New Essay in Clarkesworld Magazine: “Frodo is Dead: Worldbuilding and The Science of Magic”

I’ve said this before: magic should not be science. Magic can be systematic and internally consistent, but it shouldn’t be reduced to a human tool, like astronomy or chemistry. A lot of writers and worldbuilders don’t seem to understand the difference–didn’t Arthur C. Clarke famously say that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?”

But there is a difference. That’s what my new essay is about.

In this essay, titled “Frodo is Dead” I wanted to show how basing magic off of science, ration, and the Enlightenment philosophies that informed them inevitably leads to a breakdown of its fantasy world by turning it into a mirror of our world.

You can read the essay here on Clarkesworld!

New Essay in Clarkesworld Magazine: “Frodo is Dead: Worldbuilding and The Science of Magic”

The Nokizi: A Fictional Necromantic Manifesto, Part 1

I was playing through TES III: Morrowind recently, and I came across three books in a necromancer dungeon: Darkest Darkness, Arkay the Enemyand N’Gasta, Kvata, Kvakis. I remembered these from years ago, and was excited to see them again: these are necromantic books you can actually read in-game–they’re short, and they give you a bit of insight into the beliefs and ideologies of the black mages you’re going up against. My favorite was A Game at Dinner, which was a sort of epistolary novel from a spy to their dark lord.

I’m writing a new story about the necromancer Yute, who I spoke about in my last post about the psychopathic mind, and one of the main plot points of the story is his own manifesto, The Nokizi. The Nokizi is meant to be a book similar to Arkay the Enemy: something to be passed around and read by the initiated members of the necromancer community.

But ever since I first conceived Yute, I wanted his necromancy to be at odds with the popular ideas of the day–I imagined him as an unorthodox figure, a radical other necromancers would be wary of, like Malcolm X or Timothy Leary. As soon as I imagined him, he needed an establishment to rebel against.

The Nokizi is Yute’s critique on the current state of necromancy and the major figures whose work has influenced it. These figures include Amassad, Togorun, and Banasail, all three of whom have achieved a different kind of immortality and huge followings of acolytes. These three are sort of like Hindu gurus who promise their followers eternal life and enlightenment if they follow their teachings. Yute, meanwhile, is based off the Bodhidharma, the iconoclastic founder of Zen in China.

I imagined that Yute brought all of his new ideas before the gurus first, expecting to gain praise and recognition from the masters and cement his position as a new master. It would be a sort of “look at me, I found a new path that is undeniably better than all of yours, and now you must admit it.” Instead, he was laughed and jeered out of their temples and abodes and derided by all their students, one after another. Yute, not one to take humiliation well, devised his Nokizi as a critique of the establishment that rejected him, and a manifesto for his new method and philosophy.

The actual critique is a blend of mathematics, paradoxes, parables, German philosophy, and Rinzai Zen, with the goal of showing that 1) Amassad, Togorun, and Banasail are all going about immortality in the wrong way, 2) the current conception of time and the self are wrong, and 3) that immortality seekers should employ mathematics, not body-modification or other techniques, to achieve immortality.

At the very end of the Nokizi is an encrypted portion, along with the promise that anyone who solves the cipher will gain the secret to his new method. The idea is that, though the necromantic community rejected him before, he is willing to allow converts into his new method if they are clever enough. But it’s all a trick–the insanely complicated cipher encrypts only a bunch of gibberish and nursery rhymes, as a giant, spiteful fuck-you. “You had your chance to be my acolytes, and you laughed me down,” is Yute’s internal reasoning. “So I’ll show you what you’re missing, offer you my secrets, then laugh at you.”

Yute’s a twisted kind of character.

You can read the first part of the Nokizi here.

The Nokizi: A Fictional Necromantic Manifesto, Part 1

My New Grimoire

grimoire-1 grimoire-2

I love this book. I picked it up from Poetic Earth’s booth at New York Comic-Con this year, and it’s got a hand-tooled leather cover. Last night, I made the first entry in it on the title page (see above).

The triangle-tesseract design is the same one that came to me in a dream several years ago, after a night of reading too much about fractals. If you place each letter of the word “OROBORO” at the right vertices, the name should repeat perfectly across the whole design, meaning you can read “OROBORO” forever in three dimensions.

