After the silliness of recent days, here's something more serious and intellectual. ;-) I've been working on this meta for a long time - you'll appreciate how long when I say it's almost 8,000 words in total. The idea is to provide an in-depth analysis of how magic works in the Buffyverse, based on what we were shown on screen and what we can extrapolate logically from that. I hope people find it interesting.
Also, as an experiment I've also turned this meta into a PDF document, which you
will be able to can download from here now as soon as I've uploaded it. I thought that might be more useful for people who prefer to read offline - let me know what you think!
Table of Contents
The Three Talents of a Successful Spellcaster
Sources of Magic Power
Types of Magic
The Laws of Magic
Therefore, the detailed definition of Buffyverse magic I'm going to put forward here is "Calling up magical energy, then shaping and controlling it through casting a spell or other means, and directing it outward to change the world." A spellcaster therefore needs three things to be successful. Access to a source of power or mystical energy; the knowledge to understand how to make use of it; and finally, the skill and control necessary to shape the magical energies successfully, without making the spell fizzle or backfire dramatically. Part two of this essay discusses each of these talents in more detail.
Magic in the Buffyverse
In the Buffyverse, magic can be many things. In Season 2 it was a metaphor for drugs (and possibly also sex and rock'n'roll); in Season 4 it was a metaphor for lesbian sex; in Season 6 it was back to being a drugs metaphor. It represents power, and showcases how people react to that. On a more mundane level, it served many times as a plot element, setting up an episode's premise or helping our heroes resolve a problem. It illustrates character development and helps to show the Buffyverse as a world different to our own.
That's on a meta level. What this essay will concentrate on is how magic works within the Buffyverse, on that universe's own terms.
Of course, one problem with this approach is that the writers weren't always entirely consistent in how they depicted magic. Indeed, Jane Espenson has related how, when she first became a writer on the show, she did her best to research real-world mythology and magical practices... until one of the more experienced writers took her aside and told her not to bother, because as long as it sounded plausible and made dramatic sense, technical accuracy wasn't so important. Nevertheless, it does seem that certain rules and principles can be distinguished.
So what is magic? On a basic level, it's using supernatural power to change the world in ways which ought to be impossible. In the early seasons, magic was presented as formulaic in nature. If you had the right mystical ingredients and chanted the right words, magic happened. However, in later seasons this was changed somewhat. We were told that to cast spells you need magical power or mystical energy, which is a finite resource. Run out of it, and you are no longer able to cast spells until you recover, as Willow discovered fighting Glory in 'Tough Love' and again in the aftermath of 'Smashed'. People who play RPGs, either tabletop or computer, will recognise this as a classic spell points or mana system.
From a dramatic, story-telling point of view, it makes sense. Most spellcasters, including Willow in the early seasons, are not strong enough to have much effect on the greater scheme of things; the writers can have them casting their spells whenever it suits the story arc. By Season 5, however, Willow has become powerful enough to give the writers a challenge: why can't she just wave her hands and defeat every episode's Big Looming Evil inside the first five minutes? By setting a limit on how much magic she can use at a time, the show puts plausible limits on her ability to overshadow the other characters.
Buffy casts the spell 'Tirer la Couverture' in 'No Place Like Home'.
The Three Talents of a Successful Spellcaster
Willow loses control of a spell in 'Fear Itself'.
Time and again, we see spellcasters on the show failing to control their magic properly, with embarrassing or devastating consequences. Lack of control may simply prevent a spell working at all. More seriously, it may cause it to backfire (Amy in 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered'), affect either the wrong target (Anya in 'Doppelgangland') or too many targets (Willow in 'Tabula Rasa'), or go completely haywire (Willow in 'Fear, Itself').
Some elements of control seem to be purely physical; a matter of taking care to perform the rituals flawlessly. In 'Doppelgangland', for example, Willow jerks her hand at the wrong moment, causing the magical powder to spill onto her other hand instead of the plate with the picture of the amulet. In 'Tabula Rasa' she accidentally sets fire to her entire bag of herbs instead of just a single sprig. On the other hand, we can infer from numerous examples that pronouncing the words of a spell correctly are not quite so important!
Beyond this, mental and emotional focus is vital. We see this in 'Fear, Itself', when Willow summons the guiding firefly light, but then lets herself get distracted, gives it contradictory instructions, and suddenly finds herself surrounded by dozens of little lights. Perhaps the best illustration, however, is when she's levitating the pencil in 'Doppelgangland' and she tells Buffy:
WILLOW: It's all about emotional control. Plus, obviously, magic.
...which is proven moments later when she gets so angry and upset thinking about Faith that the pencil spins out of control and buries itself in a tree.
