 4
14

The world-view that "newer is better" is a modern one, dating back to the post-Medieval, Early Modern period. Before that, the major epistemological approaches (that is, approaches to what is "knowledge" and how it's acquired) were reversed: medieval learning was based on the system of Scholasticism, a system of learning where the basic, original texts (whether those of the ancient Greeks, the Bible or post-Biblical pre-Medieval scholars like Augustinus) were read and re-read, interpreted and re-interpreted and conflicts and contradictions resolved and re-resolved. In the scholastic world-view, older is better, because the truth is god-given and predetermined, and all we can do is find echoes of it and interpret them.

The switch, in the early modern period, to observation-based learning and the belief that new knowledge can be created using observation is a major paradigm shift in how people see the world, and is part of the whole transition that includes the scientific revolution, the "age of enlightenment" and other cultural and philosophical shifts of the time.

So, how does that relate to our fantasy worlds? The genre of fantasy is heavily inspired by European medieval romances, and it carries a lot of tropes that come with it - and one of those is the "older is better". It comes with the territory. In contrast, classic science fiction, which is heavily based on modern, scientific paradigms, usually espouses the "newer is better" trope.

8
  • 1
    This would explain why wizards are typically portrayed as intellectuals who bury their noses in tomes for most of their days. So, when a universe is a sort of "magitech" universe, why don't these two types of learning clash? Or rather, do they clash?
    – KOVIKO
    Jan 16 '16 at 9:01
  • Yeah, a lot of magitek settings take more modern paradigms and apply them to fantasy/magic-based settings. A good example I'm enjoying at the moment is Max Gladstone's Craft Cycle novels, where magic enables partly-modern world and there's conflict between old-world magic and newer scientific-experiment-style magic. Jan 16 '16 at 9:05
  • 1
    I view magitek settings, in general, as a variation on the *-punk family of genres (steampunk, clockpunk, etc), which feature the juxtaposition of modern sensibilities into an older era. Jan 16 '16 at 9:06
  • @avner I've heard it called arcanepunk
    – AncientSwordRage
    Jan 16 '16 at 9:15
  • 1
    You're forgetting the whole "golden age, silver age etc..." thing which is also an effect Jan 16 '16 at 12:08

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.