Beneath that is the phrase “ONE THOUSAND EYES OPEN.” This is the same phrase I used for one of my artists books, which used origami and an eye design to create an interactive little book that read “ONE THOUSAND EYES OPEN” no matter how you folded it.

At the far bottom, I drew the symbols of the three gods in my canon: Erroth, Sol, and Ormun.

I’m planning on using this book as a reference document for my worldbuilding, especially magic systems. Right now, I’m thinking of including diagrams of the Sephiroth, Qliphoth, Eightfold Path, the Five Skandhas of Existence, Pascal’s Triangle, and the Sierpinski Gasket, along with notes from my notebooks. This way, I’ll have all my notes and inspirations in one convenient tome.


THE OCCULT READING LIST VOL. 3: Three Body Problem, Language as Magic, and New Retro Wave

This is Vol. 3 of the Occult Reading list, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week.

Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.

Disclaimer: There’s no conspiracy between me and New Retro Wave–I just listen to their songs all the goddamn time. But if they want to talk sponsorship deals, I’m down to sell out and get some of that sweet 80’s merch.

Trevor Something, give me a call. We’ll work something out.

“It’s like people only do things because they get paid. And that’s just really sad.”


occult triangle lab three body problem fantasy sci-fiTHE Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

This is the Hugo Award-winning sci-fi book by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. It’s garnered some unreal praise, and I finally got around to reading it. So far, I’m 200 pages in and I’m not a fan. Putting aside the difficulties of translation, the plot and pacing are where the book comes up seriously short. So far, the plot has been a very choppy clockwork affair, with the main character essentially shuttling himself from place to place, listening to exposition, then periodically popping in to the VR world of Three Body. Every exposition scene happens almost back-to-back, with Wang Miao acting as a plot-automaton who decides, “hey, let’s give this person a call,” followed immediately by “let’s visit this person,” and then “they told me to visit this person, so let’s go here and speak to this person.” Rather than Jack Bauer in 24, who is propelled from place to place by desperation, gunfire, and a constant stream of new discoveries, the countdown Wang faces doesn’t drive the action, and the only thing Wang needs to do is go to places so people can talk at him. There’s no tension or challenge to ferreting out the information he needs, and the plot comes off as a series of mechanical scenes strung together without much attempt at subtlety or tension. The scene in which Wang discovers the murder of Shen Yufei and listens to the revelations of her husband are the worst perpetrators of this.

On top of the lackluster plotting, the video game world of Three Body ends up being a bizarre, pseudo-metaphorical dream sequence. Unlike Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse in Snow Crash or William Gibson’s Grid in Neuromancer, the rules and logic of the virtual world are opaque and confusing. Characters can randomly speed up the passage of time as it suits them, the logic and mechanics behind player dehydration are completely unexplained (do they go into spectator mode? Log out?), and it’s not even clear if the entities Wang is encountering are NPCs or players. The most baffling question is about advancement: the game revolves around trying to predict the movements of the sun, but a succession of players (if they’re indeed human players) seem to put forth antiquated versions of the solar system. No human player but the protagonist seems to contribute to the game or its advancement but the protagonist, who always arrives at exactly the right time to see the key developments.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but already I’m feeling like The Three Body Problem is going to be a monumental disappointment.

occult triangle lab tor fantasy magic language7 Different Ways Fantasy Has Used Language as Magic

This is a nice survey of how different fantasy series have used language as the basis for magic systems (a topic I’ve written about in relation to both binary and poetry). It deals with the big-name franchises, including LoTR and Harry Potter, but also The Spellwright Trilogy and video games like Skyrim and Treasure of the Rudras.

I still remember opening up a book in Morrowind after clearing out a den of necromancers and reading about the Nords shouting down their enemies’ walls with the magic of their voices, and how the most powerful had to be gagged to keep their voices from destroying everything around them. At the time, I thought “They could never turn that into a real magic system. It’s cool flavor, though.”