Control is therefore mostly a matter of personality traits, care and attention. Practice and self-discipline can improve it; strong emotions or distractions can temporarily impair it. Willow seems to suffer in this regard, since at least in the early days she's often overconfident and careless with her spells. This leads to disasters like blowing the power for her whole block, setting her bedspread on fire, summoning Olaf the Troll, and other embarrassing events.
I imagine that formal magical training by a Coven or sorcerous Order includes a lot of practice in meditation and exercises in concentration, in order to improve the students' control. This would lead to spell-casters who use magic much more safely and methodically, but with less spectacular potential than Willow's self-taught approach.
It seems reasonable to assume that some spells are more complicated and delicate than others, and therefore require more control to cast properly. A small error in such a tricky casting might have disastrous consequences, while easier spells are more forgiving of a caster who loses concentration. We learn in 'Shadow', for example, that healing spells are particularly tricky.
On the other hand, a sufficiently strong spellcaster could use brute force and raw power to impose her will on a spell without bothering too much about getting the subtleties right. From 'Get It Done':
WILLOW: Via concursus, tempus, spatium, audi me ut imperio... Screw it! Mighty forces, I suck at Latin, OK? But that's not the issue. I'm the one in charge, and I'm telling you open up, portal, now!
(Though I'm guessing - given the context of 'Get It Done' - that such cavalier use of force majeure is incredibly dangerous even for someone as powerful as S7 Willow, and she wouldn't normally risk it.)
Dawn researches how to resurrect her mother, in 'Forever'.
Knowledge is the awareness of what spells will do and how to cast them. This is mostly a matter of scholarship and research. You read old books and mystical scrolls to find out how to cast a spell, or maybe you get taught the spell face-to-face by a mentor. Regardless of how you learn it, you need to know the right spell to cast; and if you can't find it anywhere, you're out of luck. It's not necessary to memorise a spell; you can read the words straight out of a book and, if you've done the other preparations correctly, the spell will take effect.
It is perfectly possible for somebody to learn a spell but lack the power or ability to cast it herself. From 'Primeval':
GILES: Perhaps a paralyzing spell. But I'm afraid I can't do the incantation for one of those -
WILLOW: Right. Don't you have to speak it in Sumerian or something?
GILES: I do speak Sumerian. The difficulty is, only an experienced witch can incant it.
In season 2, Jenny Calendar makes a similar admission: she's able to track down the Ritual of Restoration that would give Angel back his soul, but she lacks the magical power to cast that kind of spell herself. As another example, I can easily imagine that the Watchers' Council would employ scholars who spend their lives researching and cataloguing spells without ever actually casting them.
The more spells you know, the more effective you become as a magic-user, because you can have a suitable magical ability on hand for many more situations. However, there is a step beyond that: changing and modifying spells to suit your own purposes, or even inventing new ones.
Some of this could be done by simple trial and error. However, with magic any error is likely to have nasty consequences, so I assume most spellcasters will avoid anything so dangerous. On the other hand, someone with deep knowledge of the fundamental principles of magic, a keen, searching intelligence, a cavalier disregard for safety and an arrogant self-confidence in her own intellectual ability to overcome any obstacles might well extend the frontiers of magical knowledge in entirely new directions...
Of course, knowledge doesn't only include knowing how to cast a spell; it also involves understanding its possible consequences and side-effects. This is where a lot of amateur magicians run into problems, as Xander discovered in 'Once More, With Feeling':
XANDER: I didn't know what was going to happen! I just thought there would be dances and songs! We'd get a happy ending...
It's also possible to cast spells without even realising what you're doing. Xander didn't know that saying "Librum incendere!" while holding a book of magic would cause it to burst into flames. The whole plot of 'Same Time, Same Place' revolves around Willow casting a spell on herself without her conscious knowledge - although presumably it's magic she already knew. Some such effects can be explained as magical energy from an artefact, godlike entity or even the Hellmouth itself leaking out into the world and trying to find an outlet to express itself.
While characters in the Buffyverse sometimes use 'power' loosely to describe the overall strength of a spellcaster, I'm using it here specifically to describe the amount of magical energy that a witch or sorcerer can tap into and channel through their spells. It's clear that this power is a finite but renewable resource. Willow spends all evening in 'Smashed' casting spells recklessly, then discovers the following morning that she no longer has enough magical energy left for a simple telekinesis spell. From 'Wrecked':
"That's borrowed power!" - Giles in 'Grave'.
WILLOW: I felt awful today. And I couldn't do magic. It took all day for my powers to come back.
Likewise, when she confronts Glory in 'Tough Love', Willow starts off equal in power to the goddess, able to inflict crippling pain on her. However, she is unable to sustain this level of power for long; every subsequent spell she casts is weaker than the last, until Glory is knocking them aside with contemptuous ease and Willow is left helpless.
