One of the great things about fantasy worlds is the multitude of ways in which magic is presented. As with any power, however, it’s only interesting as far as it is limited. Ned from Pushing Daisies can revive the dead with a touch, but only for sixty seconds; otherwise there are dire consequences. Fullmetal Alchemist’s alchemy centers on equivalent exchange, the idea that you must give something of equal value to obtain what you want. And in many universes, magic is only accessible through the use of physical magical tools.
A wand is the most basic example of this sort of tool. In Harry Potter, most magic is done with the use of wands, with very few exceptions, like potions and divination. And because so much rests on these fragile glorified twigs, they provide a worthwhile point of conflict for the series. Think of how many stakes are tied to wands in Harry Potter. Ron breaks his wand, and he has trouble coping in classes and schoolwork all year because the taped-together wand cannot cast spells. Spells cast with a wand other than your own lack potency. Wands with matching cores cause their owners to be linked. Wandmakers and wandmaking are at the core of the final conflict: a battle over the most powerful wand ever created.
Take a wizard’s wand in a fight and it’s essentially over, whether it’s Snape and Lockhart’s duel in Chamber of Secrets or the trio’s capture by Snatchers in Book 7; there’s nothing magical you can do defensively or offensively without that little piece of wood in your hand. Wands create a believable limit on the use of magical power, and without limits, there’s no source of conflict.
Fairy Tail provides an interesting twist on the use of magical items in their Edolas arc. In this part of the story, the main characters, all magic users are transported to an alternate universe where they meet their alternate selves. In their home universe, Natsu and company draw their magical powers from nature and themselves, and use their powers unaided by intermediary tools.
In Edolas, however, there is a finite amount of magic, and it’s only accessible through items. Because of this, black market trade in magical things is common, and the amount of magic you can use is dependent on what you can afford to buy. This creates a unique situation for our heroes, because they have to adapt to magical limits that they’ve never experienced before and don’t understand. I found this arc especially interesting because the main characters’ powers in their own world are less limited. All of them are massively powerful, and I often find them boring because there’s no fight they can’t eventually win through sheer force.
Stinekey recently wrote about vampires for this column, and mentioned that, the fewer limits a magical creature has on its power, the less we care about their conflicts and triumphs. This stands true across magical worlds, and across fiction in general: if something is easy to attain, the story behind attaining it is probably boring. Wands, charmed objects, steles, hex bags, and other items provide a focus for the magic in a world, and a limit on how it can be used.