|'The Magic Circle' by Waterhouse|
Reading classic texts, we can see that for earlier cultures and traditions, magic really was everywhere--it permeated all aspects of life, and people took it very seriously. It could inspire fear and hatred, it could be a source of respect or suspicion, it could produce conflict between different cultures--it often did all of those things at once. Magic was not merely physically powerful, but powerful as a cultural idea.
All people were connected to magic in various ways. They all prayed, they all practiced rituals, went to holy days. They visited local witches and wizards to have curses put on others, or to defend themselves against being cursed, or to get a love potion made up. They had household gods who they needed to appease lest their lives fall apart--every home and family had its own little gods who oversaw everyday things.
|Roman Household Gods|
So, what happened to turn magic into a mere physical representation of power, something small and predictable? Well, lately, the movement in literature has been to take cues from videogames and tabletop roleplaying games, where magic is balanced, structured, and known, facilitating easy play--but this also brought in many of the assumptions and prejudices of those games.
For example, in most fantasy, there is often now a strict delineation between the 'natural world' and the 'magical world'. Many fantasy writers seem to take this completely for granted. They create a world that is, on the whole, scientific and realistic according to modern conceptions and physical laws--while magic is anything that doesn't behave in a realistic fashion.
|Sri Lankan Disease Demon Mask|
Yet, for many modern authors of fantasy, diseases occur under the modern notions of germ theory, storms occur due to weather systems, men die in swamps because mud is sticky. Their forests, seas, and skies are more or less like the ones we encounter in our everyday lives.
Magic in their worlds is not pervasive, it's uncommon, man-made, and separate from the rest of nature. To a man from myth, a lion and a dragon are equally magical, equally monstrous and powerful. In a modern fantasy story, a lion is 'just an animal', while a dragon is magic--but this is only because modern man no longer believes in dragons. And of course, even a dragon can cease to feel magical when it conforms so closely to cliche that we, as the reader, can predict everything about it.
It's the same problem many historical fiction authors make: they change the words they use, they change the way the world looks, the level of technology, the clothing, the food--but they keep modern psychology, the modern assumptions about how the world works. They make characters who act like modern, first world people of the middle class with a reasonable education, critical thinking skills, humanist philosophy, scientific rationalism, and a thoroughly modern sense of morality. Disconnecting magic from nature is just as thoughtless as writing a Medieval princess who spouts 3rd-wave feminist rhetoric.
In both cases, the author has changed nothing but the window dressing. Everything else is perfectly modern, perfectly familiar. So, in order to write magic well, you have to ensure that magic is not artificially bounded by notions of modern science, and that the people in that world possess an absolute belief in magic as a pervasive thing that affects every aspect of their lives--though, of course, there have always been skeptics and charlatans, so your characters don't have to believe in every myth, god, and hedge wizard.
|Hecate: God of Moon and Magic|
In the old myths, magic was often unpredictable--it depended upon many different things going well for the caster: the phase of the moon, the incanter's current relationship to certain spirits or gods (including whether they were angry or pleased with him at the time), the sacrifices made, the place where the magic is undertaken, whether the caster had recently committed a moral indiscretion, or touched blood, or a menstruating woman--all these things could ruin a spell, or at least affect its outcome.
If our whole world is magical--if the forests and the weather are magic, and the air is full of spirits, then anyone doing magic is going to have to contend with the forest, and with the spirits. It's a messy world out there for a wizard, and there are many things that can go wrong.
Often, wizards had to keep themselves pure--there were certain things they couldn't touch or ingest, places they couldn't go. In some cultures, a man stepping on your shadow can mess up your magic for days--or permanently, until you go and perform a ritual to specifically cleanse yourself. Which brings us to another point about most of modern fantasy: magic is no longer spiritual.
|You say 'Taboo', he says 'Tapu'|
If there is a moral code involved, it's usually just 'be a heroic dude under the modern conception of 'good'', which is not going to strike any readers as being particularly wondrous or magical--because it's nothing more than a plot convenience. There probably will be some little rules about what a magician can and cannot do, but again, they're usually pretty basic, modern, and predictable--and often, they'll only be brought up in order to conveniently deny magic to wizards when it could otherwise solve some plot conflict.
Lastly, I'll give the ironic piece of advice that, in order to make magic wondrous and strange, you have to make it commonplace and mundane. If magic is everywhere, if it touches everything, and every person, then it stands to reason that magic must be ubiquitous, and even expected. The average person is going to want to use magic as an explanation for why things unexpectedly go wrong or right--not just big things, but everything. Likewise, they will see magic in things that we would consider perfectly normal. The lion is just as magical as the dragon. The talking lion is magical, but only because all lions are magical, and all lions can talk, most just choose not to.
When Oliver Stone scripted the 1982 film version of Conan the Barbarian, he understood this, which is why the movie starts out with Conan's father talking about 'The Riddle of Steel'. He speaks in terms of myth and legend, of the secrets of the gods which were stolen by men, for their own purposes. Throughout the film, the idea is expanded upon and subverted in an exploration of military power versus political power.
But the truth is, the Riddle of Steel is just the process by which a high-quality steel weapon is made. Of course, as modern people, we know it's all to do with amounts of carbon and levels of heat and all of that, but to the characters in this story, it's magic--real magic. You follow a complex ritual, hoping to appease all the right spirits, doing everything properly, trying desperately not to commit any taboos that might ruin the magic, and at the end you get a magic sword--a sword that keeps a sharp edge, and which can cut right through lesser swords.
And the man who knows the secret of making magic swords? He's a wizard, just like the guy who can predict eclipses and the turning of the seasons and the coming of comets. Planting tiny pebbles that turn into full grown trees? That's magic. Eating a mushroom that makes you fly up into the sky and speak with your ancestors? Definitely magic.
Now, of course, we don't have to make every single thing magical in order for our story to work, but we definitely have to make sure that the magic parts are magical. In Dunsany, Poul Anderson, and Susanna Clarke, you have the 'normal world' which is contrasted with the 'magic world'. Of course, in the first two, the 'normal world' is actually magical, too--it's just that it's a friendly, low-key Christian magic versus the wild, shifting, fairy magic of the other realm. In Clarke's case, it's a very deliberate contrast between magic and science, between the decline of spiritual power and the scientific enlightenment of the Industrial Revolution.
Then there are stories like Howard's Conan or Leiber's Lankhmar, where the majority of people are rather pragmatic and bloody, living out their lives in the same ways each day, until they run up against the world of magic--a world that is vast and palpable and where every aspect is tinged with strange, unpredictable power.
So, it can often be useful to contrast the world of magic against the small man--but even that small man has his own idea of what magic is--or isn't. He has his own beliefs, rituals, and superstitions. Some of them might even be true.
For further exploration on some of these same concepts from the point of view of tabletop roleplaying games--but with many ideas equally applicable for writers, if you can get through the game-specific jargon--check out this article, which I found particularly inspirational.