Words Do Not Make The Magic
Jade: I know your magic words! [Starts chanting] [Nothing happens]
Jade: Come on already!
Magisters: Yon twain knoweth nothing about our magicks.
: That's what I've been trying to tell you!
Alice sees Bob successfully accomplish a spell or mystical feat
and later attempts to accomplish the same spell or feat by merely copying or repeating their words and/or actions and fails for the titular reason
. Usually occurs when it takes more than the Magical Incantation
and Magical Gesture
. The magic may be in another language
that requires understanding before use. It may be because as a Muggle
, Alice can't
cast magic. Or By the Power of Grayskull!
only works for Bob since only he
has the power of Greyskull. Maybe the sun wasn't at the right height.
Whatever the case even if the character is Awesome by Analysis
, the feat won't work by observation.
The results of when a character uses a spell where more than the Magical Incantation
matters will vary. There may simply be no effect or the spell could backfire
. If a villain tries to use a hero
's spell and fails due to lacking something necessary for success like The Power of Friendship
, expect a Reason You Suck Speech
. Aversion of this trope are rarely examples since then words do
make the magic and it is a case of Magical Incantation
works for anyone.
In Role-Playing Games
the inability of Muggles
to cast spells by repeating the words is standard. To have it otherwise would mess up the game balance.
Compare/Contrast By the Power of Grayskull!
, where the words do heavily matter but usually only certain characters can use the words successfully.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
- In Fist of the North Star, a mook tries the Hokuto Shinken on Kenshiro, of all people, even daring to tell him "You're already dead" and count down the seconds to Kenshiro's death. Of course, the mook was the one who was already dead.
- In Fairy Tail, Laxus attempts to use Marakov's, his grandfather spell, Fairy Law, which targets anyone the user considers an enemy, to eliminate the entire guild. When it fails, despite having enough power and invoking it to activate, one of his friends reminds Laxus that his heart can't lie to his magic and the guild members are still his True Companions.
- Bleach. Kido spells are spoken, but they only have effect if used by spiritual beings such as Soul Reapers.
- In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Harry assumes this is the case:
You couldn't really need to say 'Wingardium Leviosa' in exactly the right way in order to levitate something, because, come on, 'Wingardium Leviosa'? The universe was going to check that you said 'Wingardium Leviosa' in exactly the right way and otherwise it wouldn't make the quill float?
- A simple experiment shows he's Wrong Genre Savvy, and the words in fact do matter, right down to syllable length.
- Discworld series
- 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, but the words are still an important part of the spell. The incantation is as much a part of the spell as pointing and drawing up power, so wizards will use nonsense—but consistent—words rather than real ones, to avoid the risk of accidentally misfiring.
- The words are part of a personal, mental construct that a given mage uses to make the spell, and they seem to need a personal connection to the wizard. In a flashback scene, Harry is trying to start a fire with magic, and is using his teacher's words, and can't manage the actual spell until he makes up his more familiar "Flickum Bicus" incantation.
- And the reason Wizards use dead languages and nonsense words for their spells is that the incantation becomes linked with the spell in their mind, so if they use a word from a language they speak regularly, they could burn their house down whenever they say "fire."
- Harry Potter:
- The Cruciatus Curse Harry tried using on Bellatrix Lestrange did work, but due to his own lack of desire to hurt her, it was really weak in effect. It applies to all Unforgivable curses, as their user has to desire to hurt others for them to work at all, and without pure malice (which is quite different from the righteous fury that Harry tried to channel into his Cruciatus against Bellatrix) their effect will be less than desired.
- 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. note
- 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. A subversion since it was the sounds rather than the knowledge of the actual words that were required opened the door.
- But then again, Ron is still a wizard, even if he wasn't born with that power. That might not work for a muggle.
- In The Bible, is an account of non-believers who attempts to cast out a demon by repeating the words Paul used to successfully excorcise one. The demon, being a bit of a Deadpan Snarker, replies "Jesus I know about, and I know about Paul, but who are you?"
- The Dark is Rising, the second novel in The Dark Is Rising series. Before Will Stanton reads the Book of Gramarye, Merriman tells him that only an Old One can use the spells and Words of Power in the book. Even if a human being could read the Book he couldn't use them.
- A Wizard in Rhyme plays with this. Magic is treated as a neutral force that responds to any kind of symbol as a vehicle for the user's intent. Words aren't strictly necessary, but happen to be the most accessible, convenient, and reliable symbols to use, especially when arranged in verse. Of course, the use of verse is so prevalent that most spellcasters never bother with any other method.
- Shown from a mage's perspective in Roger Zelazny's second part of The Chronicles of Amber and in Changing Land. Words are not the whole spell—they are just the trigger part, and without a properly readied magic they are meaningless.
- In Ra, it's not enough to speak a spell. The mage must think through and understand it as well. #
- In the second Rivers of London book, Lindsey tries to copy one of Peter's spells, and he explains to her that you can't just say the words, you need intense practice and an innate ability. Which she does.
- Dungeons & Dragons: verbal spell components, are sometimes required. A mundane person speaking the words will have no effect at all: you have to have magical power/knowledge for the spell to work.
- Verbal spell components spoken by Muggles have no effect in Mage: The Ascension and Shadowrun.
- 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.
- In Tales of the Abyss, Tear needed to understand the meaning of the fonic hymns before she could use them whether she knew the words or not.
- The Thu'um in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It is possible for ordinary mortals to learn it, though it takes a lifetime of training and effort to master it. Anyone without that training would not be able to make the Shouts do anything. The Dragonborn can take shortcuts because he/she has the soul of a Dragon, and even the Dragonborn has to study the words of power and absorb the souls of other Dragons first.
- This 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."
Knight turned the machine off and on.
The machine worked.
- In Real Life of course, millions of people fix machines just this way, every day. Half the trick to successfully solving a problem by power-cycling is remembering that there is a difference between power-cycling and rapidly hitting the power switch/button; the other half is knowing when you've got a problem you can solve by power-cycling.
- In the Ben 10 "Hero High" series by Mr. Evil, Alexander Sovereign, while studying Gwen's magic, realizes that the words she speaks to use her magic mean nothing. He points out they are only a way to focus the power to what she wants it to do and after training long enough can use the magic to do what she wants without words.
- Mentl in The Challenges of Zona, when he arrives in Erogenia, begins to learn about his own innate magical abilities, which are tied to his abilities as a musician. As a result, he is able to use lyrics to his favorite rock-and-roll songs as powerful spells; he once incinerated an attacker by singing "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis, and a counterpart of his from the future incorporated the lyrics to "Get Back" as a time-travel spell.
- Jackie Chan Adventures:
- 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.
- 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.
- A more explicitly word-based version is "cargo cult programming", when novice programmers copy code snippets without understanding what the snippets mean, thus risking a totally different result from the original.
- It's not uncommon for children to try to do something they've seen on TV. If what they saw was a result of some kind of special effect (or was part of an animated show), then they will inevitably fail. For example, what DBZ fan didn't try to use the Kamehameha when they were a kid?