This concept of power as being limited does not really appear in the earlier seasons. However, it's easy enough to explain, if we assume that the restricted magical knowledge of the characters back then meant that they rarely if ever approached the limits of their power. Once Willow is strong enough to challenge gods face-to-face in magical duels, that's when she discovers her magic is not limitless after all.
As we know from Giles's comment I quoted above about him not having enough power to cast a paralysis spell on Adam even though he knows how, some magics require more power to cast than others. A logical assumption would be that the greater the change to reality, the more power is needed to fuel the spell. However, this is not necessarily true in every situation. At the end of 'Same Time, Same Place', for example, Willow confesses that casting the healing spell to regrow the skin on her stomach is draining all her power - even though such a spell appears less dramatic than, say, using her magic to incinerate a demon or create an energy barrier to protect a whole group of people. Some magic is just inherently more difficult than other types, it seems.
It's not entirely clear whether a person's power is fixed and innate, or whether - like their knowledge and control - they can increase it through training and practice. Certainly Willow grows stronger over the seasons, but this might be because she is learning how to cast more spells or tap into new sources of power or use what she has better, rather than any change in her basic capabilities. Remember, the very first spell she casts - the Ritual of Restoration in 'Becoming' - is also one of the most powerful.
My own assumption is that magical power can be improved, but only to a comparatively limited extent. Like muscle strength, magical strength can be increased by intensive training and exercise - and also lost through lack of use. However, you're still limited by what you start with. The magical equivalent of your body form and genetics means that people like Willow or Amy or Ethan simply have more potential than Jenny or Xander, however much they might train. Real magical power, however, can also come from learning to tap external sources of energy as well as your own. So where does this magic come from? That is the subject of the next section of this essay.
Sources of Power
Amy turning Buffy into a rat, in 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered'.
This is the spellcaster's own magical energy - the power I've been discussing in the previous section. It seems to be linked directly to their lifeforce, and over-using it can be physically exhausting. As shown in 'Blood Ties' and 'Crush' abusing your own power can lead to headaches and nosebleeds. However, it is the most obvious and accessible source of power, always available in any situation. It's presumably the type of power relied on by most spellcasters.
Other People's Power
Willow takes power from Giles against his will, in 'Grave'.
It probably doesn't need saying that this is a highly abusive and invasive act on Willow's part, and indeed is directly comparable to a vampire draining blood to sustain itself. My suggestion is that she learned how to do this by copying Rack ("Let's take a little tour/You taste of strawberries") so it's poetic justice that he is her first victim. In Season 7 onwards I believe she's fully aware that it's an evil thing to do, but that does not necessarily stop her if she thinks she can prevent a worse evil by doing it.
Willow takes power from Buffy with her consent, in 'Same Time, Same Place'.
However, it seems to be possible to draw on another person's power willingly, without it being painful. We often see Willow and Tara joining hands in order to cast a spell together. Now, it could be that they simply enjoy holding hands, or that the physical contact helps them coordinate their magic as they cast the same spell simultaneously. That seems to be what's happening in 'Hush' when they move the vending machine, for example: they are casting the same telekinesis spell simultaneously in order to move such a heavy object.
However, there are other occasions where it does look like Willow is casting a spell while Tara supplies her with her own energy to help power it. The best example is 'The Gift' where they need to clear a path through Glory's minions for Spike to reach the tower - Willow reaches back behind her, Tara grabs her hand, and then she telekinetically throws the minions aside.
An even clearer example is with Buffy in 'Same Time, Same Place', when Willow is using healing magic on herself:
WILLOW: It just takes so much strength. I don't have that much.
BUFFY: Me, I got so much strength I'm giving it away.
WILLOW: Are you sure...?
BUFFY: Will it help?
My assumption here is that having your power drained hurts, but only if you try and resist it. If you let go and relax, then it's no more uncomfortable than gradually drifting asleep. The catch is that it's instinctive to try and fight the person draining your lifeforce, which leads to the pain. Being willing to let it happen requires both a strong will and absolute trust in the other person. Tara and Buffy clearly both do trust Willow that much; Kennedy, at least in 'Get It Done', doesn't. (Though that may have changed by Season 8 as their relationship deepens.)
Power can also be given as a deliberate act by people with the right technique and training, charging them up with mystical energy. Rack does this to Willow in 'Smashed', and the Coven did it, off-screen, to Giles before 'Two To Go'. We can assume this is a fairly rare ability.
Calling on Gods
Willow calls on Osiris to resurrect Tara in 'Villains'.
