Quote Originally Posted by RichardGarfinkle View Post
Finally, let's consider the question of personal power versus tool use. I've always tended to create systems and worlds wherein magic is personal to the magician. That it is a result of personal training and/or talent and does not rely too much on external hardware. It's an internal process externalized into the world, like unto art.

I tend to contrast this with technology as being more a manipulation of the external world using external means. A person is at the controls, but the tools are doing the work.
This reminds of the distinction Ted Chiang (a writer of SF short stories) makes between technology and magic. From an interview on Boing Boing:

Quote Originally Posted by Ted Chiang
But I think that there does exist an useful distinction to be made between magic and science. One way to look at it is in terms of whether a given phenomenon can be mass-produced. If you posit some impossibility in a story, like turning lead into gold, I think it makes sense to ask how many people in the world of the story are able to do this. Is it just a few people or is it something available to everybody? If it's just a handful of special people who can turn lead into gold, that implies different things than a story in which there are giant factories churning out gold from lead, in which gold is so cheap it can be used for fishing weights or radiation shielding. In either case there's the same basic phenomenon, but these two depictions point to different views of the universe. In a story where only a handful of characters are able to turn lead into gold, there's the implication that there's something special about those individuals. The laws of the universe take into account some special property that only certain individuals have. By contrast, if you have a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process, something that can be done on a mass scale and can be done cheaply, then you're implying that the laws of the universe apply equally to everybody; they work the same even for machines in unmanned factories. In one case I'd say the phenomenon is magic, while in the other I'd say it's science. Another way to think about these two depictions is to ask whether the universe of the story recognizes the existence of persons. I think magic is an indication that the universe recognizes certain people as individuals, as having special properties as an individual, whereas a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process is describing a completely impersonal universe.
He goes into more detail elsewhere, but I couldn't find the link. It's an interesting way to think about the topic. My personal angle on this would be social power relations: do you burn the witches, or are they in charge? A super villain with a bomb is a threat, but anybody can replicate a bomb. On the other hand, the One Ring is unique. If you destroy it the threat is gone (not an expert on LotR, but I don't think Sauron can assemble them on a production line, so to speak).

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The Persona series of video games combines the Jungian concepts of cellective unconscious and archetypes with the narrative concept of the Fool's Journey (form Tarot) to create a very interesting (and surreal) magic sytem. Gods exist, but through the concept of the collective unconscious it's never clear who/what exactly causes them. I tend to think they are the result of magic.

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My own attempt? It's hard to explain. A friend has recently described it as "sentient magic that forms on imagination and feeds on attention", which is actually a pretty succinct way to put it. The casting of spells, faith, etc. are restrictions on magic; they don't make it possible, they make it (relatively) safe. I don't fully understand my own concept, and each of major factions have their own interpretation of what happens. In a sense, I just throw "it" out there, and have characters confront "it". Magic is fairly weak and dying, but there are things that suggest in the past more people could work magic more easily, and, going back far enough, people could accidently work magic (i.e. under the right circumstances, simply having a strong emotion could trigger magic). Basically, a fresh, or heartfelt idea is more powerful than transmitted, traditional one (though can certainly have heartfelt reactions to tradition): so in a sense, the formalisation of magic under religion and academic magic is the source of its decay, by restricting possibility. Magic is being clichťd to death.