The Role & Proper Usage of Magic Thingamajigs

There is often a general complaint that, all too frequently, Fantasy protagonists rely overmuch on Magical Thingamajigs to save their highly sought after skins from the Dark; and in poorly written Fantasy literature this may easily be the case. However, any Fantasy author worth half a wizard's robe knows that such Magic Thingamajigs must supplement the user, not the other way around.

In short – and like magic itself – there must always be a price for using such arcane items; a price that the protagonist must be willing to pay, having already weighed it against the dangers of not using the Magic Thingamajig. In even shorter terms, all arcane items should be subject to the idiom "a double edged sword."  
Here are eight examples of such Magic Thingamajigs, all different from each other and yet all subject to the above idiom.

Elfstones: From Terry Brooks' Original Shannara Trilogy, the Elfstones are three blue stones of old Elvish magic that can only be used by those of sufficient Elvish blood. While immensely powerful, the stones may only be used as a weapon against magical creatures and there usage will alert all other magic-users in the area (and sometimes beyond) to the location of the wielder. Furthermore, the strength of the Elfstones, while again naturally strong, will partly depend on the will of the wielder. Gifted to the Ohmsford family by the mysterious Allanon, both Shea and his brother Flick along with the former's grandson Wil can confirm that the Elfstones should only be used in dire peril and when no other reasonable option is available.

Need: "Woman's Need calls me, as Woman's Need made me. Her Need will I answer as my maker bade me." An enchanted and at least somewhat sentient sword from Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar books, Need is dedicated to the overall protection of all women as well the general well-being and self-sufficiency of its (also female) wielder. For example, and as need requires (pun not intended), it will make a mage a temporary swordmaster and, alternately, a fighter immune to all magic. But Need will let its wielder die if bested by their own craft. It also has an attitude problem and any who come to overly rely on the blade will likely end badly. Moreover, and as Kethry & Tarma & Warrl (and Kerowyn) could testify, Need is as much a hindrance as a help, and probably nearly got them both killed more than it saved them. Finally, only women can wield her. (There is more, of course, but I do not want to spoil the books) 

Green Rider brooches: Clip clop clip clop clip clop....hoofbeats... From Kristen Britain's Green Rider Series, the brooches of the Green Riders of Sacoridia, finely wrought in the shape of a Pegasus and made of gold, are perfect examples or how just a little individual magic can go a long way (though, depending on the specific brooch, it may be more than just a little). In short, and for fear of spoilers, each Green Rider brooch possesses a single power which it then grants to its wearer, but at a cost. Rider Karigan G’ladheon, for example, can (at least, hehehe) use hers to turn invisible, but the price is splitting headaches. Naturally there is much else, but the brooches are more central to the Green Rider Series than typical of Magic Thingamajigs and the greater complexity that entails means I must be doubly cautious of giving out spoilers. Clip clop clip clop clip clop....hoofbeats...

The Harp of Gold: One of the four Things of Power from The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper. The Harp is a potent artifact of the High Magic of the Cosmos, and whoever plays the Harp creates generates a High Magic field the effect of which negates any nearby magic. The problem  as Will Stanton, Bran Davies, and the white dog Cafall found out – is that the protection only lasts so long as the Harp is actually being played (hence serious finger strength in required) and that its usage alerts all magic forces in the area to the users location. 

The Bells: "Does the walker choose the path, or the path choose the walker?" A key component of Garth Nix's Abhorsen Series, these sets of seven bells are the tools of both Necromancers and the Abhorsens who work to counter them. Used to either bind or raise the dead, each of the seven bells has a different name and function, effectively making each a Magic Thingamajig unto itself. They are Ranna the Sleeper, Mosrael the Waker, Kibeth the Walker, Dyrim the Speaker, Belgaer the Thinker, Saraneth the Binder, and Astarael the Sorrowful. As Sabriel and Lirael could tell you, these bells are perilous as a rule and each more dangerous to use than the last (more or less), for they are tricksome and will seek to ring of their own accord and/or off-key so as to harm the ringer (hence a steady hand and steadied nerves are a must before ringing). The Abhorsen's set of bells are silver with mahogany handles, while ordinary necromancers' sets are often made of bronze or silver with handles of ebony or bone (a fact which the cover artists tend to ignore). 

The One Ring: "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them." The Ring from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; I am fairly certain we all know the quirks and perils of this most dangerous of Magic Thingamajigs, so I shall be brief. Wearing it renders the user invisible, but often leaves the ghost of a shadow behind – particularly when in direct light. But be wary, for the Ring is altogether evil and will alert and generally draw the servants of the Dark Lord Sauron (as well as other foul and nameless things). Invisibility does have its uses, but the continued use will make the bearer gradually more protective of it until said protectiveness becomes a jealous madness of addiction. (There is more, of course, but I do not want to spoil the books just in case a few readers have committed the criminal act of not reading Tolkien.)

