Fantasy Literature: Telepathy versus Magic

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In my dark fantasy book, “Drasmyr,” the vampire uses telepathy to communicate with the victims he has bitten. Generally, I denote this with italics in the text conveying his thoughts. What I wanted to explore in this blog post is the use of telepathy in fantasy literature and how it relates to magic. I think, as a rule, psychic phenomena are kind of a middle of the road type of thing; we can’t decide whether or not to classify them as science fiction or fantasy. Many scientists today disregard them as real phenomena, so they would probably argue to keep them in fantasy; it has no place in science or science fiction. Personally, I’ve had a number of experiences in real life which I would classify as psychic in nature. I assume that eventually science will accept psychic phenomena and work to explain them as they have everything else. But I’m sure that will take time. All that to the side, we are discussing psychic phenomena, specifically telepathy, and how it applies to fantasy literature and magic. I’ve seen telepathy used as a form of communication between elves, dragons, and a variety of other creatures.

 

In itself, it seems to be a separate thing from magic; it occurs as a kind of natural ability and is usually not something that a creature or character can improve skill in. There are exceptions, of course. In Tad Williams’ “Shadowmarch” series, the Qar use telepathy and some of the humans can hear it when it is directed at them and can improve their understanding and manipulation of it over time. Still, for myself, I have a tendency to regard psychic phenomena as something distinct from magic. If one were to define the two, I think telepathy and other psychic phenomena would be defined as a strictly mental experience. Telepathy is one mind communicating to another mind through some vaguely defined super-sentient means. Magic, on the other hand, involves a being channeling external powers to alter the world around itself. The being in question is a conduit for the magical energy, but more of a source and origin for psychic phenomena like telepathy. As a result, it almost seems like anyone and anything could be telepathic. Although it generally doesn’t work out that way, the potential is there. To be able to use magic, on the other hand, usually requires years of study. There are exceptions, of course; sometimes magic exists simply as a talent or gift, like it does in Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. In such situations, it is unlearned, instantaneous, and just there. Again, we return to our basic point, telepathy is more a thing of the mind than magic is. As such, it engenders more of a technical response than magic, we look for a way to explain it or posit some potential rationalization for it. As a result, telepathy sometimes finds a home in science fiction, where magic most certainly does not.

 

Anyone else have any thoughts on the subject?

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About atoasttodragons

The author, Matthew D. Ryan, lives in northern New York on the shores of Lake Champlain, one of the largest lakes in the continental United States, famous for the Battle of Plattsburgh and the ever-elusive Lake Champlain Monster, a beastie more commonly referred to as Champy. Matthew has studied philosophy, mathematics, and computer science in the academic world. He has earned a black belt in martial arts.

10 responses to “Fantasy Literature: Telepathy versus Magic”

  1. Steve says :

    Stepping back from fiction, I am of the belief that telepathy is a manifestation of some very real property of our existence which is not yet fully understand by science. So where and how then does it relate to fiction? I guess it’s up to the author (as is every aspect of a fictional story really) to incorporate it (in whatever fashion desired) or not. Whereas magic generally seems to be a fanciful departure from any reality based activity, the same cannot be send for telepathy, so the only real danger comes from a potential for confusion if more familiar associations of telepathy are mixed with fanciful or imaginative telepathic activities, but a competent writer would have no difficulty circumventing any such confusion.

  2. Steve says :

    In my mind there is a clear distinction between the power of the vampire to control the minds of those he bites through a mental process and the magic used by the mages. The idea of a powerful mind controlling a weaker one is really not even fanciful – it happens all the time in real life, so it’s no stretch to imagine it happening on a more profound scale as in your story. The magic in your story is a different thing altogether, having no real obvious origin in any actual element of our “real” lives that I know of. As an aside, one of the fascinating things I love about your story is how it seamlessly blends the whole magic “wizards” type of story with a vampire story as if they somehow belonged together. Genius really!

  3. debyfredericks says :

    As with many things in a story, whether it’s SF or fantasy depends on how the author uses it and explains it. Anne McCaffrey wrote her “Talent” SF series with the supposition that you could hook a psychic up to an EEG machine and prove their psychic abilities by their brain activity. Myself, in my next book, “The Seven Exalted Orders,” wizards have to choose an element that’s the focus of their magic, and one of their choices is mind powers.

    Writing fiction is fun like that. You can shape things into whatever you need them to be.

  4. Bats says :

    Katherine Kurtz wrote several medieval fantasy trilogies in the 70s-80s about a magical race called the Deryni, set in a sort of alternate reality version of the UK/Wales, called Gwynnedd. The Deryni had telepathic powers in that they could use thoughts to communicate with each other, and also had other psychic abilities like healing. It wasn’t called telepathy in the books, since it was set in a fantasyland, but was an inherited racial trait. They used rituals, trances, and other skills, and there were schools were they trained. They could read people’s minds, or tell if a person was lying. Anyway, that was the first example I could think of a fantasy that imagined telepathy as a magical ability. The Camber books were very good, as well as the Histories of King Kelson, IMO.

  5. Bats says :

    as for what i think about telepathy… in fantasy novels, i see it as magic. in science fiction, i see it as science fiction. the difference being in sci-fi, there’s usually an explanation for how it came about. for instance, in the pern series, dragons can talk to human beings because they were genetically engineered, etc. in fantasy, nothing has to be explained. there are rules, but generally, magic just sort of happens, and we suspend our disbelief because the mystery of magic is part of the magic of fantasy i guess, or something like that 😉

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