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Examples of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane in literature.

  • The Accursed Kings contains almost nothing supernatural - but the title of the series refers to a curse laid on the Kings of France by Jacques de Molay which really does seem to come to pass over the years.
  • In Afternoon of the Elves, do elves really live in Sara-Kate's backyard? Or is it all an elaborate game she's come up with, to impress the neighbor girl and add a little magic to her unhappy daily life? Unusually for a book in this genre, after a twist that seems to imply the latter answer, the question is actually left unanswered to the very end.
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  • In Alien in a Small Town, when Nuada is about to kill Paul and Indira, Paul prays desperately to God to at least save Indira's life. An attack by a predatory alien animal then ends up indirectly saving Paul and Indira's lives. While it's perfectly plausible that it was the noise of their activities that attracted it, the timing of its arrival could easily have been an answered prayer.
  • Along The Winding Road has quite a few things that Arthur interprets as magical that may or may not be. It's implied that most are magical, but never truly confirmed. Even when Arthur tries to prove he summoned the zombies, Charlotte nullifies the results by forcing antidote onto him.
  • Amelia Peabody often dreams of her old friend Abdullah, after he is killed. Only he looks young now, and he was old when they met... He offers promptings, rather than clues, about the mystery of the moment ... mostly. She comes to believe she's really meeting her old friend in the afterlife. Her family are not so sure, though their skepticism is showing signs of erosion by the end of the series.
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  • In Jo Walton's Among Others, the main character is able to see supernatural beings and work magic. However, it is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the beings she sees are magical or the product of a lonely teenager's imagination, at least in the beginning of the book. The magic in this book mostly works in a subtle manner through coincidences that leave plenty of room for doubt as to whether the results were really due to magic after all. For example, the character tries to cast a spell to find some True Companions because she can't find anyone at school she can relate to. The next day she gets just the kind of result she was hoping for when a librarian mentions a local science fiction book club and asks the protagonist if she'd like to join. The protagonist herself wonders whether this was a result of magic or coincidence as the book club had existed for a while before she'd ever heard of it.
  • Most of the time, The Anderssons is a totally realistic series about life between the years of 1899 and 1999. Except for a few weird sequences, when a mysterious stranger suddenly turns up to help the protagonist with something important...
    • In Siden, sammet, trasa, lump, Elin is helped by an elderly bearded man with getting her dead best friend's doll down from an attic, after it had been stolen and hidden there. Later on, she is told that this man "doesn't exist". Elin wonders if God himself appeared to help her, but she will never get an answer...
    • In Arbetets döttrar, Elin has to hurry to get her painting to the Art Academy in Stockholm in time for a contest. But she can only make it thanks to an elderly bearded gate-keeper, who is there to open up the gates for her. Of course, it is later revealed that the Art Academy has no gate-keeper. Was it God again? Who knows?
    • In Drömmar av glas, Rebecka's mean school teacher gets a surprise visit from an inspector. Who happens to be a third elderly bearded man (Rebecka was even close to laughter, when she noticed how much he looked like a picture of God), who seems to not exist when the teacher makes inquiries afterwards...
    • In Nya tider, Rebecka meets (of course) a fourth elderly bearded man in front of a grave at a town cementary. He tells her that the grave belongs to his mean former school teacher, and his story helps Rebecka with not giving up her own dreams of becoming a teacher. But no matter how much she looks for it afterwards, she can never find the grave again. Which makes you wonder (yet again) who the old man was...
    • Probably subverted in Det fjärde rummet, when poor Anna is suddenly saved from becoming a prostitute by a kind man from the Salvation Army. You can argue that God maybe sent this man to Anna at the last moment, so she wouldn't have to find a real "customer". But there's no real implication that he was anything but just a normal man, who was really happy to help a penniless fourteen-year-old girl from destruction...
    • In Skärvor av kristall, Louise gets a visit from a strange woman. She has come to deliver a letter from Louise's dead mother, and she introduces herself as one of Louise's mother's old fellow inmates at the mental hospital. But she also claims that she's God. It is never really explained if she was telling the truth about being God or if she only was insane…
    • In Roller och ridåer, one of Elin's paintings is suddenly sold at a gallery after it has been up for sale for years. This gives Elin and her daughter Judith some much needed money, and it would have been fine and good... Except for that the buyer is yet another mysterious elderly bearded man, who can't be tracked down!
  • The horror novel Ariel (Block) contains a number of ambiguously supernatural elements. Several of the characters come to believe that Ariel's house is haunted, but it is unclear whether this is true or whether the belief is a part of their neuroses and mental breakdowns.
  • The Baby-Sitters Club:
    • An early book, The Ghost at Dawn's House, ends with Nicky Pike being responsible for most of the strange things that Dawn observed—but not all of them. The ending of the book leaves open the possibility that Dawn's house really is haunted.
  • Also, the first book in the Little Sister series, where the only undebunked evidence Karen has at the end is that she saw the lady she thinks is a witch flying on a broom... and that might have been a dream. A later book in the series had Karen suspect that Mrs. Porter's granddaughter, Drusilla, is also a witch. Drusilla later admits she's not, but says she's never been sure about her grandmother ...
  • Every single Bailey School Kids book is like this. Is the authority figure supernatural/villainous, or are the kids just jumping to conclusions?
  • Édouard de Gex's resurrection in Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle. Was he Only Mostly Dead, or did he genuinely come Back from the Dead?
  • Richard Matheson's novel Bid Time Return, the basis for the movie Somewhere in Time, is about a man who uses self-hypnosis to travel to the turn of the 20th century, where he has a romantic adventure. The problem is that we know from the start that he's suffering from a brain tumor, making him an Unreliable Narrator, and the novel ultimately raises the possibility that his whole time-traveling experience might be a series of hallucinations. The movie eliminates the subplot about his having a brain tumor and doesn't include anything overtly shedding doubt on his experiences. Nevertheless, in his review of the film Roger Ebert commented, "The movie never makes it clear whether the playwright actually does travel through time, or only hypnotizes himself into thinking he does."[1]
  • In L. M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle, Valency offended her mother, who sulked. Then she got the letter from the doctor, which diagnosed her with a fatal illness. She thought the matter providential, because otherwise her mother would have asked whether there were any letters and read it; now she could keep it a secret.