This could be considered a special case of tapping the power of others; but a God by nature has so much power that they hardly miss the little they spare to power a spell. Such invocations are very common in ritual magic:
SPIKE: Eligor. I name thee. Bringer of war, poisoners, pariahs, grand obscenity. Eligor, wretched master of decay, bring your black medicine. ('What's My Line? 2')
AMY: Goddess Hecate, work thy will. Before thee let the unseen thing crawl! ('Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered')
TARA: Blind Cadria, desolate queen, work my will upon them all. Your curse upon them, my obeisance to you. ('Family')
WILLOW: Osiris, keeper of the gate, master of all fate, hear us. Before time and after, before knowing and nothing. Accept our offering. Know our prayer. Osiris! Here lies the warrior of the people! Let her cross over! ('Bargaining')
In general, it seems that the God does not require anything from the spellcaster except their words and prayers, although some spells may also involve a ritual sacrifice. On the other hand, the God will only be willing to perform the specific actions set out in the spell, according to their nature; and they may be fickle or contrary about it. (This might explain why Willow was unable to persuade Hecate to reverse the rat spell on Amy after 'Gingerbread'.)
An incredibly powerful spellcaster might be able to contact a God directly and bargain with them, or even command them to act - but as 'Villains' shows, some actions are beyond even a God's power to perform.
The gods called upon by spellcasters in the show seem to include ones from real-world mythology - Hecate is Greek, Osiris is Egyptian - as well as some who only exist in the Buffyverse such as Blind Cadria or Aluwyn. My own thought is that these divine entities are similar in scope and power to the Powers That Be, the Old Ones, the True Demons, and other such Buffyverse supernatural beings. While there might be distinctions between them, in human terms they're all immensely powerful, self-willed and dangerous. Those whom spellcasters regularly call upon are presumably the gods who are most willing to keep their bargains and react in a predictable way when mortals ask them to intervene in this world.
Xander casts the 'Libris Incendis' spell in 'Superstar', presumably drawing on the book's own power.
A spell which uses material components may therefore still be cast by a magician who lacks the necessary innate power. Conversely, an extremely powerful witch might be able to cast a spell that normally needs extensive paraphernalia using only her own willpower and magical strength (see 'After Life' for an example.)
Of course, magical items like the Gem of Amarra or Kendra's blessed sword have their own power which they use to fuel their magical effects, without needing to draw energy from their wielder. These could be thought of as "stored spells", given energy when they are first created which is released when they are used.
Spike brought Drusilla to the Hellmouth for the ritual to cure her mystical illness. (From 'What's My Line?')
Like a poorly shielded nuclear reactor, a Hellmouth broadcasts raw magical energy out into the surrounding area. This can be tapped into - even involuntarily - by people using magic in the vicinity. That explains why spells seem so much easier to cast nearby, why demons and sorcerors flock around the Hellmouth, and why there's so much general weirdness about. However, it's likely that a Hellmouth's mystical power is tainted by its evil - which is why the magic used in Sunnydale so often seems to go wrong in spectacular ways.
There may be other dimensional weak spots in the world, less powerful than a Hellmouth, which work in a similar way. Some of these might even be seasonal, becoming charged by mystical energy only under the full moon or when the stars are right.
"You... are a goddess" - Willow in 'Chosen'This is the ultimate power; the mystical flows of energy that lie behind all things. It's sometimes referred to on the show as Gaia or the Earth. Limitless in scope, these energy sources promise equally unlimited power to those who can tap into them. From 'Grave':
WILLOW: Wow... It's incredible. I mean, really... genuinely wow. I am so JUICED...Giles... It's like... No mortal person has ever had this much power. Ever. I actually feel it surging through every cell of my body... Every molecule... Like I'm connected to everything... It feels like... I can feel...everyone.
The very real danger is being overwhelmed by this; losing your individuality and being completely taken over by the forces you hoped to make use of. Few dare to risk it, and even fewer survive the experience. From 'As You Were':
SAM: Back in the jungle we had not one but two hard core shamans working for us. They were working the dark Magicks. Got addicted. And now they're gone. "Gone" as in nothing left.
There is not one single source of cosmic power but several - each linked to a specific aspect of the universe. Which one you draw on can have a significant effect. You can also, apparently, tell which one a person is using by the temporary colour of her hair and eyes. From 'Grave':
GILES: The gift I was given by the coven was the true essence of Magic. Which comes, in all its purity, from the Earth itself. Willow's magic came from a place of rage and power.
And from the shooting script of 'End of Days', an exchange that was dropped from the broadcast episode:
GILES: Willow... you know there's a way to do it without endangering yourself. Drawing positive power from the earth, the power that connects everything...
