Roots of Magic and Fantasy

Magic is awesome! It’s a crazy and weird concept if you think about it. Magic is the defining feature of fantasy, without magic there would be no dragons or darklords, spells and mythical powers. But I’ve often wondered where magic as a concept comes from and where the foundations of western fantasy and magic lie.

Image result for skyrim dragon

Looking to the not too distant past many of our modern fantasy and magical concepts from the trifecta of fantasy races (men, elves and dwarves) to wizards and quests come from Tolkien. Before Tolkien fantasy as a literary genre was not popular and few of our modern concepts existed in the well known and codified the way they are now.

Tolkien’s influence can be felt in Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft and Game of Thrones. However, Tolkien is not the founder of magic but the shaper of it into our modern understanding. It’s interesting to see how Tolkien drew upon the legends and myths of the past to create his world.

Magic and Fantasy has its roots in myths and folklore/beliefs of the past. Tolkien himself drew upon Viking myths and old english tails like Beowulf for inspiration.

In the past magic as a concept was not considered fiction or fantasy but very real. People feared witches and evil spirits and believed in the protective powers of talismans and  symbols. Sacred wells and trees were also common and believed to be places where spirits or fairies live. Being from the British Isles some of these magical beliefs are still believed by some people. Whether it’s throwing a coin down a well or building roads around fairy trees! Even in my own region of the UK, Cumbria there are plenty of magical tales. Some of which are listed at the end if you’re interested!

A tree stump studded with coins near Ingleton
Traditional Wishing Tree

Magic’s origins are within the beliefs of people and our ancestors attempts to understand the world in a time without science. Protective spells and symbols were used to ward off disease because people didn’t know any other way to protect themselves and fairies and spirits are just another part of their world.

Even today magic exists in two forms, there is the occult form of magic still practiced by witches and pagans and there is the literary form of magic; a core element of the fantasy genre.

Oddly enough Wikipedia shows an interesting point “Historically, witches such as the Weird Sisters in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, wizards such as Prospero in The Tempest … were widely considered to be real. Contemporary authors tend to treat magic as an imaginary idea, opting to world-build with a blank slate where the laws of reality do not carry as much weight.”

The Lord Standing Stone Skyrim
Long Meg Standing Stone Cumbria









The origins of magic are rooted in our world (even if it seems fantastical) it is the way our ancestors saw the world, in their observations of natural processes and attempts to explain them using their imagination and beliefs. Magic in fiction is an offshoot of this, it takes something rooted in our own world and past beliefs to build a new world where magic is an integral part of reality. It is thanks to the past that we have works like Game of Thrones, the Elder Scrolls and Middle Earth. It is also through these works that magic as a concept has been able to survive in the minds of society and in a time when science and fact has explained magic away (well for some of us that is!).

Cumbria Folklore/Magic:

Long Meg and Her Daughters – Long Meg was a witch who with her daughters, was turned to stone for profaning the Sabbath, as they danced wildly on the moor. The circle is supposedly endowed with magic, so that it is impossible to count the same number of stones twice, but if you do then the magic is broken.

Hardknott Pass – Tradition says fairies live along the Roman road at Hardknott Pass. And that Cumbria’s faery king also known as the Celtic god, King Eveling holds court in the area.

King Urien and Owain – King Urien was a celtic king of the region after the Roman’s left. The fantasy element comes from his presence in the tale of King Arthur. Urien is often shown as husband to King Arthur’s sister and his son Owain is a member of the round table!

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