Sentient Magic, Part 2

Fishbone’s First Rule of Storytelling with Gods: If you experience a deus-ex-machina ending, be prepared to suffer in the sequel.

Greg R. Fishbone

Excerpted from

The Mythoversal Newsletter

Mythoversal restores inclusion and diversity to classical texts, rediscovering traditions erased by centuries of gatekeeping.

The Mythoversal Newsletter brings author commentary, mythological movie reviews, and occasional essays to your inbox.

Programming Notes

This week’s Rage, “Something Holy and Immortal,” is the 27th weekly installment of my Iliad retelling and an uninterrupted string of weekly postings in verse.

It’s been a fun and fascinating exercise that’s required going deep into the world and its characters. But this installment is also a good place to pause for a hiatus while I work behind the scenes on an upcoming myth-themed serial for Kindle Vella. More about that in a future newsletter.

I’m excited about the serial format of Vella, which will allow me to return to my serialized storytelling roots in Superguy and Mythic Heroes magazine.

The Run and Amazons stories have been removed from public view pending potential adaptation into serialized fiction. A special comment draft of the work-in-progress is available to any Newsletter subscribers who drop me a request.

Current Rage installments will continue to be available, at least for now, and will continue when the time is right. Thanks as always for your support!

Where We Are

This is the second in a series of newsletter posts looking at Greek mythology as a magic system. These deities, once an integral part of ancient art, philosophy, and religious practice, weren’t originally created to be literary tropes. But over thousands of years of storytelling tradition, they’ve acquired a standardized role in fantasy worldbuilding and story structure.

The first essay introduced the concept of using gods as a magic system.

This essay attempts to apply Sanderson’s First Rule of Magic to the Greek gods.

Sanderson’s First Rule

Author Brandon Sanderson’s First Rule of Magic states…

AN AUTHOR’S ABILITY TO SOLVE CONFLICT WITH MAGIC IS DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL TO HOW WELL THE READER UNDERSTANDS SAID MAGIC.

Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson makes a distinction between “soft” magic systems, “hard” magic systems, and a middle ground of magic systems that exist between those two extremes.

Soft magic systems are opaque and mysterious. Rules governing the use of magic, if they do exist, are so deeply hidden from the reader that they may as well be made up on the spot. If a wizard pulls an unexplained and previously unknown spell from his hat, you’re probably in a soft magic system.

Hard magic systems are rigid and predictable. Results occur as expected, as certainly as in any science, although the readers may not have a proper and complete understanding in advance. If you’re mixing a potion from an exacting recipe that always has the same predictable effect, you’re probably in a hard magic system.

The key to understanding a magic system made of gods is to realize that gods are on the softer side of magic. Deities in mythology may have general tendencies and personality traits, but they also act on whims. Their behavior varies from story to story and from day to day. And when one unpredictable god conflicts with other unpredictable gods, not even Tiresias can predict what will happen next.

Which is perfectly fine, according to Sanderson’s First Law, as long as these gods are being used by an author to provide spice and flavor to a story and not solely to resolve the primary conflict. That use, according to Sanderson’s Law, would leave a reader feeling unsatisfied.

And in fact, when a god does show up in classical texts solely to resolve the plot of a story, we get the dreaded and much-disparaged deus-ex-machina ending.

Homer uses Poseidon, Circe, and Calypso to keep Odysseus and Penelope apart for an extra ten years after the end of the Trojan War, creating drama, conflict, and readers who long for resolution. If instead, Athena had swept away all obstacles between Odysseus and Ithaca, the story wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining.

But the unpredictable gods in a soft magic system would be expected to save the day at least some of the time. Back when I played D&D, we modeled this with a house rule that clerics could ask for divine intervention once per session. The prayer would be successful if the player rolled 100 on percentile dice throws twice in a row—a one-in-ten-thousand chance. I succeeded exactly once, resulting in an angry Dungeon Master who’d sunk his allowance money into a module that had been rendered useless.

That’s when I created Fishbone’s First Rule of Storytelling with Gods:

IF YOU EXPERIENCE A DEUS-EX-MACHINA ENDING, BE PREPARED TO SUFFER IN THE SEQUEL.

Greg R. Fishbone

Because you now owe your life to a temperamental, sometimes moody, unpredictable part of a soft magic system.

In the next newsletter, we’ll consider how mythic gods work with Sanderson’s Second Rule of magic. Let me know what you think in the comments, and thanks for reading.

—Greg R. Fishbone, Mythoversal Author-in-Residence