WILLOW: I know. And when I was in England I got it. But here... I can't do it. If I tried something big... I just know I'd change and then it's all black hair and veins and lightning bolts. I mean, I can barely do the locator spells without getting dark roots.
My assumption is that while the more mundane sources of power can be used for just about anything, tapping into the big cosmic forces restricts you to only using them for 'appropriate' magic. They're just so overwhelming that a mere human can't shift their direction or refocus them that much. So Willow can use the white magic power of the earth for benevolent spells like healing, or liberating the true potential of Slayers worldwide. However, if she uses magic for more negative ends - fighting, and breaking things, and putting up barriers, and hurting people - she can't use the white magic and has to tap into darker forces. It seems that the motive doesn't matter: even if Willow is using dark magic to smite an evil demon to stop it from eating babies, her spells are still being used aggressively to harm another entity, and so her eyes and hair will turn black.
This doesn't always happen; indeed, in Season 8 she only rarely turns black-eyed. In the intervening time after 'Chosen' she's learned to tap into other - more neutral - sources of power. She only reaches for the stronger dark magic when she really, really needs it - or when she loses her temper and lashes out, as she did with Amy in 'The Long Way Home'.
Types of Magic
So far, I've described the different qualities a spellcaster requires to use magic. However, the way they use magic can also be broken down and categorised - with the more powerful methods requiring more skill and knowledge and presenting a greater risk.
Tara casting a spell in 'Family'.
This is the most basic form of magic in the Buffyverse. At the minimum, casting a spell involves reciting the magic words; these are often in the form of poetry or in a foreign language, and may invoke the power of a God or describe what the spellcaster wishes to achieve. Some examples:
CATHERINE: Give me the power. Give me the dark. I call on you, the laughing gods. Let your blackness crawl beneath my skin. Accept thy sacrifice of Cordelia. Feed on her. ('The Witch')
AMY: Diana, goddess of love and the hunt, I pray to thee. Let my cries bind the heart of Xander's beloved. May she neither rest nor sleep until she submits to his will only. Diana, bring about this love and bless it. ('Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered')
TARA: Sensus confundantur et aer oppleatur. Caligo absorbeat mentem obscuratam.
(Approximate translation:) Confound the senses and charge the air. Mist engulfs. Mind is fogged. ('Superstar')
JONATHAN: Opus orbis est, et ea in medio. Tempus ad calcem intendit.
(Approximate translation:) The task is a circle with her at the core. The time bends to the goal. ('Life Serial')
DAWN: I cast you from this place. It is your poison and your bane. It is the skin that is cut from your flesh! I cast you out with every prayer from every god that walked the Earth and crawled beneath. I cast you out with the strength of those who love me. I cast you out with the strength I have inside me. I cast you out into the void! ('Conversations With Dead People')
Spells may also involve other elements. Magical items or components are frequently required; herbs, powders, etc. The caster may need to touch something, or drop something into a container full of liquid. A special or unique item, such as an Orb of Thesulah or Urn of Osiris, might be needed. Gestures may also be involved, such as the circling arm motions Willow and Tara make in the Passage to the Nether Realm spell in 'Who Are You?' As I speculated above, some of these ritual items may contain their own energy which is released to power the spell, while others may be used to concentrate and direct the magical energies called upon by the caster. In 'Get It Done', Anya describes such items as a 'catalyst', helping to bring about a larger magical effect.
We learn in 'Becoming' that understanding the magic words is not necessary, as long as you recite them properly:
OZ: Did I mention I didn't take Latin?
WILLOW: Y-you don't have to understand it. You just have to say it. I hope.
As shown in the examples above, spells on the show have been spoken in all sorts of languages, including English, Latin, Italian, Romanian, German and Turkish. Coupled with the fact that understanding the meaning of the words is unimportant, that suggests that it is simply their sound that causes the magic to take effect.
One possible exception to this is the Ritual of Restoration, because Willow starts casting the spell in English in 'Becoming 1', but casts it in Romanian in both 'Becoming 2' and 'Orpheus'. She may be possessed in the earlier episode, but she's definitely in control of herself by 'Angel' Season 4.
WILLOW: Not dead nor not of the living. Spirits of the interregnum, I call. Let him know the pain of humanity, gods. Reach your wizened hands to me. Give me the sword. ('Becoming 1')
WILLOW: Nisi mort, nisi al finitei. Te invoc, spirit al trecerii. Te implor, Doamne, nu ignora accasta rugaminte lasa orbita sa fie vasul care-i va transporta sufletul la el. Este scris aceasta putere este dreptul poporuil meu de a conduce. Asa sa fie, acum! ('Orpheus')
My hypothesis is that spells are normally recited in the language of whoever first created or discovered them, because that original caster learned the words that will summon forth the power reliably. Translating a spell is normally impossible, although it may be feasible to re-create the same spell from scratch in a new language. (But why bother?) Additionally, magic which consists of bargaining directly with a God can presumably be cast in any language which that God understands.
