Training the Gift of Magic

Merlin: Oh, you do know something of the Art. Do you have the Sight?

In some settings with functional magic (or magic-like powers), the ability to work it properly is an innate talent which not everyone possesses — and if you haven't got it, you'll never be a high-power spell-caster. But you also need training to use this gift to full effect.

This is not the same as magic as an innate super-power, used instinctively; magic-working still requires study, and high levels of skill give a large advantage over under-trained casters. But you still want the "gift" to start with. Where magic works and is a matter of education but this trope isn't in play, anyone with enough smarts, determination, and training may be able to work magic as well as anybody else.

In other words, this trope has two parts; the ability to use magic as an inborn gift, and the need for training to use it fully effectively. Both must be present for the trope to fit, and the combination has various social and narrative consequences.

In some cases, it is completely impossible to work magic without the gift, although it may be possible to operate some enchanted items. Perhaps more often, though, someone who lacks the gift can only work magic by the use of lengthy, complex, and unreliable Rituals, whereas the gifted can learn to cast spells quickly and reliably, making them, for example, useful in combat.

Likewise, in some cases, even someone with the gift can only work magic after learning the requisite skill or otherwise having it "unlocked" in some way. In others, the gifted can produce magical effects, perhaps when under stress or through intense concentration, but can't control them properly. The latter situation usually makes gifted but untrained individuals highly dangerous to themselves and others; magic-workers may consider locating and training the gifted to be an important social duty. If too many untrained gifted individuals have done too much accidental damage, they — and sometimes other magic workers — may be the target for semi-justified Witch Hunts. More trivially, the ungifted may be at once jealous of the gifted, and puzzled about why they spend so much time in laboratories and classrooms, not understanding the importance of training.

The gift itself may be defined as the ability to perceive magical forces (so un-gifted spell-casters are in effect working blind), the ability to channel magical energies from the environment into spells (so un-gifted workers probably need a different source of energy), or the personal favor of some gods or spirits whose help is needed to make magic work. Or it may just be left vague.

Related to the "Inherent Gift" described in Functional Magic, but that also encompasses magic as a "superpower" that requires no training. Wizarding School may be one source of training, and perhaps the only one. See also Our Mages Are Different, which describes various ways of training or channeling magic, any of which may be required to enable someone with the gift to work effectively or safely, and Witch Species, which covers situations where magical power (usually specifically "witchcraft") is a hereditary gift, to the point of defining a separate human species, but these "witches" may or may not need some degree of training. Compare The Spark of Genius, for settings in which super-advanced science and engineering are a form of de facto magic for which certain individuals have an inherent talent.


Examples

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    Anime/Manga/Light Novels 
  • Magic involves both some kind of gift and training in The Familiar of Zero, though the details are vague. The protagonist, Louise, is notoriously bad at casting magic, so much so that she's been nicknamed "Zero" by her classmates (and the fact that she is able to summon a familiar is seen as a miracle), but it's unclear if ranks on the Fantastic Measurement System are in-born or achieved through training.note 
  • In the Lyrical Nanoha franchise, only those who have a Linker Core, a magic organ that not everyone is born with, can have magic, and even then, mages are born with different levels of magic potential. However, to reach the higher mage ranks, you still need to train a lot to use your magical reserves effectively and master the formulas needed to perform the spells at a drop of a hat. Nanoha, the main character and a mage so powerful that Artificial Super Soldiers question if she's actually human, reached her level because she was born with a high magic potential and constantly studied and trained herself every moment of her life.
  • "Ninjutsu" in Naruto is available only to those who have the inherent gift of manipulating chakra, and unavailable to those without the gift like Rock Lee. Some ninja have more chakra to manipulate than others and with intensive training, they can learn to use their chakra more efficiently. Sakura is noted to be Weak, but Skilled, with a smaller chakra pool that she uses more efficiently than the Unskilled, but Strong title character, at least until he trains with Jiraiya and takes several levels in badass.
  • One Piece: Potentially all living beings can use Haki, a supernatural power based on ambition, although training is also necessary (and many people perhaps think that Haki is a rare gift). However, very few can use a rare type of Haki called "King's Disposition", which lets you subdue weak-willed people through force of will. It is described as a gift ("no amount of training will give you that Haki if you just don't happen to have it"), and only a handful of people(at least, overall) have it. And like the other Haki types, it has to be trained.
  • In Slayers, the magical gift comes in two measurable parts: "bucket capacity" (how many "spell points" you can use with one spell) and "pool capacity" (how many "spell points" you can have in total). High levels of either attribute are an in-born gift, but if you have those, you also need to study and learn magical lore. Gourry Gabriev, for example, has magical gifts but lacks the intelligence and memory to learn magical skill. Furthermore, only pool capacity can be increased through training and practice; bucket capacity is something determined at birth, so the only ways to increase it are by magical "cheating" (e.g. wearing extremely rare and specialized power boosting talismans, or undergoing the chimera process with magical creatures like Brau Demons).

