In medieval times, witchcraft was believed to be a craft: arcane, complicated, and work-intensive. To the modern mind, though, this might seem dubious; we find it easier to think of magic as the power of the mind, a simple if powerful force, not requiring potions or incomprehensible words or weird ingredients gathered at midnight. Think “the Will & the Word” from David Edding’s Belgariad series, where magic is just a matter of mental focus.
As a writer, you might be drawn to one or the other based on personal inclination, but it’s worth notingthat both these ways of dealing with magical systems have their advantages and disadvantages.
The arcane method can give a sense of flavor and, especially in historical fantasy, authenticity; plus, it can be useful for plot reasons, giving your characters motivations for getting into all sorts of trouble. (This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel is a great example of this.) On the other hand, the reader might either be bothered by the fact that there’s no cohesive magical system, or, alternatively, bored by your explanation of how exactly it all works.
On the other hand, the “modern” method has the advantage of simplicity and believability. Plus, magic that comes from within can be useful in terms of character development.
As fantasy writers and readers, which system of magic do you prefer? Does either feel more authentic to you? Which makes for better stories – or does it depend on the type of story?
And last but not least, please share any books that you think do a good job of using one or the other!