  • Set in a post-technological world, Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun challenges readers to think about whether events are mundane, magical, theological or technological in nature. For example: the Claw of the Conciliator: miracle-working religious relic, magic feather, alien device?
  • In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan's famous dialogue with the Devil might be pure feverish delirium, or might be a genuine vision. You're the reader: you decide. This is foreshadowed by his own parable of the Grand Inquisitor, when Alyosha (tellingly) protests that the prisoner could not have actually been Jesus, and Ivan just says it doesn't matter either way.
  • Each part of Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz (which take place hundreds of years apart) features a very similar old Jewish man. The Wandering Jew — or not?
  • The Cat Who... books do this with the powers of the eponymous cat, Koko. Does Koko somehow know when someone close to Qwill is in danger and able to psychically intuit who the murder is? Or is Qwill just mistaking ordinary cat behaviour for mystical powers? In favor of the "magic" theory is the fact that Koko has done this so many times over the course of the series (him yowling once at the exact moment someone from Moose County is killed may be coincidence, him doing it a dozen times seems unlikely). In favor of "mundane" is the fact that the characters rarely manage to predict anything from Koko's clues, and the cat's "brilliance" is mostly revealed after the fact when the killer has been unveiled by other means.
    • A lesser example in the same series is Mildred Hanstable's Tarot readings. They are vague enough that there's no proof Mildred can predict the future but almost always prove accurate.
  • In Chocolat, Vianne herself admits that she doesn't completely believe in her own witchcraft, and it's left very ambiguous as to whether she's actually doing magic or is just a highly inuitive and imaginative person. She even remarks that all the magic she did with her mother in their travels could very well be explained by coincidence, and that it seemed to occasionally fail for no reason they could find. The sequel is a lot more explicit with its fantastical elements.
  • A Christmas Carol leaves it ambiguous as to whether Scrooge's visit from the three spirits was real or simply an elaborate hallucination.
  • In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "Black Colossus" when Yasmela consults an oracle, being desperate, she does what it says despite this.
    "Mitra has spoken," replied the princess. "It might have been the voice of the god, or a trick of a priest. No matter. I will go!"
    • In "Shadows In The Moonlight", Olivia's initial conviction that statues in a certain hall came to life settled down to the view that it was this trope when she had to rescue Conan from Pirates there. (The statues turns out to be Real After All, but her awareness before it happened is not thus explained.)
      Was it some trick of the moonlight that touched the eyes of the black figures with fire, so that they glimmered redly in the shadows?
  • In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, every bit of Merlin's "magic" that we see throughout the book relies on fakery and a gullible audience, and he's strongly implied to have no actual powers at all. But at the very end, he casts a spell that really works, and it's never stated if he found some scientific way of pulling it off, if he really did have some magical powers after all, or if the same unexplained effect that took the main character back in time found a way to bring him forward again.
  • This is firmly in play in the Crimebiters series of novels for young readers in which the protagonist has a dog named Abby who is most active at night, seems to have fangs and which he claims is a "vampire dog," though none of his friends believe it. The books themselves don't really make it clear either way and the protagonist eventually comes to accept that it's probably best if his dog has a secret identity anyway.
  • In Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, Enoch Root does something to fix Amy's leg after she gets shot with an arrow. Neither of them are willing to say what he actually did. Enoch himself also qualifies for this trope, as he appears in both Cryptonomicon (set in WWII and the modern day), and in The Baroque Cycle. It's never explicitly stated if it's the same Enoch, or two men with the same name.
  • In Dad Are You The Tooth Fairy, Gabi wonders if the Tooth Fairy (who allegedly writes to him) is real, or if it's just his dad writing to him and collecting the teeth. Gabi's dad claims that fairies used to exist (along with other magical creatures) but all the magical creatures went away when technology was invented. He then adds that, however, they might be communicating with the parents psychically. Gabi chooses to believe it's true, but possibly it's just his dad's imagination.
  • At the beginning of Dandelion Wine, Doug wakes up before everyone else and silently commands his family to wake up, brush their teeth, start making breakfast etc. Lights go on and the townspeople begin their day immediately after Doug tells them to. To the reader it almost seems as if Doug has the supernatural ability to control the actions of the townspeople. Or it could be that he has memorized the daily rhythm of his community and tells people to do things right before they would usually do them.
  • Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren: all sorts of strange things happen, ranging from mildly unsettling (several characters get exactly the same scratch on the thigh), through the absurd (the city's geography seems to rearrange itself), to the absolutely terrifying (the sun rises one day and takes up half the sky, and then the next day everything is back to "normal"). None of this is ever explained, so it could be the Unreliable Narrator, or it could be something far weirder.
  • A more meta issue in The Dinosaur Lords. One one hand, the way the Grey Angels, Aphrodite's magic and Karyl's double resurrection is handled implies that there's magic on Paradise. On the other hand, there are just as many clues that Paradise is a human colony that regressed technologically after having advanced past the point of Clarke's Third Law being fulfilled.
  • Pretty much every one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels dealing with the witches positively dances on this line. Witches obviously use magic. They also use "headology", which is essentially making people think they're using magic. Which one they're using at any given time isn't always clear. And then Granny Weatherwax gets annoyed at people's gullibility for assuming she's doing high-level magic when there's actually a perfectly mundane explanation, even though she and the reader know she was using magic and the mundane explanation is wrong. ("That's not the point. I might not have been.")
    • Near the end of Making Money, Moist is in a jam, and decides to try praying to Anoia, Goddess of Things Stuck In Drawers. Later in the book, after he is saved from a mugger when the man's dentures explode — albeit after years of abuse, he decides to make a thanks-giving offering of a really big ladle. It's given extra weight by the fact that Anoia both really exists and owes him a big favor from his last book.
    • In "The Amazing Maurice", the talking rats believe that they were created by a large, rat-shaped deity who lives underground, aptly named the Big Rat. While some deities explicitly do exist in the Discworld series, there is no explicit mention of a Big Rat, but when one of the rats, Darktan, has a Near-Death Experience, he believes he's seeing the Big Rat. Then again, Death confirms that there is explicitly not a cat god (but says nothing on rats) and some of the rats' beliefs centring on the Big Rat have been disproven (they think it created humans too, whereas humans in the Discworld universe are said to have been made by the aforementioned humanlike deities.)
