The best fantasy novels full of real-world magic

D.J. Butler Author Of The Cunning Man
By D.J. Butler

Who am I?

I love fantasy literature, because it's the what-if literature of the human spirit. Magic animates fantasy, and in the real world, magic is difficult to define; it lies somewhere on the border of the unconscious mind, the lore of our grandparents, scientific hypothesis, what the priest tells us, and what we see in social groups other than our own. In recent decades, much fantasy literature has walked away from portrayals of real-world magic, replacing it with synthetic and sterile creations euphemistically called “hard magic.” Hard magic has the form of magic, but lacks the power thereof. These books are all strong inoculations against the scourge of hard magic.

I wrote...

The Cunning Man

By D.J. Butler, Aaron Michael Ritchey,

Book cover of The Cunning Man

What is my book about?

It’s the depths of the Depression, and a mining town in Utah is shut down. Something has awakened underground, and now a monster roams the tunnels. While contentious owners squabble, poor worker families go hungry. Along comes Hiram Woolley. Hiram is a man with mystical abilities derived from the commonsense application of Scots-Irish folk wisdom and German braucher magic. He possesses an arcane Bloodstone that allows him to see a lie the moment it is spoken.

Behind the played-out farms and failed businesses are demons, curses, sorcerers, and unatoned wrongs. Bags of groceries and carpentry won’t be enough this time. The job will take a man who has known sorrow. A man who has known war. A man of wisdom. A man of magic. A cunning man.

The books I picked & why

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The Old Gods Waken

By Manly Wade Wellman,

Book cover of The Old Gods Waken

Why this book?

Wellman roots the adventures of his hero, Korean War vet John “the Balladeer,” in Appalachian folktale and folk customs. His hero battles strange old evils in the mountains with his faith, his traditional American folk magic (he carried a copy of The Long Lost Friend), and the evil-repelling silver of his guitar strings. Silver John was a major influence on our hero in The Cunning Man, Hiram Woolley.

Old Nathan

By David Drake,

Book cover of Old Nathan

Why this book?

Drake’s old Nathan is explicitly identified as a “cunning man” throughout these tales. Inspired by Wellman’s Silver John, Old Nathan is a predecessor, an Appalachian wizard in the late 1700s and early 1800s, using real-world folk magic to ward off curses, heal wounds, and otherwise battle evil. Like Silver John and Hiram Woolley, Old Nathan is a war veteran—a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Nathan’s war wounds left him crippled and pulled aside from ordinary life, turning him into the course of becoming a magician.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

By Susanna Clarke,

Book cover of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Why this book?

My list isn't about Americana, it’s a list about real-world magic. Clarke’s Strange and Norell fall apart over the nature of what is proper English magic as that magic is returning to the world. The specific issue on which they split is fairies, who can be a source of great power, but who are also mysterious and unpredictable. This idea has roots in actual historical English magic, and brings us again to the cunning folk, many of whom were said to work with familiar spirits… but when courts of law investigated these familiar spirits, it was never clear whether they were fairies, angels, the spirits of the dead, or something else entirely.

Hellboy Library Volume 1: Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil

By Mike Mignola, John Byrne,

Book cover of Hellboy Library Volume 1: Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil

Why this book?

If you know Hellboy only from the movies, you’re seeing a very limited image of the character and his adventures. Hellboy has many roots (pulp sci fi and crimefighter stories, superhero tales, Lovecraft’s mythos), but one of his earliest is in real world magic and folktale. We see this in his encounters with Baba Yaga, Hecate, and others, but also in his battle fairy creatures that are vulnerable to unforged iron.

The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien,

Book cover of The Lord of the Rings

Why this book?

Compared to fantasy novels since, Tolkien’s masterpiece seems to have less flashy magic (it’s light on fireballs and teleportation spells, both of which might have made the trip to Mordor considerably easier). That’s because Tolkien’s magic is, with a light touch, rooted in the magical traditions of the real world. When Gandalf confronts the Balrog, he doesn’t cast a forcefield spell, he reminds the Balrog of their respective esoteric identities (“You cannot pass. I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”). And when Aragorn tends to the wounded in Gondor, he does so with a long-forgotten herb and a bit of doggerel.

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