    Comic Books 
  • While the metaphysics of the DC Comics universe is often confused, it seems that some characters (such as Zatanna) are "Homo Magi", members of a subspecies of humanity with the ability to work magic quickly and easily, while others (such as John Constantine) have to work through rituals and hard study.
  • Mutants in the Marvel Universe are sometimes described in similar terms, although their powers are explicitly not magical; these powers usually kick in at adolescence, and it's sometimes said that mutants need training to prevent them harming themselves and others. However, in practice, many mutants seem to get their powers to work pretty well without much or any training, with at worst twinges of megalomania or outbursts of Power Incontinence.

    Film 
  • In Excalibur, when Merlin assesses Morgana as a possible magic-worker, he tests her knowledge of "the Art" — training in magic-related lore — and then attempts to determine if she has "the Sight" — innate magical sensitivity.
  • In the Star Wars franchise, not everyone is "strong in the Force"; a Badass Normal like Han Solo could meditate on hokey ancient religions all he liked, but it would be no match for a good blaster at his side. Without training, most Force-sensitives can use their powers only unconsciously, rendering them lucky in ways subtle enough to only be identified through (for example) statistical analysis of gambling patterns, or enhance their reflexes in ways that render them not much different from a Badass Normal. With training, they can do all the flashy quasi-magical Jedi tricks we see in the films, novels, video games, etc.