So it was an awe-inspiring bash to the head to find out that that little, innocuous passage from the early 2000s was kept in mind across the development of Oblivion and brought to glorious fruition in a fully realized magical language and system in Skyrim. Next, I want to see the snake people from that one hidden continent!

occult triangle lab V.E. Schwab darker shade of magicNo Mother Tongue: Language in the world of Magic

This is a cool little post from V.E. Schwab, author of A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, both of which I own (thanks, publishing friends!). Schwab touches on the difficulty of composing languages for a fantasy world, as well as the promise: she explains how the poetry and sound of language can reveal something about the nature of the world and its speakers, and how it can immerse a reader in the world of the story by forcing them “to learn as they go, just as travelers would, when passing through a foreign land.”

Schwab also touches on the dangers of fantasy languages: “Used poorly, fictional languages can feel like a wall, preventing all but the well-versed from feeling included in a world.” I’ve seen this pretty often, and it comes from the tricky management of a learning curve within the narrative, by which a reader learns about the world, the culture, and the events of the book. Introducing too much foreign information leads to alienation and frustration, like a mother spelling out words so she can speak over the head of a toddler. “Don’t you know what a ba’aleth is, reader? No? It’s very important.”

Fuck that noise.

Thoughts on Nomenclature in Fictional Worlds

This is just a couple thoughts from Eric Honour, who has a page on Medium. It’s mostly some criticism on the simplicity and lack of verisimilitude that characterizes language and naming in fantasy. One thing he touches on is how monolithic language and names become when the creator just sits down and pushes two words together like a caveman, like “Iron Walker” or (my personal pet peeve term from Dune) “lasgun”. But one particular insight from Eric struck me:

“This is something that turns me off about a lot of fantasy. It’s also something that I can see is difficult to navigate — having multiple names for things is more realistic, but also can feel like it’s overwhelming the reader. Real-life historical names are full of metonymy and misapplication and the shifting sands of living language, and that’s a level of complexity that might not even be advantageous to a fictional world. But not even making the attempt feels sort of lazy.”

Something that the articles from Tor and V.E. Schwab also touch on is that language shifts and changes to reflect its culture and its world. To create a language, or even naming conventions for armies, you have to think about how words and people use and abuse terminology. A great example is military slang and acronyms like FUBAR, SNAFU, BDU, and MOPP, or the backronyms of gang culture. There’s something more than the denotative meaning of words, a kind of vitality to them, and that’s what a lot of fantasy writers gloss over.

“Just Like You (Hazy Mountains Remix)” by Chromatics

One of my top three favorites from the world of New Retro Wave, Just Like You is one of those haunting love songs that evokes the kind of otherworldly, illusory lover that ELO sang about in Yours Truly, 2095, or even the twisted virtual love in Bad Religion’s I Love My ComputerIt’s a song wrapped up in nostalgia and ethereal, lovesick illusions, and the reverb clings to your mind like cobwebs. Most disturbing (or enticing) of all is the idea of a doppleganger, a lover who “looks just like you/he even says the same things/he even wears the same clothes,” who ultimately “loves like you used to.”

“The Glory” by Reapers

The Glory is another of my top three favorites from the good folks over at New Retro Wave (THERE IS NO SPONSORSHIP DEAL), and one of my favorite songs, period. The contrast between the low, dirge-like like chanting and the full-throated, almost plaintive rock-and-roll yelling of the chorus gives the whole song a sense of loss and bitterness. The lyrics, which seem to be an ode to death, end up making it the perfect song for people interested in the dark side of the 80’s.

Like me.



Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and a Pathfinder Puzzle

A group of New York friends have asked me to DM a short Pathfinder session for them, which means the last couple days have been spent rummaging through my notes from the last campaign I ran, which was about four years ago, back in Washington State, with about 7 people. It ended up being a fantastic experience, despite the fact that, over the course of that 8-month campaign, every character tried to kill themselves at least once out of a combination of despair and existential angst.

But this group doesn’t know that.

The Pathfinder session is going to take place in the fantasy world I’ve established in my stories, which means house-ruling a lot of the magic. It also means I end up spending hours on designing extremely complex puzzles for my players.