  • The final Doc Savage novel, Up From Earth's Center involves a trek through strange caverns which might be Hell. Though they try to rationally explain it as shared hallucinations caused by exposure to gas, they don't seem to be 100% convinced.
  • This ambiguity is at the heart of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus:
  • In the children's book Do Little Mermaids Wet Their Beds?, a little four-year-old girl named Cecilia is frustrated because, despite being smart and talented for her age, she wets the bed. One night, she appears to have a conversation about it with a mermaid but it's explicitly said to be a dream, yet when she wakes up, her bed is dry but her clothes are wet. So either she really did visit a mermaid and was able to breathe underwater somehow and the narrator was lying about it being a dream, or it was a dream and she was... sleepwalking and peed on her clothes? Sleepwalked into the ocean? It's a mystery.
  • In Dragon Fall, Gabe is seemingly attacked by the three dragon dolls he created. They might be hallucinations as a result of the head injury he sustained during the rock concert, but they also seem to have done damage to the house that Gabe could not have easily replicated. The book ends before the question is resolved.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • Harry's Church Militant friend Michael frequently receives very beneficial "coincidences". At least, Harry believes it to be coincidence. Michael is quite certain it isn't. Harry's repeatedly stated position is one of absolute neutrality — as he describes it, Theological Switzerland. He acknowledges that Michael possesses a power unlike Harry's wizardry, but debates just how powerful Michael's divine protection and ability seem to be at times.
    • Grave Peril:
      • Father Forthill just happens to knock on his door at the same moment Michael needs to leave his house, because Forthill's car just happens to have gotten a flat tire nearby, freeing Michael to leave his younger kids with someone he trusts.
      • There is a woman who claims to have Cassandra's Tears — the ability to foresee the future, but the inability to convince anyone of such. So, of course, Harry is left wondering if she actually has psychic powers or if there are other, more mundane reasons for her to know what she knows.
    • At a few points in the books, Harry debates this to Sanya, one of the other Knights — who paradoxically, is a confirmed agnostic — and Harry's taking the side of Christianity.
    • In Death Masks Michael, wearing heavy armor and unconscious, and Harry are in a river when crime lord Marcone tosses Harry a line and pulls both of them to safety. The line turned out to be the Shroud of Turin, though not the true shroud.
    • In Proven Guilty, Michael is mysteriously absent during Molly's prosecution for the use of black magic, Harry's plan to prevent her execution relies on Michael having been sent to just the right place for "coincidence" to work in his favor. Michael did indeed as he saved three of the more lenient Senior Council members, Captain of the Wardens, and her training recruits from certain death. Arriving at the trial in time to take back their proxy votes from the more hardline leader.
      Michael: So what you're saying is, you took a leap of faith?
      Harry: No, I took your leap of faith, by proxy.
    • In Small Favor, a civilian under attack by a monster is praying to God. Cue Michael.
    • Another time: In Harry's darkest moment in Changes, Sanya manages to show up again just after an old woman screams "Oh, God in Heaven, help us!" Sanya claims it was probably just a coincidence.
    • Throughout the series; Harry's ability to Listen. Basically, if Harry closes his eyes and concentrates on his hearing so hard he ignores everything else, it becomes extremely sharp, to the point where he can overhear a whispered conversation from a room away. It's never explained if this is part of the wizard-package, the result of some semi-conscious spell or just a completely mundane trick Harry picked up somewhere without noticing. Harry is just as clueless on the matter as everyone else.
  • In Caitlin R Kiernan's The Drowning Girl, the schizophrenic protagonist Imp starts off the story having no idea which of the memories she's writing down are factual and which are not, as she knows her mental illness sometimes causes her to remember things that didn't happen. She remembers meeting a supernatural woman named Eva Canning twice, once as a mermaid/siren and once as a werewolf. (Her ex-girlfriend, for what it's worth, only remembers the mermaid one.) In the end it turns out to be a mix of both: Eva Canning is real, but only one of her. Imp created the memories of a helpless werewolf who needed her aid as a reaction to being manipulated by the "siren" version. Siren Eva is the daughter of a high-ranking member of a famous suicide cult who all drowned themselves, and she wanted to join her mother under the waves and needed Imp's help. Whether she's a siren or a ghost or a really unhealthy person who talked Imp into going off her meds is never quite nailed down.
  • Edward Eager's books are usually about children who find some kind of magic object and have adventures, but in two of them — Magic or Not? and The Well-Wishers — the main characters never find out if the wishing well was really magic or if everything that happened was just coincidence.
  • Egil's Saga: The same year after Egil has cursed King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild of Norway to be driven from the land by the land spirits, Eirik's rule is challenged by his brother Hakon, and by next spring Eirik and Gunnhild are forced to flee Norway.
  • In the book version of The Exorcist, the viewpoint character is able to come up with a mundane explanation for all of the goings-on. Some of them are more than a bit of a stretch, but it COULD all be explained rationally. In the film adaptation, on the other hand, it's pretty tough to explain away the levitating bed...
  • The Felix And Fiona book "Felix and the Worrier" has Felix at night get ostensibly visited by a paranoid little man called the Worrier. It's unknown if he really exists or if the author is just being poetic and Felix's worries are coming from his own brain.
  • At the end of The Final Count, Bulldog Drummond and the First-Person Peripheral Narrator of the book find Irma there accusing Drummond of killing her 'lover' Peterson, and guesses the correct time, rather than the fabricated one. She explains it as having a 'psychic link' with Peterson, and the narrator wonders if whether in his final moments, Peterson did speak to Irma, or if it was just someone telling her about it. It's left ambiguous.
  • Zimnik's Geschichten vom Lektro (Stories of Lektro) is a bit arguable: the protagonist is a Cloudcuckoolander anyway but the writing strongly suggests to the reader that the Ice King he meets is a supernatural person. Brutally resolved at the end of the story making Lektro a bit sad - he isn't, he's a king of ice cream and sent Lektro a lifelong free eat voucher. Which is completely useless for Lektro as he doesn't like ice cream.
