Today was my day off from work, and I decided to watch Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood while I worked on the personality cores from Portal. I’ve done a little research into alchemy before watching the series, and the thing that both portray really strongly is the idea of equivalent exchange. That which I put into something, I get out of it. This creates the alchemy used in the anime. For example, if I have 34 grams of carbon, I can only get 34 grams out of it, whether alchemy makes it into a diamond or a segment of muscle or flesh. That law of existence exists in every religion, mythology, and science. Something can’t truly be destroyed out of existence, nor can something be created out of nothing.
The epiphany I got from this came from the back story episode behind the character Scar. We learn from the episode that he comes from a sector of the nation called Ishval. They are known for having red eyes, dark skin, and white hair. During a civil war, the character called Scar meets up with his brother, who is surrounded by notebooks and journals. Both of his arms are covered in black and white tattoos which he explains is his take on alchemy. “My right arm deconstructs and my left arm reconstructs.” He tells his brother while he is being urged to leave the city before the soldiers arrive. His idea seemed to be a beautiful take on the twin ideas of yin and yang. Constructive forces and destructive forces, in perspective, proper circumstances, and sound motivation, are beautiful forces in our known universe.
But, the idea that came to my mind from this quantifiable magic was an equation that fits almost every magic system I have seen or read about, with one glaring exception. The equation is this
Payment + Action = outcome
The payment is anything from physical energy exerted to the ingredients of a potion. This is what we present to the table for the desired outcome. It’s that 34 grams of carbon. Because something can’t be created from nothing, the payment part of the equation is necessary.
This is the area that I think lends the most creativity. The action part of the equation is the signature on the contract for the magic usage. Alchemists use the creation of a transmutation circle, the wand flicks and rituals of wizardry, and even the movement of words and tongue in incantations create the action that binds the payment to the desired outcome.
This is the desired effect we want when we bring magic to the table. It’s the diamond we made from coal, it’s the spear Edward Elric created from the cement floor around him. This is the trickiest part of magic, as far as my 10 years of research into fantasy and sci-fi literature is concerned. To create X item, I need not only to be able to see it in my mind, but have everything to create it, otherwise I won’t get the desired effect. Magic to fix things is easier, it’s simply a matter of rearranging components already there. Creation magic becomes the most difficult. Not only do we need every composite element of the desired object, but we must ensure that each piece is shaped and placed correctly.
I mentioned 1 school of magical thought that doesn’t follow this. That is the Harry Potter book series. The magic system at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry seems to be gathering circumstances and the object desired is created. This does create a lot of something-for-nothing spells. It also means that if I pull out a book of Latin phrases and start waving a wand around, eventually I’ll make a cool spell happen. Too much is left to chance, in my mind.
Well, there you have it, the law of magic according to Tony Graff.