This particular puzzle stopped being a puzzle at about the 3-hour mark and became an Occult Triangle Lab project. It’s got everything: triangles, some research into magnetism, mathematics, and a practical application in a fantasy setting.

occult triangle lab

These are my notes for a spell map that will allow one of the mages to enchant a piece of magnetite so that it becomes a strong, permanent magnet. This is meant to be a major plot point in the upcoming session, so I wanted to take some extra time to create something more engaging, rather than just have the players roll a dice and beat a hard DC.

The rabbit hole I fell down was creating a spell map for the enchantment (If you haven’t read my post on spell maps, you can check it out here). After reading up on magnetite, which is the source of naturally occurring magnets called lodestones, I found that it naturally forms octahedrons. Rather than having players working on a 3-D puzzle, I drew out a 2-D version of an octahedron on graph paper and started seeing if I could make a sort of Sudoku puzzle:


The idea was that the spell map would be a miniature octahedron, reflecting the crystalline structure of magnetite, but the sudoku idea didn’t work out so well. Still, the diamond pattern ended up forming some interesting patterns: the octahedrons in magnetite are actually formed by thousands of smaller octahedrons, so it was cool to graph out a spell map that was made up of small versions of itself (huzzah, it’s recursive!).

But I wanted the players to feel like they’re actually learning about magic rather than just doing a stock puzzle, so I started seeing if I I could weave information about magnetite into the puzzle, such as its melting point, durability, metallic qualities, etc.


But that didn’t lend itself to puzzle solving. I took a look at the cool, nested design of the 2-D octahedron and thought maybe it would be fun for the player to use the patterns found in magnetism itself to solve the puzzle. I tried superimposing the lines of magnetic pull on the octahedron pattern:

occult triangle lab magnetism








I found out I could superimpose the patterns in a simple bar magnet on a lattice of octahedrons to create a pretty cool design that might have the material needed for a puzzle: structure, patterns, and a goal. That led to this design:


The idea would be to build a sort of “connect-the-dots” puzzle built on the patterns in both magnetism and the structure of magnetite, with the player following rules to recreate the design formed by the magnetic paths (which are like big loops radiating out from the North and South poles).

Below are some of the important graph points I isolated (along with the qualities of magnetite). At the center are the two poles, with the outer dots forming the boundaries of the magnetic patterns. These are meant to form the guidelines of the puzzle, which will require the player to do some tracing to recreate the drawing in the previous picture.



Eventually, I created a blank grid of numbers, which the player will use to reconstruct the whole design by following a set of instructions (sort of like a human computer program).









Compare the grids and sketches above to the sketches in the last post about spell maps:

occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells

What I found was that this layout, made up of numbers arranged on a grid, ended up looking a lot like Pascal’s Triangle, which in turn forms the basis of the Sierpinski Gasket, one of my favorite fractals:

fractal triangle occult triangle lab


I don’t know if the puzzle will end up being a functional part of the upcoming session, but I thought I’d share it here on the blog. It’s a cool intersection of geology, mathematics, and fantasy, and it ended up being good practice for figuring out how a mage would go about enchanting a rock to become a compass.


Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and a Pathfinder Puzzle

Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and Magic Systems

Despite this being the Occult Triangle Lab, I haven’t spoken much about occult trigonometry. I’ve talked about using binary code as the basis for magic systems, as well as magic as poetry, but not much to do with triangles. Except for that origami pyramid wrapped up with Zen.

The origami pyramid Nirodha.

Magic in fantasy, as I’ve said before, shouldn’t be a science. It shouldn’t be a palette-swapped form of electricity or physics, where mages carry out “experiments” like Isaac Newton (though he himself was apparently a big fan of alchemy). The reason is that magic, when approached like a science, brings up same reductionism that haunts modern people: if we’re all just chemical reactions in our brains, is there space for truth, or meaning, or wonder? Because those are the very things fantasy can explore like no other genre.

I think magic in fantasy should have rules. The way I conceive it, it should undergird the workings of nature and the world, similar to how Ursula LeGuin’s used taxonomy as magic. But when I imagine magic, there’s something transcendental about it that goes beyond science and materialism. How do you begin designing a system like that? It’s like making up a fictional branch of aeronautics. But that’s what’s so amazing about worldbuilding: you get to make the rules.

