Sociality and Magic: Casting Spells Among Others

Some discussion about Jo Walton’s Among Others has focused on how narrator Morwenna Phelps (Mor)  might be an unreliable narrator whose point of view makes magic in the novel ambiguous. Perhaps we can accept fictional magic if we can frame it in terms of psychosis or even the vague comfort derived from having a story told in the first person. So often what we want to do with apparent magic is to critique it—to take it apart and provide an explanation, one that allows us to say that what we thought was magic was instead an organic chemical reaction or perhaps behavioural psychology. The sceptics prefer fraud, drugs, or craziness, usually together.

Walton has said that she didn’t intend for the magic to be ambiguous; instead, she tried to create “a magic system that was unfalsifiable, with plausible deniability, a magic system that really could exist in the real world without any of us being stupid for missing it” (io9.com). (If you’re a stickler for the law of noncontradiction, you might as well stop reading already.) One of the central points that Mor makes from the beginning of the novel is that magic isn’t like it is in books.

Magic is always explicable, she tells us. It can be explained because it creates the set of rules that allow it to be rationalized: “You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic…It makes those chains of coincidence” (40). The novel opens with Mor and her sister casting a spell to destroy the Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi, Wales by dropping flowers in a puddle on the site of the factory. The closing of the factory is announced in the newspapers the following day. Later Mor notes that “the decisions to close it were taken in London weeks before, except they wouldn’t have been if we hadn’t dropped those flowers” (40). You are always able to say, no, this is what would have produced it. In this case, the girls happen to cast their spell the day before a pre-existing decision is announced. But Mor knows that the decision was produced by the spell. This is thinking of magic in terms of circumventing (reverse engineering?) causality.

Ursula Le Guin has suggested that Walton moves the boundary of elf-land, by which she means that Walton “alter[s], or make[s] more permeable, the wall between the possible and the impossible.” And Le Guin suggests that if “readers who dismiss fictional magic as soft-brained wish-fulfilment will look at what Walton’s doing at that boundary line, they’ll see a harder, more honest intelligence at work than in the kind of ‘hard’ sf that uses the terminology of scientific theory….”

Walton’s “unfalsifiable” magic flummoxes the Enlightenment impulse to disenchant, which is part of what Le Guin might mean when she says that Walton moves the boundary of elf-land. But it also stirs up more trouble around the distinction between possible and impossible. One way to bring this trouble into focus is to recall Joanna Russ’s suggestion, in her introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women, that fantasy provides women a “method to handle the specifically female elements of their experience in a way that our literary tradition of realism was not designed to do.” (Russ’s short story “The Second Inquisition,” in this collection, is a masterful example.) One of the strokes of genius in Walton’s novel is that fantasy and magic become means to handle aspects of social identification and control, individuation and social enjoinment, that realism often misses. Gender is important to this, but I think Walton goes beyond gender as well.

Social alienation is a prominent theme in Among Others. From the outset, Mor’s loneliness and social idiosyncrasy is intensified by the recent death of her twin sister (Morganna, but also called Mor) and the shifting variants in her own name (Phelps to Markova; Mo, Mor, or Mori). Early on, Mor speculates that her aunts send her to school at Arlinghurst “to get rid of me” (19), although readers might guess that they want her be more like them.  At school, she is a disabled, Welsh outsider among the homogenous sports-loving British schoolgirls, who call her names like “Taffy,” “Thief,” “Commie,” “Crip,” and “Suck-up” (35).

Mor’s alienation is rooted in her flight from her mother, a witch who also seems to be mentally ill.  This  is complicated because her mother is a witch and casts magic spells, so there is no way to parse it out and say that maybe the magic spells and the witch-ness are just a metaphor for a type of domestic or psychological abuse—although I certainly want to hold onto that idea.  Rather, her mother is a witch, and Mor has access to the supernatural, to the ability to cast spells, and she sees fairies. That certainly could be a metaphor for her social alienation from her peers, and it is one that aligns her with her mother, from whom she is trying to escape. We could think about that metaphor extensively, but we can also treat magic literally in terms of social interaction and social coercion. This becomes most apparent in the types of spells that Mor and her mother cast. Some of the most prominent spell casting in the novel involves her mother finding out Mor’s location and trying to harm her from a great distance, especially in the night. In turn, Mor casts spells to protect herself from her mother. We can obviously think about this quite literally. We really don’t even need magic to explain it, but magic offers a unique way to think about how people affect us at distances and over time—or how we somehow manage to extricate ourselves from such influence.

Ultimately Mor finds companionship via reading, but that reading becomes bound up in magic because she casts a spell for a karass—the word was coined by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in Cat’s Cradle (1963) to name a group of people who act towards some common goal without knowing what they are doing. Mor has read everything by Vonnegut Jr.. She discovers her karass when she’s asked to participate in the SF reading group that meets Tuesday evenings at the library in the local town of Oswestry.