    Literature 
  • Mages in Circle of Magic have a law whereby, if a mage discovers anybody with untrained magic (usually children, but the occasional adult does pop up), the mage is required to become their teacher, or find someone better for the job — the reason being that magic can be quite dangerous to people if they don't learn to control it.
  • In the Darkover series, there is a saying that "An untrained telepath is a danger to themselves and everyone around them". Thus at least basic training is considered a must for anyone who manifests actual Psychic Powers. A properly-trained psychic, aided by a matrix crystal, can perform feats of what are Magic by Any Other Name.
  • This trope is at least implied in several places in the Discworld series:
    • In the earliest books, wizards (and presumably witches) are said to be able to see "octarine", the eighth color of the spectrum, the "color of magic", because of special octagonal structures in their eyes as well as rods and cones. This isn't mentioned much in later books, but it still seems in those that magic is some sort of innate gift.
    • It also seems that people with strong magical gifts, such as Eskarina Smith, can be dangerous to everyone around them if not properly trained. Even partly-trained but powerful casters can be dangerous to themselves; for example, "borrowing" an animal's mind can lead to a witch becoming lost in the animal's senses. Unseen University has a gymnasium lined with magic-proof materials where students are required to practice.
    • The one attempt we see by untrained characters to work significant magic, in Guards! Guards!, involves lengthy rituals and external sources of power. It sort of works, very spectacularly, but does not end at all well.
  • In The Dresden Files, you need to have magical potential to work spells, but how hard you train ultimately affects what you can use your magic for. Harry starts out as Strong, but Unskilled and over the course of the books learns a lot about using far more precision and focus (especially after he takes Molly as his apprentice). This is made most apparent in Skin Game, when he encounters another mage who he says has similar strength of magic as he does, but because she's only ever practiced fire magic and neglected other forms of magic, she's ultimately a weaker mage.
  • Human magic may work this way in the Earthsea series; Ged is first taken as a trainee by a witch when he shows a remarkable ability to cast simple spells after hearing them once, then recruited for (extensive) training at a Wizarding School after showing greater but still limited power. It's possible that anyone could achieve something if they knew the right true names, but most people would probably be dangerously clumsy at best.
  • Magic in the Elemental Masters series appears to follow this pattern. Marina specifically points out in The Gates of Sleep that while she may have the potential to be an Elemental Master, she doesn't have the training to claim that title.
  • In the Harry Potter series, you're either a witch/wizard or a "muggle". Witches and wizards can only perform minor and largely uncontrolled magic without training and the assistance of a wand, but a muggle can study all they like, they'll never be able to do it. "Muggleborn" wizards exist, so the gift isn't always inherited direct from your parents, but Word of God is that they must all have wizard ancestors, meaning that the gift is on something akin to a recessive gene.
  • In The Mortal Instruments and its prequel series The Infernal Devices, Warlocks and Shadowhunters are an example of this. Warlocks are the Half-Human Hybrid offspring of demons and possess an innate ability to wield magic. But they can only do so in the most crude ways without training in magical languages, writing and spells. Likewise, the Shadowhunters have angelic blood that gives them the potential to scribe magical runes from the language of Heaven. However, this is akin to learning calligraphy, as the runes are often very complex. They also have to be drawn with focused intent using an implement called a stele (analogous to a wand) in order to work. Most Shadowhunters only know a fraction of the runes originally given to them by the Angel Raziel
  • In Sergey Lukyanenko's Night Watch, the Others are born with the potential to do magic (except for humans turned by vampires and werewolves). However, in order to become a full-fledged Other, one must first be discovered by an Other (usually by Aura Vision) and then initiated. At the moment of initiation, the new Other's alignment (Light or Dark) is determined by their current emotional state. Using magic requires spells, which an untrained Other would not know. Both the Night and the Day Watches have school facilities in their headquarters, where the newly-initiated Others are educated in the history of the Others, rudimentary magic skills, and the need to maintain The Masquerade. Those who subsequently join their Watch can be trained further in magic, although true mastery requires centuries. (It helps that the Others are, effectively, The Ageless.)
  • In the Nightrunner series, most of the Aurėnfaie and many humans with 'faie ancestors exhibit some Inherent Gift. It is usually very minor unless they work to develop proficiency with it. The Third Orėska of Skala actively seeks children with magical potential and recruits them as apprentice wizards.
  • In Tanya Huff's Smoke series, protagonist Tony Foster demonstrates the potential to wield magic in the first book, but does not become truly proficient at it until repeated supernatural problems compel him to seriously apply himself to study and practice.
  • In The Wheel of Time, approximately one percent of people have the ability to touch the True Source and draw on the One Power, but they'll never do it unless they learn the proper form of meditation; then they have to learn the precise ways of arranging the Power into weaves to create a specific desired effect. This attribute is partly genetic, partly spiritual, which basically means it crops up more often among families, but the main characters are more capable than most Because Destiny Says So. Of those who can channel, about one percent have what is called the "spark", and will eventually channel whether they try or not. If they aren't guided the first few times, they have a three in four chance of dying.