What follows is the basic building blocks for a magic system that I conceived back in 2014, combining the art of Buddhist mandalas, computer coding, and musical theory with metaphysics, astronomy, and trigonometry. This is, in the realest sense, a product of an occult triangle lab. One note, however: this is all hypothetical. I don’t have a degree in linguistics like Tolkien, or in graphology. To actually create the symbolic language I describe and to embed these kinds of patterns in it would be something akin to making a crossword puzzle out of an entire language. It would take years of careful construction. So maybe a long-term project for me.

But in the meantime…


A couple years ago, I started to sketch out the beginnings of a written magic system for my fantasy world. I imagined putting together a bunch of symbols in a sequence that expresses what you want to happen, like you’d do with a line of computer code. But there is something inherently beautiful about how these symbols would fit together: if you deconstruct the interactions between the symbols, you would find that all the symbols could be grouped into discrete units, with the groups’ unity based around shared markings in their graphic composition (similar strokes and dots in the symbols) or the part of the spell they affect (such as binding or flight). These rows of symbols would form rectangular paragraphs, and these rectangles could be oriented to one another like building blocks to form geometric shapes, with each paragraph forming a side of the shape.

occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells

These shapes would be arranged into a “spell map,” a geometric representation of how the different parts of the spell work together. It would form a radial or symmetrical design based around a central polygonal figure, such as a square or hexagon. Arms extending from the central polygonal shape would represent the different aspects of the spell, and the smaller components of the arms would be based around their own geometric patterns, making a chain of hexagons, squares, triangles, and so on. So the patterns contained within the individual lines of magical code would eventually form spirals of meta-patterns.

A functioning, well-written spell would have perfect symmetry when all the symbols are arranged in this manner, so a mage writing a new spell could actually lay out their writing in a half-made spell map and figure out what to write next based on their knowledge of geometry and angles. They can also figure out where their spell is going wrong based on the symmetry of the design.

Spell Maps, Triangles, and Designa

The thing is, every polygon is made up of triangles. When you have a regular polygon, like a pentagon, you can subtract 2 from its number of sides and multiply that by 180 to get the sum of its internal angles. Why 180? Because that’s the sum of the angles in a triangle! If you’re trying to create huge, perfectly geometrical spiral designs, the key lies in the shapes that will work well with the central polygonal shape; linking together a hexagon and a pentagon will make for some crowded, chaotic spiral arms. Shapes made from the same sort of triangles that make up the central polygonal figure, on the other hand, might work to create perfect mandala-like designs.

Working with triangles as the basic building block of all shapes, you can figure out the angle measures of the “ideal” triangle for your central polygon (say, a hexagon, which is made up of equilateral triangles with angle measures of 60 degrees) and create a grid made entirely of those triangles. Using this grid, you can be assured that all shapes made from those triangles will have angles measures and lengths that will synch well together. If you’re a mage, it also means that you have all routes for the development of a new spell map.

occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells
But in practice, single-triangle grids may not contain all the triangles necessary to create perfect designs, especially if you want a mix of different shapes. You’ll need permutations of the right triangle, the equilateral triangle, and 30-60-90 triangle, with angles and lengths adjusted to fit the angle measures of your central polygonal figure to have all possible options. This means, to see all possible shapes, you should be working with three triangles grids superimposed on top of one another, calibrated to the right angle measures.

So that’s where things get complicated.

A book I picked up from The Strand is a great guide to this kind of geometrical drafting–it’s called Designa by Wooden Books, and it walks you through the history, drafting techniques, and mathematics behind different designs from all over the world, including Muslim religious patterns and Celtic knots. Woven into these patterns are symbolic meanings and symmetries, reflecting beliefs about the universe, nature, and God.

So there you have the first stage: the idea of a spell map, a meta-pattern that gives a geometric structure to a normally linear, code-like spell made of symbols. Like a computer system, it can be revised and troubleshot based on the patterns embedded in its operations. When it’s evoked, it casts the spell coded into it.