The karass is fascinating because one of the rules of magic, or I guess one of the moral lines, as Mor understands it is that you really aren’t supposed to ask for things for yourself. But she casts spells to defend herself against her mother, and the request for the karass is an attempted solution to the horrible inadequacies of the boarding school that she’s at. Of course, it is the boarding school where the prominent alienation that she experiences socially is accentuated. What we know is that prior to this, in Wales, she wasn’t alienated in this way; she had her sister and friends. She belonged, albeit much of that belonging involved her twin and the fairies who help her thwart her mother. Here, in England, not even the things she’s good at matter much: she’s good at school, but that doesn’t mean much. What do people care about? What are the values that people invest in?

The karass is fascinating because inside this intense alienation, she asks for the karass and it’s given to her, but then she struggles with cats cradlethe ethics of it. The flip side of that moral line is whether you really want friends who are your friends because you’ve cast a spell and made them your friends. I like the ambiguity in the novel because there’s no clue, there’s no way in or out of this. Is it magic? It sure is coincidental; although there is a bit of naming involved in it in the sense that she interprets the reading group as her karass. There is a shift that happens, and I know these shifts can happen as part of our psychology. For Mor, the karass becomes a social site of belonging that enjoins her passion of reading science fiction and fantasy. The fact is that she wants it, asks for it, and gets it, and it allows her to belong. So here there is ostensible magic that she asks for in a spell, and I think that seems like quite a coincidence, maybe it is magic;  but later I think, you know, kids find out about reading groups, reading groups pre-exist, and maybe she just found it. That is, I begin thinking of the karass as magic but then it leads me like a golden thread, it leads her back into the world. The end of the novel, for me, isn’t about the conflict with the fairies or her mother, but her new relationships.

Another prominent example of how magic and sociality intersect follows a pattern that is almost opposite my experience of the karass. The three aunts represent everything that is normal about upper-class, respectable British society. In a sense, they epitomize conformity. As Mor puts it, they are very English. They insist that she call them Aunt rather than aunty. Their names are Anthea, Dorothy, and Frederica, but it doesn’t matter because Mor can’t tell them apart. They insist that Mor be sent to Arlinghurst, and they take her shopping to purchase the school uniform. They seem to derive a great part of their sense of self from their time at the school and get excited about news of Scott, their school house, winning the cup.

And yet, there is this point when all of this shifts. Whatever the aunts represent in terms of banality and British culture changes when they give Mor a set of earrings and insist that she get her ears pierced. Such generosity seems to extend the aunts’ effort to make Mor conform. In this case, pierced ears are a gender norm and the earrings are a family heirloom: “The pearls were our mother’s,” one aunt informs Mor. “All teenage girls have it done now,” another says. “It’s the fashion,” the third adds (173-4).

This is so normal. Isn’t this what young women do?  Ear piercing is one of the oldest forms of body modification, and it is practiced by both men and women in different cultures, but in England circa 1980, wearing earrings was a gender norm, and a girl getting her ear pierced performed that gender norm–as did aunts who gave gifts.

But Mor sees it in terms of magic: “I opened the box carefully, and inside were three pairs of earrings, which I could tell even without touching them were absolutely bursting with magic” (173). She declines their gift because, she explains, she doesn’t have nor want pierced ears, but mainly it’s because she realizes that the gift is an attempt stop her from doing magic: “I had never thought about it before, but as soon as I did, it was quite obvious to me that having your ears pierced would stop you being able to do magic. The holes, the things in the holes, there they’d be, and it wouldn’t be possible to reach out” (174).

If Mor loses her ability to do magic, she will fall under the aunts’ control: “Now they wanted to control me entirely, which is what the earrings would have done” (174). Thus magic is both a way to control others—how the aunts control Mor’s father, Daniel—and the means to maintain individual autonomy. The control of other people pervades relationships, families, communities, and institutions. Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation is a vivid illustration of such control and how individuals become complicit in their own subjection. Mor’s exchange with the aunts brings ideology to bear on the much older practice of magic and thus pushes magic into the centre of the social arena.

Mor recognizes that her three aunts are witches:

They are witches, they must be, and they’ve been very clever up to now and I have been very stupid, because I hadn’t guessed at all. I should have been suspicious because there are three of them, and I should have been suspicious because they wouldn’t let me cook, and most of all at the way they all live here and do nothing and control Daniel. I totally missed it because they’re bland and English.  (174)

Instead of something exotic and unfamiliar, magic possibly defines the norm and enacts the very basis of social identity. In one of my favourite moments in the novel, Mor protests the “appointment” to get her ears pierced: “They sounded so bloody reasonable and adult and sane, and I knew I sounded unreasonable and childish and crazy” (175). Personally, I find this brilliant because suddenly what seems banal or normal is understood to be magic. It blurs the line between magic and non-magic, drawing on social and cultural practices that enact gender norms to rethink the nature of magic.

The aunts’ attempt to get Mor to pierce her ears is an exact blurring of the line between sociality and magic. It is a point when whatever magic is in the novel is indistinguishable from sociality. Magic may not be the right word for how society and culture constrain or liberate individuals, but this blurring–or pushing the boundary–displaces the idea of magic into social norms. Seeing it in terms of magic emphasizes how inexplicable what happens in the social dimension can be. These British witches suggest that magic may be part of the everyday—we just don’t recognize it in these terms. Mor comes full circle when she reflects, “I thought those earrings were to control me, but maybe they were to make me more like everyone else” (178).

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

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