  • In the story The Girl Who Kissed the Peach Tree, a volcano erupts and the people of the town believe that if they kiss the trees, the legendary King of the Mountain will be happy and the volcano will stop erupting. Said girl goes back and kisses her favourite peach tree despite the lava reaching dangerous levels, and the volcano does stop erupting, but we never find out if it was a coincidence or if there really is such a person as the King of the Mountain.
  • Gravity Falls: Journal 3: The people whose eyes were glowing yellow at Triple Digits Truck Stop had that either because Bill Cipher was messing with Ford or because the sunrise was "coming in through the window".
  • The "King's Cross" chapter in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Either Dumbledore speaks to Harry from the afterlife, or Harry is sorting the information out himself, using Dumbledore as a mouthpiece.
    Harry: Is this all real, or is it just happening in my head?
    Dumbledore: Of course it's all happening inside your head, Harry. But why on earth should that mean it's not real?
    • Similarly, the Deathly Hallows themselves. They're definitely magic, but are they "merely" high-quality creations of particularly talented wizards using the same "mundane" magic available to the protagonists, or are they mystical artifacts of Death himself?note 
    • Also, Professor Trelawney is generally believed to be a fraud who enters the occasional genuinely prophetic trance, but almost every "fake" prophecy she makes comes true in some sort of way. Some of them can be explained as cold readings, but sometimes she comes suspiciously close to the truth - at one point she reads the cards in a way recognised by the reader (though not her) to identify that Harry's close by and in a bad mood; and at one point she gets Harry's birth month about as wrong as possible, but it's perfectly accurate for Voldemort, a part of whose soul is sitting in Harry's head.
      • As well as Harry dying young (if only for a moment).
      • Though Trelawney makes just as many predictions that don't come true: classes are never canceled due to a flu epidemic and Neville isn't late to class on the second day.
  • Marcus Pitcaithly's Hereward Trilogy contains many, many examples of this trope. Are the apparitions at Frey's temple real or hallucinated? Does Brainbiter have real power, or is it just a Cool Sword? Are the Toadmen's powers over animals real or not? Are the Will-o'-the-Wisps which guide the outlaws across the Fens a natural phenomenon or sent by St Peter? Is the Guardian of Wandlebury human? Does Gunnhild really have magical powers? And the unanswered question that runs right through the whole trilogy: is Lysir just a man, or is he actually Woden?
  • In Andre Norton's Ice Crown, Niles Ismay had an ancestor who slightly escaped Psychocrat conditioning and passed down stories. As a consequence, he, unlike most people on his planet, can understand Roane's story about the conditioning machinery. He thinks it must be destiny; she's less convinced, it's just chance.
  • In I Can't Do That Yet, Enna, a little girl of about four who can't read yet and is worried she'll never be able to, apparently is sent to another dimension full of her future selves, but then she appears on the bed, so she may have been dreaming.
  • I, Claudius is, for the most part, a straightforward and fairly realistic historical novel. However, there are a few suspiciously accurate prophecies regarding the fates of the emperors that are difficult to explain away as coincidence.
  • Stephen King's "Jerusalem's Lot" is a Scrapbook Story told through a series of letters, diary entries, and other papers written in 1850. Our protagonist through this fantastic tale is Charles Boone, who writes his friend, nicknamed "Bones," about an Eldritch Abomination, "nosferatu" and a Tome of Eldritch Lore. The papers have been compiled by a present-day Long-Lost Relative of Boone's, who recites a few facts that seem to contradict Boone's narrative, and speculates that Boone was suffering from a recurrence of the brain fever which afflicted him after the death of his wife. Then we find out that the relative, James Robert Boone, has taken up residence at the very house where the 1850 events occurred, and has begun to hear the same stealthy sounds inside the walls which heralded the start of those events. Was Charles Boone insane, or are things really beginning anew?
  • Joe Pickett: In Trophy Hunt, Joe (and the reader) are left wondering if the bear that kills Eric Logue is just a rogue grizzly, or if it was some kind of spirit beast awakened to destroy a great evil (as Nate thinks it is). And there is still the mystery of who, or what, was performing the mutilations in the first place.
  • In the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy, the question of whether the ScreeWee, the Dead and the time travel are all real or whether Johnny is, as Wobbler tactfully puts it, "mental", is resolutely unanswered until the final scene of Johnny and the Bomb, when Kirsty remembers it too. There is evidence supporting the former view, but it could all be explained away if you tried hard enough.
  • Life of Pi eventually sets up one of these: Pi tells the insurance company representatives two stories about his survival in the Pacific after a shipwreck, one involving sharing his lifeboat with a tiger and a monstrous Garden of Evil floating island made of algae and trees that eats people and the other just involving Humans Are the Real Monsters. It's not clear which one is true, though Pi argues that the insurance reps should believe the former because it's a better story. In the end, they do choose to believe that it was Real After All.
  • The Little Stranger is a gothic horror / ghost story centering on a possibly Haunted House. Much like its two obvious inspirations — The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House — the book leaves it ambiguous whether the eerie occurrences are of supernatural origin or can be explained by human intervention.
  • The Steppers in The Long Earth are made from simple materials from a hardware store (and a potato) yet they allow for convenient inter-dimensional travel. Curiously, they only work if they are made by hand. They are also guaranteed safe to use, always transporting the whole person and whatever they are holding, even if multiple people carry a large object. This law is used to create the Mark Twain, an airship that acts as the "body" of an AI and therefore can step in its entirety.
    • Stepping has some similarities with fairy folklore. Iron, bane of the fair folk, cannot be transported across dimensions. Using it on the "Elves", primitive hominids that can step naturally and eat humans, will prevent them from stepping.
  • In the Albert Campion detective novel Look to the Lady, the central plot revolves around a MacGuffin called the Gyrth Chalice, an ancient relic supposedly guarded by a terrifying and powerful otherworldly entity. When he finally gets to see it at the end, Campion finds that the Chalice's "guard" is nothing more than a skeleton inside an elaborate suit of armour. An admittedly unpleasant thing to look at... except in the climax, Campion witnessed the Big Bad — a hardened, ruthless sociopath not easily given to fear — practically terrified to death just by looking at whatever was inside the room with the Chalice through a window, and begins to wonder whether the skeleton by itself could have done it, or whether something else actually is involved after all.