    Live-Action Television 
  • After her Superpowered Evil Side's Roaring Rampage of Revenge at the end of Season 6, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Willow Rosenberg undergoes magical training in England. This is a slightly odd example, in that she had already reached a pretty advanced stage of development as a witch, but it's implied that she relied too much on raw power with less-than-perfect discipline, and Season 6 certainly saw the development of a very unhealthy approach to her power. Her post-England attitude to magic is noticeably more Zen, or at least more focused and less wild, than it had ever been up to this point. Characters in the series such as Giles who possess sufficient education but no apparent gift can work magic, but must perform complex rituals and are a lot more tentative about it.
  • In Charmed, witches are born with their abilities, and plenty of people are shown as being unable to use magic. And while you're born with your specific gift (other than the ability to cast spells and scry, each of the witches has their own skill — telekinesis, empathy, etc.), you have to learn to use your abilities and hone your skills. Powers can also be "bound" (repressed) or transferred from one character to another. Characters can also power up over time with abilities changing to more powerful forms.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Ars Magica, full-power magicians have to possess "The Gift", although some other people can work slightly less impressive forms of magic. The Gift must be "unlocked" to be useful, but even before that, characters who possess it tend to be perceived as creepy and dubious by other humans and animals, often causing them to be persecuted by their neighbors.
  • The Sorcerer character class in Dungeons & Dragons. In contrast to wizards, sorcerers have an Inherent Gift for magic. However, like all other character classes, they have to accumulate experience points and gain levels in order to expand their spells known and how powerful the spells they can cast are. On the other hand, how much level advancement represents "training" really depends how one views the nature of the game world. There are also prestige classes that they can pursue in order to gain more specialized abilities.
  • This kind of distinction is represented in the basic GURPS magic system by the "Magery" character advantage (also known as "Magical Aptitude"). In some settings, only characters with Magery can cast spells; in others, in areas of "high mana", anyone can do so, but levels of Magery give a bonus.
  • The powers possessed by "psykers" in Warhammer 40K aren't called "magic", but they might as well be. Psykers are randomly born, but they have a very strong tendency to get possessed by demons if not found and trained by the Imperium, a process that takes years and is extremely detrimental to the psyker's mental health (and since being a psyker involves hearing voices pretty much all the time, they aren't all that great to begin with).

    Video Games 
  • In the Dragon Age series everyone except dwarves is connected to the Fade, a magical realm that exists alongside the normal world. Mages are those who are born with unusually strong connections that allow them to draw power from it by shaping wisps into spells. While potential is at least partially genetic, it is impossible to say who will or will not be a mage at birth as the power usually begins to manifest at the onset of puberty. When discovered, a mage is required to join the Circle of Magi immediately and permanently to receive training in using their powers. Those who fail to receive training as soon as possible risk stunted magical potential, dangerous accidents and Demonic Possession.
  • In the Mass Effect series, those individuals exposed to element zero in the womb and not born with defects become biotics. Asari are the only race, all of whom are biotic, due to the high concentration of eezo on their homeworld. All biotics except asari need to have implants in order to generate and manipulate mass effect fields. However, their control is extremely basic and unfocused until they undergo appropriate training. It takes many years for a biotic to achieve his or her peak.

    Web Comics 
  • In Girl Genius, "the Spark" is a rare, largely hereditary personal attribute that grants access to mad science that frequently verges on the magical. "Sparks" primarily possess a capacity for insane levels of hyperfocus on technical tasks, and can function without training — but obviously, a good technical education helps. They also need to learn to channel their own abilities relatively safely, and some are lynched by the non-Spark general populace when their abilities manifest uncontrollably for the first time.

    Western Animation 
  • This is how "bending" works in the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. One is apparently born as either a "bender" or "non-bender". Without training, Katara's "waterbending" is little more than a parlor trick; you could move more water just by splashing with your hands. With training, she is capable of healing, manipulating, freezing, and thawing large quantities, and even (under the right circumstances) manipulating water in people's blood to make People Puppets out of her enemies. It does appear to be possible for some prodigies (such as Avatar Korra of The Legend of Korra, who is seen bending three of the four elements at a very young age with little or no formal training) to be self-taught, but it is very rare.