Words Do Not Make the Magic


(permanent link) added: 2009-07-28 13:37:48 sponsor: rbx5 edited by: AymNaija (last reply: 2010-12-26 00:13:00)

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This trope occurs when a character attempts to accomplish a spell or mystical feat that another character has previously successfully accomplished by merely copying or repeating their words/actions and failing for the titular reason.


Examples

Anime and Manga

Comics
  • In The DCU, Johnny Quick's sidekick Tubby Watts tried reciting Johnny's magical formula of ("3X2(9YZ)4A") [[hottip:*:It is a nonsense formula, do not bother searching for it.]] in order to give himself superspeed like Johnny's. It failed. A later Retcon established that the 'formula' was actually a personal mantra that would only work for Johnny (and eventually his daughter).

Film

Literature
  • Mentioned in Making Money: the golems won't obey orders even spoken in their native tongue, unless the person giving the order is dressed like an Umnian high priest in golden robes, aka Moist's suit.
    • Also, the actual chanting done by the Wizards in the Necromancy department is meaningless, any old chanting will do as long as it sounds the part.
    • Same thing in Wyrd Sisters as the names of instruments of demon summoning are immaterial as long as the general sound and intent is there.
    • In I Shall Wear Midnight; a very powerful but untrained witch casts a spell that other witches think is nonsense, overlapping with Achievements in Ignorance.
  • Present in The Dresden Files. Wizards intentionally use nonsense words for magic, because words with real meaning make it hard to control.
  • The time in Harry Potter when Harry tried to use the Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange would definitely work though; it was really weak because he didn't actually want to hurt her all that much and any Unforgiveable Curse requires a desire to hurt the target.
    • Another Harry Potter example, it is made quite clear that a wand and an incantation do not magic make, you have to be a wizard to use magic. Filch trying to learn magic via Quickspell would be an good example.
    • The fact that wizards have to go to Wizarding School. You can't just say the words and wave the wand, you have to know how to do it.
    • And for yet another Harry Potter example, though it's an aversion, Parseltongue (the ability to speak with snakes) apparently is not magical as such. Ron is able to open the Chamber of Secrets by just making the same sounds that Harry did when he opened it.

Live-Action TV
  • Subverted in a seventh season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Willow begins to struggle through a complicated spell in Latin before saying "SCREW IT, I suck at Latin, OK?" and proceeded to make the spell work in English because she is just that Bad Ass at magic.
  • Charmed only a magical being, such as an actual, magical, witch, can cast spells. If a mortal tries it, the mortal is just speaking a rhyme.
    • A Subversion in the episode Animal Pragmatism, episode 13 season 2, a group of [[Muggles mortals]] (mortal= non magical "normal" human) cast a spell by playing a tape recording of Phoebe chanting a spell, and it worked, because Phoebe did the rhyming.
  • A variation appears in an episode of Xena where several people attempt to cast a magic spell from a scroll, to no effect. Gabrielle deduces that they are using the wrong meter and accidentally casts the spell herself. Hilarity Ensues.

Religion

Tabletop RPG
  • In most games that have verbal spell components, either required or voluntary (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons and Shadowrun, respectively), a mundane person speaking the words will have no effect at all: you have to have magical power/knowledge for the spell to work.
  • Similarly in Mage: The Ascension.

Video Games
  • Myst: Gehn tries to use the D'ni art of writing linking books without really understanding the full effects of the phrases that he uses, resulting in links to unstable worlds.

Web Original
  • Related, if not identical, is this AI koan from the Jargon File:
    A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on.
    Knight, seeing what the student was doing spoke sternly: "You can not fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong."

Western Animation
  • A recent example is the episode of Jackie Chan Adventures where Jade attempts to use a cult's spell against them by repeating the words they use to cast it, and fails because she's not a member.
    • In another episode, Captain Black once read Uncle's books and in trying to perform a spell turned himself into a frog.

Real Life
  • Cargo cults, pacific island tribes whose islands were used as bases by various militaries in WWII. From the islanders' point of view, these military people didn't have to farm their own food - instead they built an airbase and called for food and other supplies to be brought down in cargo planes. After the soldiers left, the islanders tried to call for supplies themselves and built their own airbases; but since they were only copying appearance and didn't understand the underlying technology, the planes never came...
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