  • Encountered many times in The Lord of the Rings:
    • When Frodo and Sam have climbed down the rope given to them by the elves, it comes free. Frodo says the knots must have given way, and Sam thinks that it came when he called it. Neither one thinks either explanation very good, but both conclude that it had to be that way because nothing else would have worked. (In the film version it's explicitly magic, and both accept this instantly.) Later, a third possibility is implied, when Gollum mentions burning his hands on elven rope but gives no details of when and where this happened. (The Finnish TV adaptation outright shows Gollum untying the rope, but still retains the above conversation.)
    • Other instances: Was Frodo divinely appointed to be Ringbearer or was it blind luck?note  Did supernatural intervention block the pass of Caradhras or did they just get there in a bad season? When Frodo heard that voice on the steps of Amon Hen, was that God or Gandalf or just his own good sense kicking in? Etc.
    • Invoked when some elves of Lothlórien reveal that what is magic and what is mundane is a question of perspective in Middle-Earth, as the elves themselves have no concept of "magic" — a lot of things that are natural to the elves are considered magic by mortals, lumping it together with methods employed by Sauron, which the elves will never use.
      'For this is what your folk would call magic. I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel.
    • Hobbits demonstrate incredible sneaking skills several times. Everyone else thinks this is magic, but the hobbits insist the big folk are just clumsy.
    • Tolkien's other works also feature this:
      • The Children of Húrin: Was Túrin's terrible life because of Morgoth's curse or because he doesn't know when to swallow his pride? Complicating this is the implication that if Turin had stayed in Doriath he would have remained safe.
      • The Silmarillion: Did the Sons of Fëanor really have no choice in pursuing their Oath, or are they only saying that to justify their horrific actions to themselves?
  • In Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels:
    • In The Nine Tailors, one of the bells is "known" to have killed two evil-doers in the past. At the end of the book, Lord Peter realizes the victim was also killed by the bells, in this case by being in the belltower during a long peal, which may have been a third instance of the bells dealing out justice. (His arrival at the beginning was heralded as something that might be called chance.)
    • In Murder Must Advertise, Dian regards the Harlequin as a lucky charm because she wins twice at horses, and afterwards is good at cards. The narrator says this might be just her determination.
  • In Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet, Desjani (and a increasing number of fanatics) believe that Geary is blessed by the spirits of their ancestors. On the one hand, Geary never shows any knowledge or insight beyond his impressive tactical skills; on the other, if not for a lot of small events note  happening in just the right way, Geary would have perished in cryostasis- and, with him, the titular lost fleet and the entire Alliance government.
    • Geary himself prays for guidance at times and always comes away disappointed he never saw a sign or felt a message. But sometimes something small will happen that leads to an inspiration.
    • On another occasion, Geary uncharacteristically lingers indecisively, taking several days longer than he normally would to decide on the fleet's next destination. Rather than putting the fleet at risk, this ends up causing them to escape a trap that they otherwise would have walked right into and been annihilated by. This is the point where even Geary, who is both exasperated and creeped out by the outright messianic level of hero worship he's receiving from some quarters, is starting to think something supernatural might be going on.
    • In the spinoff series novelThe Lost Stars novel Tarnished Knight, Iceni considers the prospect of Drakon's failure at one or more ISS site. This will give her the choice of letting ISS endanger her and bombarding from orbit, causing grave harm to many civilians in the area. Despite not believing, she prays to the living stars for guidance. Almost immediately, the displays light up with his success. She tries to convince herself that it's a coincidence, but wrestles with it — and there's, of course, no evidence either way.
  • In Midnight, Violet's adopted older brother William plays scary games with her. One of these games, which happened when she was a little girl, involved playing with the two teddy bears Little Growl and Big Growl. Violet claims they came to life, but it's unknown if that's true or she's just being poetic. She claims they didn't "come to life" when their mother played with them, but that could just mean the mother is a worse actress.
  • In Joe Haldeman's short story, "The Monster", the narrator, Chink, a Vietnam vet, calmly and sanely relates his story of being a LURP in 'Nam and watching a glossy black humanoid creature tear apart his patrol-mates. But Chink is telling the story (presumably) to a psychiatrist in a mental institution, as an explanation as to why he slowly and brutally murdered an emigrant from Vietnam — the man he believed to be the monster. At the end of the story, we read a coroner's report that details Chink's death, allegedly from ripping out his own heart with his bare hands. We're never quite sure whether the titular "monster" was real, or just a figment of Chink's imagination... or whether Chink killed himself, or the monster got him in the end.
  • In Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Mr Quin, Mr. Quin has a knack for the Stealth Hi/Bye, of showing up just when something is about to happen, and of saying or doing just the right thing at just the right moment to nudge events in the direction of a happy conclusion. It's heavily implied that he's something other than human, but he never does anything unambiguously supernatural.
  • In the short story "Nackles", the narrator never actually sees what happened to his brother-in-law Frank and the police suggest the mundane explanation that he simply abandoned his family. The narrator thinks Nackles, the scary Christmas figure he invented, may have taken him because he can't imagine Frank leaving his sister without doing a lot of yelling about it or without taking his beloved car. It's never settled either way.
  • In Marisha Pessl's Night Film, A journalist investigates the suicide of the daughter of a cult horror film director and soon learns that the family was involved in black magic. He begins to believe that the dead woman is cursed, until learning that she actually had cancer. Everything that happens can technically be explained rationally, although we are left to wonder.
  • In John Hemry's Paul Sinclair novels A Just Determination and Burden of Proof, after the death of men, the crew believe that the ghosts are haunting them. When two junior officers are in free fall, a screw starts to move. The engineer explains that vibrations could cause that.
  • Pharaoh is full of weird incidents. Some can be explained by people hiding in the dark (Pentuer confesses to having dispensed advice that way) but some are plain weird (Kama falling ill - was it a Curse for breaking her vows? Or was it purely psychosomatic?
  • In Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain, Penny's dad maintains that magic is just Sufficiently Advanced Technology, others aren't so sure, and it's never established one way or the other. For her part Penny's just fine with calling it magic even if it is just another form of technology.