After looking at the triangular grids I’d made, I used the horizontal lines made naturally when you mirror two rows of triangles vertically to measure the size of a map, which would express its “magnitude”: the larger and more complex the spell, the more space on the grid it will require, and the greater its “magnitude,” since larger spells means using more lines of symbols. And that led to a new idea.

As I looked at the designs I’d made, I wondered what it would look like if I tried to reduce all of the symbols and patterns to binary, so that a spell could be fed through a punch card-computer, like UNIVAC. I also realized that the “magnitude lines” I’d drawn also imposed something like a musical staff on the whole design. It reminded me of Deadmau5 playing the Castlevania theme on a bunch of modular synthesizers, and the Black Midi series, especially this one, where the designs made by the notes end up looking like large spell map. I imagined playing cross-sections of a spell map like Black Midi, with every symbol being a note.occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells

Music is made of patterns and mathematics, and the same kinds of waves that describe sound can apply to light, energy, and matter (I dove into sound waves and quantum mechanics in this post). In my sketches, I started to see how a given spell could be expressed as a song as well as a mandala-like graphical representation. And if you look back to wizards like Vainamoinen, spell-songs are exactly what mages used to change the world around them. It’s a really cool piece of synchronicity, and it’s one of the fascinating coincidences that pops up when you delve into this kind of worldbuilding.

Metaphysics, Spell Maps, and the Universe

But when I looked closer at my sketches, another pattern started to appear. I started to see how a spell map could also be a reflection of the symmetry of the universe, in the same way that Buddhist and Hindu mandalas supposedly reflect the order of all creation. In fact, the structure of a spell map looks like a universe of sorts: it’s a miniature galaxy, with spiral arms containing dozens of individual ‘solar systems’ (symbol-rows grouped around the center of a shape) containing sometimes hundreds of individual ‘worlds’ (symbols) and comprising thousands of ‘people’ (individual strokes that make up the symbols).

In my conception of this magic system, this is where magic crosses over from being a computer program and reveals its ties directly to metaphysics. Like a fractal, the pattern of the whole universe is expressed in miniature in the spell map, because magic is essentially a way to change the universe. And in this system, the way to change reality is to build a microcosm of the universe and rewrite it by hand. In this way, a spell map could also act as a kind of divination or scrying tool, like the I-Ching (a book that fascinated Phillip K. Dick to no end), reflecting the conditions of the world rather than changing it.

mandala occult triangle lab spell maps


Great worldbuilding should work like an iceberg: 10% on the surface, 90% below the waterline. I think this is one of the reasons the worldbuilding in Dark Souls rakes in such unreal praise. There’s a sense that beneath the immediate information you’re given, there’s whole volumes of knowledge and secrets to learn and immerse yourself in. It’s the opposite reason people can’t get through Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. But whether you’re revealing all of it or letting the reader unravel how everything fits together, I think the best way to accomplish that feeling of a vast, immersive world is to actually build it behind the scenes. I spoke about this before, but the small details are crucial to making fantasy work, and this is especially true when it comes to magic.

So if you’re a fantasy writer building a world from the ground up, explore everything. Everything feeds into everything else, the world is a frightening and wonderful place, and when you dig deep enough, triangles lie at the heart of everything.

occult triangle lab mandala

Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and Magic Systems

Worldbuilding and the Marks of a Bona Fide Wizard

I think anyone who wants to write mythopoeic fantasy should pick up The Encyclopedia of Russian Criminal Tattoos.

The Encyclopedia is a collection of tattoos from a very specific time and place. Most of the tattoos and their owners were prisoners in the GULAG, the nation-spanning prison system of the Soviet Union, where everyone from political prisoners to murderers and “hooligans” were forced to work under horrifying conditions. The tattoos, as the book explains, act as a resume for a criminal, and each tattoo can have several layers of hidden meaning based on where it is on the body, what words and symbols appear on it, etc. It’s fascinating how the cruelty, despair, corruption, and sheer violence of the whole Soviet police state is summed up so elegantly in one medium, the prison tattoo.


As you read through the encyclopedia, the book asks you to think about the language of symbols. It asks you to imagine a world in multiple dimensions. You have to take on the mindset of an artist, an anthropologist, and (especially with the tattoos) an occultist. This is the mindset of esotericism, where everything has hidden meanings, and it’s the mindset that should inform worldbuilding.

