Pony Thought of the Day: Where Does Magic Come From?

There’s two basic ways magic can work in fantasy: It can be innate, in which case creatures can use magic until they either tire out or exhaust some inner reserve. This is how most video games and anime work, as well as how magic works in Middle-Earth, among other settings.

The alternative is ambient magic, in which the magic-user taps into an energy source outside themselves and channels it toward whatever end. In ambient-magic settings, magic users can keep using their magic until the external source is depleted or the flow of energy becomes too much for them to handle. The energy source might be something that is available everywhere (such as the Force in Star Wars or geothermic energy in Fullmetal Alchemist), or it might be something that has to be drawn from specific magically-charged objects and places (such as in most real-world magical systems).

Note that both systems may have the use of objects as sources of magic; the difference is that in ambient systems an object has magic because it is a magical object, whereas in an innate system the object has magic because someone put magic in it (for example, the One Ring has immense power because Sauron put much of his personal power into it, which is why he wants it so badly and why it’s so important he not get it).

It’s also possible to hybridize the approaches. For example, in the (excellent, by the way) Enchanted Forest Chronicles, most magic-users use innate magic, but wizards have none. They are forced to steal their magic from others, which is what their staffs are for.

So, the question is, what about ponies? Certainly there seems to be a lot of evidence for innate magic, what with unicorn-horn telepathy and cutie marks and all. However, there are also some hints of ambient magic, most notably the Elements of Harmony–certainly the implication I took was that they were not created so much as discovered, and as such represent a source of magical power outside the ponies who wield them. I also suspect that Earth ponies use ambient magic–channeling and cultivating the existing magic of the world rather than creating their own. Certainly that seems to eb the relationship between Granny Smith and zap apples, at any rate.

What do you think? Is the pony world all innate magic, or is some of it ambient? Or can you make an argument for it being all ambient?

0 thoughts on “Pony Thought of the Day: Where Does Magic Come From?

  1. I am very nearly certain that Equestira's magic is at least partially ambient, primarily because of the Everfree Forest. The way I see it, either the Everfree has whatever magic makes our weather work, and the rest of Equestria doesn't; or Equestria has magic that keeps weather from happening on its own, and the Everfree doesn't.

    I think Cutie Marks are also probably some combination of innate and ambient magic, but for the life of me I can't articulate why.

    Of course it's also possible that Equestria's magic is entirely ambient and unicorns' horns are specialized organs that can interact with it in a wide variety of ways; but if that's the case then I have no idea how Cutie Marks would work

  2. Interesting thoughts. (As a random aside, I am attempting to post this with a screenreader, which is… interesting.)

    Anyway, good point about the EVerfree–SOMETHING about it is different, and that difference implies that magic is at least partially ambient.

  3. I think it's pretty easy to justify the case that unicorn magic is innate just by looking at our main characters. First, Twilight is *more powerful* than normal unicorns; she isn't just better at manipulating it to get specific results (although she is that too). When Twilight wants to lift something heavy with Telekinesis she can lift a bigger thing than an average unicorn can, even though they're using the same spell (see: Boast Busters). And second, great expenditures of magic are physically taxing; look at Shining after maintaining a barrier for too long or Twilight after casting the spell to give Rarity wings. Getting tired after a big spell is pretty much the hallmark of innate magic.

    Fanworks that I've seen seem to treat it this way almost to a one, with unicorns getting tired after too many big spells and often with any magic-related flora explicitly interacting with the user's mana reserves (see: Lunaverse's ether flowers, It's Dangerous Business Leaving Your Door).

    That doesn't mean there isn't also ambient magic though. Earth pony magic screams of being ambient from the terminology up. Pegasi could go either way.

  4. That's a really good explanation for the Everfree. The ambient magic isn't there for the Earth Ponies and Pegasi to tap into (hence why plants grow and clouds move on their own), but Unicorns are still able to cast spells, implying that they're the only ones with innate magic.

    Incidentally, one of the tie-in books suggests that the borders of the Everfree Forest might be slowly creeping outwards. If so, that means something inside there is draining the ambient magic out of the area, and possibly means to drain the ambient magic from the entire world. Hmm…

  5. The Elements of Harmony are weird to me. I agree that they certainly seem to have been discovered, rather than created, but that would imply that things like honesty, kindness, generosity, etc., are imminent in the world, outside of the context of a society of sapient individuals to be honest, kind, generous, etc. to each other. Sort of a Plato-in-the-cave situation, but I suppose that's why I've never been so much a fan of Plato's metaphysics.

    I always liked the theory that pony magic is innate, not ambient, and that it is conducted through keratin – Earth ponies' hooves, Pegasus ponies' feathers, and Unicorn ponies' horns. This has the side benefit of explaining the “tactile telekinesis” that lets ponies pick things up with their hooves.

  6. -or it might be something that has to be drawn from specific magically-charged objects and places (such as in most real-world magical systems).-

    …..what? is there actual magic in the world and everybody's been holding out on me, or are you referring to stuff like Stonehenge and the Large Hadron Collider?

  7. I think he meant “systems that purport to take place on 'modern-day earth' despite containing magic.” They usually make magic limited in that way to help the suspension of belief that we don't all know about it already.

  8. I like the keratin idea.

    I think it's already pretty apparent that friendship and love are actual forces in the pony universe, hence chimeras feeding on the latter. It makes sense that the Elements of Harmony would in some way pre-exist their discovery/creation.

  9. I agree that your observation about friendship, love, and the Elements of Harmony fits their depiction in the show and is likely the correct one, but I'd also argue that you could construe them as a framework imposed by sapient ponies onto, for instance, a pre-existing “natural” “background” magical field.

    The magic of friendship, in this view, functions rather like Starcraft's Creep; within the “Harmony field,” ponies control the weather the growth of plants, etc. etc. Outside the “Harmony field,” you get places like the Everfree Forest. In this view, changelings (which is what I assume you meant by “chimeras”) “eat” love because the emotion of love acts as a filter that concentrates and directs a pony's magic/vital essence into someone else, and changelings can redirect this flow into themselves. Of course, we still don't know in what sense changelings “eat” love, and to what extent so doing harms the pony being parasitised. (Was Shining Armor weak because he was drained of love, or because he was exhausted from keeping the barrier up for however long?)

    I'd point out that the first depiction we see of the Elements of Harmony (in the book in Mare in the Moon) show them as colorful gems which could be read as lenses that “color” the “background” magic into the form of an Element of Harmony.

    Of course, the simpler and more likely explanation is that friendship and love and harmony exist as realized concepts in the FiM universe. That would also lend support to Discord's claim to be “the spirit of chaos.” Maybe the “spirit of harmony” is Fausticorn?

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