  • In L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero Regained, Gregory recounts a vision that changed him — and then immediately dismisses it as a delirum, albeit one that made him think.
  • In Brian Jacques's Redwall, Matthias addresses a tapestry showing Martin the Warrior about his weakness.
  • A minor one in the Relativity story "The Legend of the Cheese Maidens": The legend itself at first appears to be something Ravenswood made up, but at the end of the story it's revealed that everyone in his home town knows it. Whether the events in the legend actually took place or not is never clarified.
  • Sharon Shinn's Samaria: In The Alleluia Files, the revelations about the spaceship do not shake all the characters' faith. Some still think that their lives, and these events, had been divinely guided. Indeed, Tamar, raised to disbelieve, announced that she had come to believe.
  • In K.J. Parker's The Scavenger Trilogy, after he loses his memory, all of Poldarn's actions are consistent with being just a unwittingly malign man, mired in circumstance and human nature or being the God of Destruction. Or possibly the human agent for a group mind of crows. Or both.
  • In Kate Seredy's The Singing Tree, the cat acts ill in the cart, so they stop by a hospital where they learn she's having kittens. They wait, and Kate and Lily help the nurse bring soup to the wounded. Which is how Kate sees the amnesia case and realize it's her Uncle Marton — shouting that at him jogs his memory lose. When arguing that they should take him home despite his lack of papers, one argument is that it was obviously Destiny and who are they to argue with destiny.
  • Scarlett Undercover: It's ambiguous whether the artifacts were magical and the Children of Iblis were actually jinn, or just normal humans who thought they were.
  • Gene Wolfe's Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete. He, and those around him, think he's been cursed by the gods to forget everything every night. Even the gods speak of it when they talk to him. We, on the other hand, have enough evidence about his head injury to conclude that that may explain both the amnesia and the hallucinations.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire appears to have a clear relationship between the existence of dragons and that of magic. The dragons died out before the start of the series, with only a few dormant eggs left behind, and no living dragons = very limited magic. So the series starts with little magic (although some of it seems rather powerful) and until Daenerys hatches her dragon eggs most "magic" is faked, lucky, or misunderstood. After Dany hatches the dragons, the lines get blurred; while more true magic is beginning to occur and is increasing in frequency and power as the dragons grow and Daenerys gets closer to Westeros, there are still fakers and lucky people out there, as well as ignorant people who will claim that perfectly normal events were the result of magic. Some examples:
    • The Red priests and the priests of the Iron islands have always had a "miraculous" technique of restoring life to the recently dead or drowned that is initially very clearly described as a variant of modern CPR and rescue breathing, making it entirely mundane... until, in book four, they begin using the same techniques to resuscitate people that haven't been breathing for hours or, in a few cases, DAYS.
      • There is one particularly confused Red priest who used to light his sword on fire with oil as a party trick, then one day accidentally tried it without the oil and found it worked anyhow.
    • In A Storm of Swords, Stannis and Melisandre perform a ritual which will supposedly cause the deaths of the other three surviving kings, Balon Greyjoy, Robb Stark, and Joffrey Baratheon. By the end of the book, all three are dead... but they all died separately, from completely unrelated causes. More importantly, the events leading to the deaths were, in two and possibly all three cases, set into motion well before Stannis even performed the ritual. Tywin Lannister had already finalized a plot to kill Robb, Margaery and Olenna had been making provisions for Joffrey, and while the cause of Balon's death remains somewhat unclear there is a long, long list of people who might have been planning to take a shot at him - not least his brother Euron, who conveniently appeared just after his death to claim the throne, and in a preview chapter of TWOW reveals he was responsible. To make things more confusing, Melisandre has definitely performed legitimate magic prior to the ritual, most notably seeing the future and sorcery that was definitely the cause of Renly Baratheon's death. According to A Dance with Dragons Melisandre's powers are a combination of tricks and legitimate magical power, and even the magic is a mix of blood magic and legitimate divine power. Since the rebirth of the dragons, she's been using more of the latter kind. There are even theories that Mel's ceremony was a deliberate sham on her part, that she foresaw the deaths with her limited powers to see the future and concocted a fake ceremony that did nothing but would convince Stannis that she was right and that he should follow her lead in other matters.
    • Then there's the matter of Cersei, who was told by a witch that she would marry the king, that the king would have sixteen children and Cersei three, all of whom would wear golden crowns and die before her, and that she would be supplanted by a younger, more beautiful woman and choked to death by her younger brother. The matter of the king's bastards has already come true, and two of her children have been crowned and one has died. There are many beautiful, younger women (Margaery, who married the usurper King Renly and then King Joffrey, then King Tommen, Sansa, who could yet become Queen in the North, and Daenerys, the last claimant of the old Targaryen dynasty across the sea who calls herself Queen and has dragons) that could destroy her. While Tyrion always had good cause to hate her, by the end of the last published book she has been absolutely vile to both her brothers (remember that Jaime is the younger twin by a matter of seconds), so that now one really wants to kill her and will very likely make an attempt if there paths ever cross, and the other is estranged and it's not out-of-the-question that circumstances could conspire to set him against her too. Coincidence?
    • Psychic Dreams for Everyone! Except that it's really really hard to tell the difference between a true psychic dream and a hallucination, especially since most psychic dreams occur while characters are badly injured/feverish/etc. (such as Bran's dreams of the three-eyed crow during his coma, or Jaime's visions regarding Brienne during a traumatic injury and subsequent severe infection. While the former's visions seem to be genuine, the latter's might yet swing either way—though they seem to be mundane, as the character they were dreaming of might be dead.)
      • The most borderline case of a possibly psychic dream? Euron Greyjoy mentions that he dreamt a crow told him he could fly in a dream, which is similar to a dream another character had that turned out to have a magical origin.
    • Why was Rhaego born dead and deformed? Was it the curse, a backlash from his Targaryen dragonblood, a rare-but-Real-Life genetic defect or something else entirely?