The Three: "Three for the Elven-Kings under the sky." It is seldom properly credited, but J.R.R. Tolkien actually invented twenty Rings of Power and, after from the One, it is the Three Rings of the Elves that are most worthy of note. They are Narya (called Narya the Great, Ring of Fire, and the Red Ring), Nenya (called Ring of Adamant, Ring of Water and the White Ring), and Vilya (called Ring of Air, Ring of Firmament, and the Blue Ring). These Rings are not military weapons nor even made for the purpose of war as the One was, but rather – aside from individual quirks – were uniformly wrought to preserve the beauty and lore of the Elder Days by blocking evil forces and preventing the great decayer that is Time from having an effect. Their bearers I shall keep secret, save only in saying that each is a key character in The Lord of the Rings. The price is that, like all the Rings of Power, they are subject to and dependent upon the dark strength of the One Ring (I shall hold back further details, as that knowledge is a prize owed only to who have delved deep into the lore of Middle-earth).
The White Chronicle: As Lippti said, "Countless possibilities fade into the darkness. Yet there exists a razor-thin path of light." From the beyond book-worthy game Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology, the White Chronicle is/takes a new, simple, and frankly ingenious twist on the classic old time-machine trope. One will notice, after all, that time traveling is seriously seldom used in Fantasy because it can give the protagonists too much power and undermine the seriousness of the story. Recall the Time-Turner from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? If not, stop reading this article for fear of SPOILERS and start the reading J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series instead. Moving on, Rowling perfectly articulates why time-travel mechanisms (such as her own Time-Turners) are rarely employed in Fantasy literature, so I will give her the floor: "I went far too light-heartedly into the subject of time travel in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. While I do not regret it (Prisoner of Azkaban is one of my favourite books in the series), it opened up a vast number of problems for me, because after all, if wizards could go back and undo problems, where were my future plots?  I solved the problem to my own satisfaction in stages. Firstly, I had Dumbledore and Hermione emphasise how dangerous it would be to be seen in the past, to remind the reader that there might be unforeseen and dangerous consequences as well as solutions in time travel. Secondly, I had Hermione give back the only Time-Turner ever to enter Hogwarts. Thirdly, I smashed all remaining Time-Turners during the battle in the Department of Mysteries, removing the possibility of reliving even short periods in the future. This is just one example of the ways in which, when writing fantasy novels, one must be careful what one invents. For every benefit, there is usually a drawback." Which is exactly why I am writing about the Radiant Historia's White Chronicle instead of the Time-Turner, because the White Chronicle has a key limitation that the basically all time-travel thingamajigs lack. That being that the Chronicle's wielder can only travel back in time to events they themselves participated in, giving them the opportunity to remake important past decisions; to act on 20:20 hindsight, as it were. For example, say you are performing a rescue mission and reach a crossroads one path of which will likely lead to complete disaster. You make the wrong choice, take that wrong path, and you and your friends are toast. However, with the White Chronicle you can cheat death by slipping into Historia and then time travel back to that fate-deciding junction where, armed with foreknowledge, you take the correct path.
However, if your friends in another part of the world are killed because they made a bad choice (even if it seemed wise at the time of making) then the White Chronicle is powerless to save them. I will not say whether this exact rescue-mission situation appears in Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology, but the game is built upon this power of the White Chronicle's, the objective being to use it across multiple possible timelines to save the world from desertification. As Lippti said, "Countless possibilities fade into the darkness. Yet there exists a razor-thin path of light." Yet this being the game's objective furthers Rowling and mine's point about why time-travel thingamajigs are scarce in Fantasy literature. She said "if wizards could go back and undo problems, where were my future plots?" Nowhere. Which is why Radiant Historia's plot revolves around being able to do just that in order to move said plot forward. In short, even time-travel thingamajigs like the White Chronicle are dangerous, unwieldy literary tools because instead of being an interesting plot devise their very presence will either undermine or become your plot. Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology got around this by deliberately making it the plot, while Rowling saw the literary peril of Time-Turners and destroyed them. 
(Yes, I am well aware that Sci-Fi often employs time travel and is generally unconcerned with temporal paradoxes. In the immortal words of Star Trek: Voyager's Captain Kathryn Janeway, "My advice in making sense of temporal paradoxes is simple: Don't even try." I appreciate this but, interestingly, I have noticed that Fantasy writers tend to avoid temporal paradoxes like the plague. An avoidance I approve of, for temporal paradoxes would only add to the already potent list of problems Time-Turners and the like cause. I fact, I can think of only a single Fantasy which employs a temporal paradox, that being the game Fire Emblem: Awakening; I am not complaining about it, as Awakening ranks among my favorite games of all time, but it does further illustrate my point since the game's plot is literally built around the paradox.)

Dare you touch...?
It tells the truth
Other examples, such as the Alethiometer and the Stone of Jas, I will not speak of period save in name, for their very nature is cloaked in spoilers. One must needs read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy to learn of the former, and become a veteran player of the MMORPG (computer) game RuneScape to delve into the latter. This is not all, of course, and I could talk at length about items such as the Orb of Aldur and the Bhelliom from David Eddings' series The Belgariad and The Elenium, but they are of a special nature and also steeped in spoilers (especially the latter), so I shall end here.

"These things have their rules. All things have rules." - Neil Gaiman

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