For the most part, spells take effect immediately after they are cast. However, from time to time we see what amounts to a 'delayed effect' spell instead. What generally happens is that the spellcaster creates an enchanted item which stores the power until it is released. For example, in 'Who Are You?' Willow and Tara conjure a Draconian Katra, which Buffy then has to bring into physical contact with Faith in order to reverse the body swap. Brewing a magical potion is another common form of this: the spell is activated when the potion is drunk.
Early on in the series, all magic took the form of spells - and the less-powerful magical characters continue to rely on spellcasting to the end. Willow and Amy, on the other hand, progress to more direct use of magic - but even they still go back to spells sometimes. Examples of this from the later seasons include when Willow tries to change RJ's sex in 'Him', and the Slayer empowerment spell in 'Chosen'.
My assumption is that using spells is simply easier. They are (comparatively) reliable formulae that call forth power in a consistent fashion. However, that same consistency also limits their scope and flexibility, and casting spells also takes more time and paraphernalia than simply commanding the magical forces directly. However, when a magical effect is extremely difficult, needs a lot of power, or simply is too important to get wrong, even Willow will resort to conventional spellcasting.
Willow shows off her newly-developed Light spell to a dubious Tara in 'Out Of My Mind'.
However, there is an alternative: creating your own spells, either by taking an existing one and modifying it, or even creating a new one from scratch. This is what I refer to as experimental magic.
TARA:How'd you do that? With the light?
WILLOW: You know. You taught me.
TARA: I taught you teeny Tinkerbell light.
WILLOW: Oh yeah, I tinkered with the Tinkerbell. It was easy. ('Out Of My Mind')
Tara seems surprised and impressed by what Willow did here, but also rather alarmed. However, by 'Triangle' she's joined Willow in experimenting with new spells:
TARA: There's this thing you can do where you create light, and we thought, what if you could make, like, simulated sunlight?
WILLOW: Yeah, so then, you know, there Buffy is, middle of the night, and she finds this whole nest of vamps, a-and then she just goes, Presto!
TARA: Only it won't be presto exactly.
WILLOW: And, and voom! There's a, a floating ball of sunlight. Vamps get dusty.
TARA: You don't wanna look right at it, though.
My assumption is that experimental magic is both difficult and potentially dangerous. Proceeding by trial and error can result in turning yourself into a frog... or blowing up your city. It therefore requires one or both of two things: an extremely profound knowledge of the basic principles of magic, or a level of self-confidence verging on blind arrogance. Willow, of course, qualifies on both counts and so is a natural at experimental magic. Few others dare to attempt it.
By Season 7 Willow only has to say 'Protect!" to create an impervious energy barrier. ('Selfless')
The most powerful magic dispenses with spells and incantations completely. The magic user simply states what must happen and exerts her will - or even dispenses with the words, and just uses gestures. One of the earliest examples of this is in 'Tough Love', after Willow has read from the Book of Darkest Magic and attacks Glory. While some of the magic she uses is still spellcasting ("Spirit of serpents now appear. Hissing, writhing, striking near.") she also uses simple one-word commands: "Shatter!", "Thicken!".
Most of the magic Willow uses in season 6 falls into this category - the ritual to resurrect Buffy being the main exception, probably because it stretched even her power. The two forms of magic are clearly illustrated in 'After Life', where Willow and Tara begin a conventional spellcasting - but then Willow becomes impatient and uses instant magic instead, to Tara's shocked surprise. From the shooting script:
WILLOW/TARA: Child of words, hear thy makers. Child of words, we entreat. With our actions did we make thee, to our voices wilt thou bend. With our potions thou took motive, with our motions came to pass. We rescind no past devotions, give thee substance, give thee mass. (repeating) Child of words, hear thy makers. Child of words, we entreat...
Tara breaks off, gasping, as a nimbus of light surrounds Willow. Tara looks at it, stunned. Willow opens her eyes. They are DARK WITH MAGIC.
The magic we see Amy using in 'Smashed' is similar in nature, demonstrating that she herself is an extremely powerful witch. Likewise in Season 8 Kumiko shows the same mastery.
My assumption is that using magic in this way requires the spellcaster to immerse herself in the power, becoming one with it. It's an extremely effective and efficient way to use magic, giving instant results limited only by the caster's imagination and power. However, it's also incredibly dangerous: without the discipline imposed by using a pre-designed ritual spell, the slightest mistake or loss of concentration could be disastrous. Using magic in this way also risks the spellcaster losing her individual identity and letting the magic take control.