    • The supposedly "cursed" castle of Harrenhal. Most educated characters in the series dismiss the curse as nothing more than the superstition of ignorant peasants, and would themselves explain the "curse" as the fact that the castle's sheer size and geographical location make holding it a logistical nightmare, and running it is a catastrophic drain on relatively meagre resources. However, in a world where most of the great strongholds have belonged to the same family literally since pre-history, nine different families have controlled Harrenhal in just three hundred years. Moreover, most of the characters who have been in Harrenhal since the series started have come to a bad end; even one who was named Lord of Harrenhal but never even got there and was dispossessed of it shortly after, died the following year. All-in-all, no matter how much people may dismiss the curse, they aren't exactly eager to claim the title "Lord of Harrenhal" either. The current holder of the title is Littlefinger, who refuses to go near it and has mentioned plans to have it torn down for the masonry.
  • Song of Kali by Dan Simmons:
    • The protagonist Robert Luzcak is in Calcutta looking to interview the poet M. Das, who was thought dead but has made a return. He's told a wild story about how a cult of Kali had brought Das back to life. When he finally manages to meet Das, the poet does look like a corpse — because of an advanced state of leprosy. Das himself confirms the idea of leprosy but still claims to have died and been brought back to life. When Luzcak points out that the timing doesn't match that of the story he'd heard, Das says something vague about "re-enactments" (though the original story didn't involve any apparent intentional re-enactment so much as a randomly chosen dead body). Subsequently, Das apparently dies (again?), but Luzcak later gets a letter claiming him to be alive again, together with a photo featuring him — which could just be an older one, of course.
    • When Luzcak is captured by the cult, he finds himself in the darkness in their secret temple of Kali. He runs into the statue of Kali inside and hits his head. Soon after, he sees the statue moving and approaching him to attack. Throughout this experience, he burns the matches in his pocket and then the pages on his notebook to see in the darkness. The experience ends suddenly with the cultists rather than the statue grabbing him, as if he might have just hallucinated the whole thing after hitting his head. Subsequently, he finds that he has no matches left but has an untouched notebook — but he thinks he might have had two notebooks with him to begin with.
  • The ghosts in Sonic The Hedgehog In Castle Robotnik are never confirmed one way or another. Sonic insists that they're just special effects but the author goes out of his way to say that they must be extremely good special effects.
    A huge white blob of supernatural (or perhaps special effect-ual!) force screamed out across the room, blew apart the ghost standing in the doorway...
  • Star Wars Legends: In The Lando Calrissian Adventures, Rokur Gepta is a powerful illusionist and Force-wielder, who also dresses up his abilities with technology and legerdemain. For instance, he tortures one of his subordinates by making him relive his worst memories, then thinks anyone could do the same with the right machinery, which he uses later to do the same to Lando. Or take his intro when he appears as a thundering voice in a great pillar of smoke, and Lando reflects that he probably tossed a smoke bomb into the room.
  • It's never explained what caused the earthquakes in Survivor Dogs. Is it mundane natural disasters, a nuclear explosion, or some supernatural event by the Spirit-Dogs?
  • In one of the Tarzan books, the titular character encounters two odd-looking brothers ruling rival tribes. Both brothers end up dead by the end, but Tarzan manages to glimpse strange writings and star charts in their rooms, musing that they may not have been of this world. Since the brothers are dead, there's no one to confirm or deny this theory.
  • In The Tenets of Futilism, Sasha goes through some pretty insane coincidences (randomly meeting her father's old war buddies on a trip, finding out the man she married is related to her father's lost love, etc). The unlikelihood of these events eventually leads her to believe they are supernatural in nature. Sasha, having previously been forced into a cult, attributes her luck to their god of fortune. The coincidences in the book are pretty unlikely. Then again, it's pretty obvious that she's crazy by the end, and there's no concrete evidence for her experiences being the result of divine intervention.
  • Barbara Roden's story "The Things That Shall Come Upon Them" is a crossover featuring Sherlock Holmes (a rationalist skeptic) and Flaxman Low (an Occult Detective from stories by Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard) who are both trying to solve the case of an apparently haunted room. Holmes comes to the conclusion that the phenomena were caused by someone sneaking in from the outside through the discovered secret passage, while Low believes that the room is inhabited by a malevolent spectral entity. It's not made explicit which is the correct explanation, though it's subtly implied that Low was right, as there are several holes in Holmes's theory.
  • In C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces, it's unclear whether certain events are caused by the wrath of the gods or whether it's just coincidence being misinterpreted by a superstitious people. Until the narrator sees a god with her own eyes.
  • In Tomorrow's Ghost by Anthony Price, there is a folk tale that is reputed to be a harbinger of death whenever it is told. It is told twice in the course of the novel, and each time a death follows on cue. But it could, of course, just be a coincidence.
  • Discussed by Doctor Brown during his Motive Rant at the climax of The Trees of Pride. While his researches had all but conclusively demonstrated that the peacock trees were doing something to cause the epidemic of fevers sweeping that corner of the country, he was never able to establish the exact mechanism by which they did so. His own suspicion was that the fevers were an exceptionally bad allergic reaction to the pollen of the trees, but for all he could actually prove the trees might have literally been cursed.
  • Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is an early example: are the ghosts real or a figment of the governess's neurotic imagination?
  • The Underland Chronicles:
    • Ripred points out that Sandwich's prophecies may well just be coincidence or self-fulfilling, and he doesn't believe in them. They seem to be pretty accurate, but only after a book of trying to decipher them and you can see how they could be reinterpreted to fit the latest explanation.
    • Mrs. Cormaci, who tends to send just the right objects at just the right times and who gives tarot readings. Gregor at one point wonders if she can see what he needs in her tarot cards, and given that psychics exist in this series, he could be right.
  • Victoria has a subtle, religiously themed example. When Father Murphy holds a communion service for the troops out in the field, under very impoverished material conditions, something a little like Jesus Christ's miracle of the Feeding of the multitude seems to occur, with the available food and wine sufficing for a larger group than it seemingly should. It's much less obvious than the Biblical example, though, leaving it open whether it's really magical or just feels like it is.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • In Graham McNeill's Ultramarines novel Black Sun Dead Sky, when Uriel is trying to convince the Unfleshed of his friendliness, their icon of the Emperor lights up — either a mechanism jogged by Uriel's movement, or a miracle.
