The Forces of Light and Dark in Ico
Light Magic as a Natural Force
It is quite obvious that we don't really understand the magic in Ico. Even understanding exactly how Light and Dark magic relate isn't really possible given what we are shown. However, our lack of knowledge on this subject goes even further than this. I, and probably many people, label the strange forces we see in Ico 'magic'. Given the unusual abilities those who can control this 'magic' have, it is certainly somewhat 'magical' by our standards. However, we have to consider the meaning of 'magic' in the context of the story. In our world 'magic' refers to things which are generally accepted to be impossible, however the events of Ico are obviously possible within that world, so we cannot apply the usual definition of 'magic'. The first alternative that comes to my mind is the idea of a supernatural power, which allows those who can control it to do things they shouldn't be able to do. Initially I considered this to be the case in Ico, however over time I noticed that one of the differences between Light and Dark Magic is that Light Magic fits this definition less than Dark Magic. Eventually I came to the conclusion that it is possible that while Dark Magic is 'real' magic, the true supernatural, the dead come back to some form of life etc., Light Magic is not actually magic at all. It seems that Light Magic may be a natural part of the world, which some people simply know how to use better.
The Orbs and Reflectors
This theory leads on from the section on the Orbs and Reflectors, as it was those which originally set me thinking about this. They, while impressive in size, are probably the most 'mundane' appearance of Light Magic. The other sources include a sword with glowing runes, and a girl with magical powers. The Orbs and Reflectors, on the other hand, appear to be little more than a giant machine which uses a type of energy we are unfamiliar with. As I pointed out in that section, this leads to the possibility that there is more to Light Magic than simply being a supernatural power. When you look for it, you see it elsewhere as well, the main example being the Idol Doors. While it is impressive that Yorda and the Sword have a 'magical' ability to open the doors, another way of looking at it is that the 'magic' simply powers some kind of mechanism, and the source of that energy may be a special machine or a person.
At this point this theory branches to some extent, looking at two different aspects of Light Magic. One is the somewhat surprising use of it in such mundane ways, a view of it simply as a form of energy which can be used by purpose-built devices. The other side of the theory, which speculates even more, is that Light Magic is a part of nature. Not merely a power drawn from the natural world (which, in the end, all forms of power are), but actually related to the concept of nature.
Light Magic as a Mechanical Force
I'll start with the easier of the two. Light Magic is initially only seen in the lightning form, which aids the impression that it is some power which Yorda can call up. However, when you see the orbs and reflectors in action, you see that there is actually more to it. The fact that the power, magic, energy, whatever, passes from the reflectors to the orbs in the form of a beam of light is important. That this 'magic' can take two different forms, and does so even when it is only needed for a single purpose, means that both the beam of light and the lightning are simply physical manifestations of a greater power. Everything which can inherently generate or control this power directly, such as Yorda, simply use the lightning form, but in order for this mechanism to work, it actually calls up the same power in a completely different form. This is significant also for the other branch of this theory, but the part that is relevant to this branch is that both forms are a transfer of energy. Light magic never manifests as a stationary power, like the Queen's shield for instance. It is only ever seen when it is moving, with one minor exception noted in the next paragraph. So we can speculate that Light Magic is to some extent just a form of energy, and when we see it, what we see is merely the form it takes as it moves from place to place.
Once you accept this new more mechanical definition of magic, this talk of 'a form of energy' all seems obvious, but you must consider that Dark Magic does not follow this definition at all. Dark Magic always appears as 'true' magic. When the Queen uses her powers to close the Main Gate, she just does it telekinetically, with no visible force being used. Dark Magic sometimes appears as energy, but not the sort that powers devices, rather the sort that makes its appearance because it is interfering with the natural state of the environment it is in, such as the Queen's shield and magic attack. In that case it appears to be a kind of energy field, but not the sort you could imagine being used to power a mechanism.
Light Magic as Nature
This more esoteric branch of the theory is derived originally from the Reflectors. The name of these devices comes from the title of the save game when you save near them, a feature which gives fixed names to many areas of the fortress. It would probably not occur to anyone to call these Reflectors otherwise, as they don't appear to reflect anything. Visually, it appears that they generate the power they supply to the Orbs themselves, and it is the fact that their name suggests otherwise that makes them particularly interesting. Assuming, and I think it is a safe assumption, that their name is related to how they function or what they do, they do not 'generate' the form of Light Magic they send to the Orbs, rather they change it into that form from another. But, there is no obvious source for this power. They obviously don't reflect in a literal way like a mirror, but must instead somehow draw the power from somewhere else. Since there is no obvious source I consider it possible that the source is actually the environment the Reflectors are in, i.e. the world around them. Thus the idea that Light Magic is some energy or power or force which permeates the natural world, which the Reflectors are designed to draw out directly. I specify natural world, because when looking at the magic in the story from this perspective, Dark Magic fits in as an imposition of the unnatural. More on that in a minute though.
First of all, a couple of things that fall into place if we assume all this to be true. Obviously it explains how the Reflectors 'reflect' given no visible power source. As for this power which they do 'reflect', it takes two forms. One is a beam of light, and the other is lightning. These are both natural forms, both are seen in nature in a non-magical sense. Both obviously are actually magical, as the beam of light can be seen from the side in broad daylight, which should not be possible, and the lightning is harmless to everything except the Spirits. But that fact that they take these natural forms further suggests that Light Magic is somehow 'in tune' with the world around it.
Dark Magic as the Supernatural
I pointed out right at the beginning that Light and Dark Magic are not opposites; however they are obviously opposing forces. So if we assume Light Magic to be as aspect of nature, it makes sense that Dark Magic would be the supernatural. Even more elements of the story start to fit together if we take this perspective.
The most important point is that it explains the interactions between Light and Dark Magic, in particular why Light Magic seems impervious to Dark Magic. If Dark Magic is an imposition of supernatural power on the natural world, then it makes sense that the manifestation of the natural world's own power would always beat it. The Queen, as a Spirit, has tremendous powers and can control the world around her, but under this interpretation if she goes against Light Magic she is going against the very world she is in. She may be able to impose her will on her environment in general, but when faced with a strong manifestation of Light Magic, it enforces the natural order of things. Her attacks have no power, her shield cannot protect her, and the Spirits under her command simply vanish.
While accepting this theory does allow for some greater understanding of the overall story, it can't tell us a huge amount. This is because it does not deal with might or might not have happened, but more with the nature of the sides involved. Light Magic and Dark Magic interact in the story the way they do regardless of what you believe each power is, so this theory has very little potential to hint at events which aren't told to us directly. The strength of this theory is that it imposes some general order on all the events in Ico, known and unknown. Rather than just having two arbitrary magical powers which conflict with each other, with Ico and Yorda somehow caught in the middle, we can get some idea of what each side is.
When considering how likely this theory is to be correct, I think that if there is any explanation for what Light and Dark Magic are and how they are related to each other, then this theory is probably not that far off. It fits in with what we see throughout the story quite well, and doesn't attempt to be too specific anyway, focusing more on the general nature of each power than exactly what it is. If this theory is completely and utterly wrong, then most of the rest of my analysis must be as well, which is of course a possibility.
As for parts where it does not fit, there are some issues with it related to the more complex interactions between Light and Dark Magic. One in particular is the Casket Chamber bringing Yorda back as a Dark Being. It does not seem to make much sense that Light Magic could be used to do this, nor that devices based on the power of the natural world would be so entangled with death. This one example does not negate this theory as a possibility; it merely reminds us that we will never be able to figure out all the complexities.
Written by Crumplecorn