To use an analogy from computer programming - which Willow would doubtless appreciate:
- Spellcasting is like buying a commercial application off the shelf and running it on your computer.
- Experimental magic is like modifying someone else's program, or learning a high level programming language and creating your own software.
- Instant magic is like hacking directly into the source code of the Universe.
Willow floats a pencil in 'Doppelgangland'.
This is something of a special case. Even in the early seasons, we see Willow performing simple magic tricks - like making pencils float, or projecting her thoughts into someone's mind - without any obvious spellcasting or ritual. It's possible that she cast a spell on herself off-camera to give herself these abilities, but there's no real evidence of that either way.
However, the abilities she demonstrates - telekinesis and telepathy, basically - are ones which are often categorised as "psychic powers", "psionics" or "the powers of the mind" rather than "magic." Willow herself doesn't think of them that way; indeed, she specifically says that she makes the pencil float in 'Doppelgangland' through emotional control and magic. In 'Triangle', she even offers to teach Anya to float pencils herself. However, examples of other characters using such abilities on 'Buffy' are few and far between - although there are some examples on 'Angel', such as the psychic Bethany in 'Untouched'.
I therefore offer two alternative speculations:
One is that Willow is, in fact, a rare example of a psychic in the 'Babylon 5' mode, as well as being a witch. Her being a redhead might be evidence of this, since everyone knows all redheads have strange powers. :-) Perhaps her two talents enhance each other synergistically, which would explain how she goes on to become so incredibly powerful. Humans with psychic powers are highly uncommon in the Buffyverse, however, which is why Willow assumes her abilities are magical in origin.
The second idea is that the telepathy and telekinesis are, in fact, side-effects of learning magic. Spellcasting is all about manipulating mystical energy using the power of your mind, and once you've learned to do that, the 'psychic' abilities come as part of the package. As for why Willow uses such powers far more than most other spellcasters - perhaps she simply has a natural talent for it, or perhaps the self-taught nature of her magic means that this was a skill she practiced far more often than witches who learn their magic in a more conventional setting. Alternatively, perhaps it's linked to Willow's greater use of Direct Magic. She immerses herself in the power and lets it flow through her body rather than manipulating it at a distance, and the pencil-floating could be an early sign of the abilities she develops with practice.
Just say "No" to magic addiction, kids. Also say no to gratuitous naked Alyson Hannigan pictures. ('Wrecked')
This was, of course, one of the most controversial aspects of Season 6. In my own opinion, the storyline is best approached at multiple levels, avoiding the trap of oversimplification. Yes, for a time Willow was physically addicted to magic. She was also psychologically dependent on it as an emotional crutch for her feelings of insecurity. One doesn't cancel out the other; Willow's ability to go cold turkey and give up magic for several months didn't remove her self-image problems; they were still a work in progress at the end of Season 7, and at least in the opinion of Buffy and Giles in 'Retreat', are still a major concern in Season 8.
So in what way is magic addictive? I suggest several options.
Firstly, it's often been suggested that there was something corrupt and tainted about the power that Rack gave to Willow. According to this theory, that power was physically addictive in exactly the same way as cocaine or heroin. When Rack "took his little tour" of Willow, maybe he was siphoning off some of her own power so he could replace it with his tainted magic.
Secondly is the idea that casting spells and using power can itself be an addictive activity. Perhaps it creates a rush of endorphins in the brain in the same way that high-stakes gambling or cutting yourself can do, which is why such activities are also classed as harmful addictions even if they're not in the same category as drug-taking. Someone using incredible amounts of magic on a frequent basis might well become psychologically dependent on the rush it creates.
It could be that all magic has this effect if done often enough, or only certain types of spells cast in a certain way while other forms of magic are perfectly safe.
Thirdly, it's possible to use magic on yourself or another which produces intense feelings of pleasure, similar to a drug high or an orgasm. This may be just a side-effect, as when we see Willow and Tara having sex thinly disguised as spellcasting in 'Who Are You?'; or it may be a side-effect that's embraced as the real reason for casting the spell, which Giles confesses to having done in his youth with Ethan in 'The Dark Age'. For that matter, in 'Wrecked' Willow is apparently casting a 'Give Self Psychedelic Trip' spell on herself, as a matter of pure self-indulgence. This kind of activity may not be physically addictive, but can become a psychological compulsion all the same in a vulnerable person.
Finally, there's the more abstract sense in which magic is power, and power enables you to fulfil your desires, and people want to do that. Willow wanted her life to go right, and her friends to all be happy, and magic seemed to offer her a cost-free way of achieving that. That's quite separate to any physical effects spellcasting might have on her.