      • Earlier, Uriel had argued that a chance meeting had occurred Because Destiny Says So.
      • In Nightbringer, the Almost Dead Guy Gedrik should have been dead. Uriel takes what appear to be ramblings very seriously: he thinks that being so near death may have given him visions.
    • In James Swallow's Blood Angels novels:
      • In Deus Encarmine, Rafen remembers, in his Back Story, how he had once thought he had seen Sanguinius in lights in the sky; perhaps a trick of the mind, through fatigue and despair, but it reminded him that the Pure One was judging him and caused him to rally.
      • In Deus Sanguinius, when Talking to the Dead, Rafen asked Koris to guide him one last time. The dead man's communicator fell to his hand. It had been sheared loose, but fell only then. Although using dead men's equipment was forbidden except under the gravest of circumstances, Rafen takes it up and uses its command codes.
      • Again in Deus Sanguinius, after psychic attack by Inquisitor Stele has driven him to suicidal depression, Rafen flees. He stumbles on the mediation chamber he had made for himself earlier — explicitly described through the guiding hand of the Emperor, muscle memory, or blind chance.
      • In Black Tide, Rafen wonders whether his capture was the guiding hand of the Emperor or capricious fate. (If it's the first, he will do his duty; if the second, to hell with fate, he will do his duty.)
    • In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novels, Larkin's scope. It appears to show him things. Except that he's several cards short of a full deck.
      • His best example comes from the story of the Angel in Ghostmaker. In a mission to sneak into a Chaos-held city and snipe its leader, Larkin loses it and abandons the mission team. He holes up in a room high up on a tower with a statue of an Imperial Angel - which he imagines talking to him, convincing him to do his duty and giving him a strip of cloth to help steady his aim. He ends up taking out the Chaos warlord, then passes out. When he comes to, other Ghosts are helping him up, and Angel is just a statue again - but his long-las is sitting in the corner with a band of silk tied to it. In the same book, looking through the scope makes him the only one to break free of an Eldar illusion; it isn't clear if the scope was responsible or not, since he already had enough doubt that he was intentionally using it to test his suspicions.
    • There's also the... impressive performance of Saint Sabbat in Sabbat Martyr. On the one hand, she has a small fortune worth of the best armor and weaponry the Imperium has to offer. On the other hand, she comes by the title "Saint" honestly. (On the gripping hand, she solo-kills a Baneblade and duels and kills a Chaos warlord.)
  • In Bernard Cornwell's Warlord series the narrator maintains that all the magic shown by Merlin, Nimue and others have possible natural explanations but that they could also be genuine. Further confusing things is Nimue's admission that some of her and Merlin's magic is indeed just trickery while other parts are very real. During the course of three books the series plays with the existence of magic just about every way possible, whether it be that magic seems to be real, seems to be fake, or is left ambiguous. And sometimes a spell or magic artifact will appear to work powerful, genuine magic, only to completely fail to work at all later. Ultimately the first two books lean towards things being mostly, if not entirely "mundane", but the last one has several events that are really difficult to explain without magic.
    • Bernard Cornwell really likes this trope, with The Saxon Stories pulling it every now and then, with the rune sticks being disturbingly accurate and Uhtred's shadow walker antics.
    • Even possibly Sharpe providing an example with the Gonfalon of Santiago, though the last leans very much on the mundane end of the spectrum.
  • In Warrior Cats, during a big battle over leadership in WindClan, lightning strikes a tree, causing it to topple over and form a bridge to a nearby island (which would then be used as important neutral ground for the four Clans). It also crushed the cat attempting to usurp leadership. The cats (and some of the fans) see this as far too convenient to be coincidence, and believe that StarClan directed the lightning. On the other hand, the cats have seen StarClan's influence in things they had nothing to do with before, and StarClan have also stated that they have a strict non-interference policy.
    • At least in the first series, it's arguable whether or not StarClan exists at all. Maybe Scourge really is so strong that he can drain a Clan Leader's 9 lives in a single kill... or maybe everyone only gets 1 life, and the only difference is that a Clan Leader is harder to kill because of his or her experience and talent.
  • In Andy Hoare's White Scars novel Hunt for Voldorius, Kor'sarro is not sure how he recognizes that Nullus is a daemon; intuition, or maybe being near another daemon.
  • In Kate Seredy's The White Stag it is never clear if the forces that brought the Huns to the new land and the white stag are a higher being fulfilling prophecies, or just plain luck.
  • Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland toes the edge of this trope. Though it is revealed that the voices which Wieland hears have a physical source, the fate of Clara and Wieland's father is still ambiguous: it was either the inexplicable wrath and majesty of God, or spontaneous combustion. Which people did believe in in those days!
  • Jacqueline Wilson did this in two of her early novels. In The Power of the Shade, the heroine becomes obsessed with the idea of witchcraft after a friend introduces her to the concept, and slowly comes to believe that she really has magical powers. In The Other Side, a girl suffering from severe personal trauma believes that she can astrally project. In both cases it's left open as to whether or not these powers are real.
  • In Wings of Fire, NightWing hatchlings receive psychic abilities based on how much moonlight their eggs are exposed to. There are plenty of NightWings who weren't incubated in moonlight (or couldn't be, because of their smoky homeland) and just write fake, broadly worded prophecies to look wise...except even those prophecies are accurate than not. Fatespeaker says a comet will fall on someone, and it does. Allknowing improvises a lie about "too many eyes and too many threads", which could easily and only refer to the oracular tug-of-war happening under her nose. The hybrid NightWing Whiteout laments her brother's defeat hours before it happens, but is dismissed as hysterical. Morrowseer says a SkyWing will be among The Chosen Many, which isn't true...but someone camouflaged as a SkyWing is. It seems likely that all NightWings have latent psychic ability, and the moons just amplify it to the point where it becomes conscious and detailed.
  • It is not always clear in Wizard of the Pigeons whether an event is genuine magic or just misapprehension or coincidence.
  • Xanth: In Castle Roogna, a ring claims to be magical, a wishing ring. When Dor makes a wish on it, it answers, "I'm working on it." Every wish made on it comes true through outside factors — except that every wish made on it does come true, and it never claimed that it could pull off instantaneous wish granting.


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