The symbols and levels of initiation in the Russian criminal underworld, as well as the “made men” of the Mafia, ended up inspiring the way I thought about mages and hedge wizards–if a true wizard is a master of his or her craft, how do they distinguish themselves from one-trick mages and beginners? If there’s no central authority that dubs people bona-fide wizards, like Roke in Wizard of Earthsea, what keeps amateurs from claiming to be masters?

Wizards and the Bona Fide Hallmarks

“When I was growing up, there were seven hallmarks to a wizard: a name, a song, a card, a craft, a hand, a tongue, and tired feet. For Muzin, there were tattoos added in.” — Samal of Muzin

Masters of any craft can always recognize one another. It’s expressed in the smallest things they do: how a wu-shu master walks, how a carpenter makes his measurements, or how a guitarist bends a string up only a half-step.

When you become a monk of the Shaolin temple, you are told to master three types of techniques: physical or “basic” skills (like stances, stamina, and balance), combat skills (like barehanded and weapon fighting), and the 72 arts of Shaolin qi-gong. Similarly, when you become a Buddhist monk you are given several different tiers of techniques to master, each one more difficult than the last. When I imagine wizards, I think in these terms. I ask “What kinds of things does a mage have to master to become a bona-fide wizard?”

I decided that wizards, true wizards, would have something like a secret handshake that would allow them to identify who was bona-fide and who was a neophyte. I came up with certain hallmarks that would serve as guidelines. These would not be meticulously defined tests; whether someone met each of the hallmarks would be left up to the observer, but for those who were bona-fide, there would be no question.

  • A Name: every wizard an epithet or nickname bestowed on them, similar to those given to the warriors in The Illiad. It sums them up and serves as the center of their reputation.
  • A Song: every wizard has a song or a story about their accomplishments. These don’t have to be true, but behind the lie should be something significant. A Song should be a wizard’s legend.
  • A Card: every wizard has a trick, a little demonstration of who they are and what they’re capable of. Like someone who can tie a knot in a cherry stem, it should be simple and quick. This is their “calling card.”
  • A Craft: every wizard must be a master of at least one school of magic, whether it be weather control, elemental control of water, beast-taming, summoning, or something else. Mastery is relative; if no challenger can beat a wizard in a contest, they are considered a master.
  • A Hand: every wizard must have a part of their body replaced with something other than flesh. This alteration often gives them heightened abilities, such as a second heart granting the ability to survive impalement.
  • A Tongue: every wizard must be fluent in at least one other language, though the best can speak multiple languages. This is meant to demonstrate one’s worldliness and commitment to understanding different sides of the world.
  • and Tired Feet: every wizard must have traveled to the ten extant continents and stayed at least a year in each. This is, again, meant to demonstrate one’s worldliness, as well as one’s ability to travel and survive many different parts of the world.

Any mage can begin trying to attain these hallmarks, but only once they gain all seven can they try to claim the title of bona-fide wizard. Every self-respecting mage, however, would have at least Card, a little demonstration of who they are so that other mages could recognize what kind of mage they are.

But as the wizard Samal says in his short scene with his apprentice in The Crownless King, the original and enduring hallmark of a bona-fide wizard is much more pragmatic:

Samal made eight points on his chest with his fingers, each one touching a different star. “The eight points of the world, the eight ports…the seven hallmarks and the tattoos show you’re bona-fide.” Samal shook his head slowly. “Real bona-fide wizards don’t die.”

Samal reveals that the most important hallmark is the one that is unspoken: survival. If a wizard is dead, they can no longer influence the world. They no longer matter. This belief is a product of its world, and it guides the ethos of its masters, the wizards. The Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo offers the ultimate counterpoint, however: for Tsunetomo, the ultimate hallmark of a bona-fide samurai is loyalty for their master, demonstrated through their death in his service. Tsunetomo claims that the masters of swordsmanship and martial prowess, the samurai, are not masters because they are able to survive any opponent, but because they have already resigned themselves to death.

Worldbuilding and the Marks of a Bona Fide Wizard