Laws of Magic
Buffy's realisation that she could substitute her own death for Dawn's in 'The Gift' is an example of the magical Law of Similarity at work.
In the real world, anthropologists such as Sir James Frazer, Margaret Murray and Robert Graves catalogued various rules and principles which were believed to govern magic, such as the Law of Similarity and the Law of Contagion. In the Buffyverse, as we have seen, the writers deliberately steered clear of laying out any precise rules on how magic works, in order to give themselves greater freedom of storytelling.
Nevertheless, it is clear that there are basic principles of magic in the Buffyverse, which even powerful spellcasters ignore at their peril. From 'Get It Done':
WILLOW: Uh, conservation of energies. You can't really create or destroy anything, only transfer.
DAWN: I'm sorry, are you helping?
ANYA: No, but at least I'm not galloping off in the wrong direction.
WILLOW: Magic works off physics.
ANYA: Not without a catalyst. If you're talking about transferring energies, you need some kind of conduit.
The idea stated here that magic cannot create anything new, only change or transfer things from one place to another, is an important one. Of course, given the flexibility of the 'Buffy' writers, it could be that Willow's statement is only correct as far as she was aware at the time she said it, rather than being an immutable truth.
The Law of Contagion, to quote Sir James Frazer, says that "Whatever [a magician] does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not." This principle does seem to apply in the Buffyverse too, although it doesn't often come up. One example is that in 'Who Are You?' Tara asks Willow if she "has anything of Buffy's" to use as the basis for a spell. Willow does, since she's pinched Buffy's earrings.
The Law of Similarity says that, quoting Frazer again, "The magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it." This definitely applies in the Buffyverse, as we see as early as 'The Witch' when Catherine Madison makes a voodoo doll of Cordelia and blindfolds it, thus striking Cordelia herself blind. The locator spells that Willow regularly casts from Season 4 onwards rely on a similar principle, that in magic "The map is the territory".
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the Law of Similarity comes in 'The Gift', when Buffy realises that thanks to the principles of sympathetic magic she can close the portal herself by taking her sister's place, because in symbolic and magical terms they have "the same blood".
There are doubtless many other principles governing magic in the Buffyverse, and Willow could certainly discuss them at length with anyone who was interested: but for the most part we don't know about them because the writers preferred to make things up as they went along. However, there is one vitally important rule to remember, which Willow herself didn't properly appreciate until almost the end of the series:
The laws of magic are really just guidelines.
In the early seasons Willow seems to have regarded magic as a science; a view which seems very much in character given her background in computer programming. Magic is predictable and reliable, if only you can discover the rules which underlie it. If a spell goes wrong - which Willow's magic often did in the early days - it's the caster's own fault for making a mistake or misunderstanding something. Hence Willow's driving urge to learn more, practice more, master the art of magic so she wouldn't ever make such silly mistakes again.
By Season 5, she thinks she's cracked it. She's skilled and knowledgeable enough to cast spells reliably and accurately almost every time; and so she comes to believe she can do anything. The discovery in Season 6 that she's wrong almost breaks her. Magic is not like computer programming, it's not a science - or if it is, it has more in common with quantum physics and chaos theory than with Newtonian mechanics. It's unreliable by nature, and in many ways, at the deepest level, it's more of a self-willed entity than a mere collection of physical laws. Magic can control you and change you, especially if, like Willow, you give yourself over to it completely and let the power of the universe flow through you in order to tap into it.
By 'The Long Way Home', Willow has realised that magic is not something you can just switch on and off. You have to respect it, play within its own rules if it's not to overwhelm you:
DAWN: You can't just undo the spell?
WILLOW: Serious magic is kinda like improve, Dawn. You can't stop it cold; you gotta adapt.
Indeed, it is a key part of her realisation that this is the case that led Willow to seek the most unlikely source of wisdom as her mentor, the trickster goddess Saga Vasuki:
WILLOW: There is no journey. There is just within. So my path is where none's beaten... and for truth, I choose the trickster.
SAGA VASUKI: You're putting yourself in my hands?
WILLOW: I expect it will come to that. I'll know if you lie.
SAGA VASUKI: I always lie.
WILLOW: That's how I'll know. So how do we start?
(From 'Goddesses and Monsters')
By Season 8 Willow knows that there is no ultimate final truth of magic that can be pinned down and dissected. By deliberately choosing an unreliable mentor, she forces herself to confront that fact, every day of her advanced training. She must rely on her own self-knowledge and intuition, not received wisdom, if she is to achieve true mastery of magic. "There is no truth; there's just what you believe."
"Well, she got there sooner than most..."
"So many get hung up on the idea that space and time have rules out here."
(from 'Goddesses and Monsters'.)