Marsupial Pockets, Pachyderms, and Infinite Turtles: World Building in Fantasy

In Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein mock the deist clockmaker analogy—the universe is like a clock and thus there must be a clockmaker—by asking why the universe isn’t analogous to a kangaroo. Such an analogy, they suggest, would force interesting conclusions, namely, that the universe  “was born of another universe after that universe had sex with a third universe” (36). (While I know that Cathcart and Klein are laughing at the absurdity of their analogy, I kind of like the idea of a baby universe nestling in the pouch of its marsupial mother.) Fortunately for us, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld isn’t just analogous to a giant turtle; it’s actually carried on the back of one. And, in The Light Fantastic (1986), this world does seem to have sex and reproduce at a cosmic scale.

Come, and trip it as you go,

On the light fantastick toe.

(John Milton, “L’Allegro”)

Discworld, of course,  rests on the back of four rather large elephants who in turn stand on the shell of Great A’Tuin, a colossal—“ten  thousand miles long”—turtle that swims through space. One thing is for sure: Discworld brings the world-building aspect of fantasy into sharp relief.

The initial nod might seem to be toward ostensible medieval notions of a flat world, or European notions of Hindu creation myths involving elephants and turtles supporting the world.  Certainly, in the 1927 essay Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell ridicules what he characterizes as the “Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise.” Why not construct a fantasy world out of the cloth of the most antiquated and ridiculous caricatures of a world view?

It might have seemed easy to Russell, but it isn’t so easy in retrospect. What do we really know of elephants and turtles in Hindu cosmology? How do we know what is literal and what is symbolic? A modicum of humility is warranted when confronted with alternate cosmologies, whether Hindu or Ojibway creation myths.

In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking’s tells us the following story:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Without leaving the crazy silliness of it all behind, we begin to find ourselves in heavy territory. The remarkable absurdity of this world-image jars certain philosophical conceits by invoking infinite regress and paradox. Donna Haraway deploys a variant of our Discworld image to characterize science:

As my colleagues put it, science is practice and culture (Pickering 1992) at every layer of the onion. There is no core, only layers. It is “elephants all the way down,” in my purloined origin story about science. “Elephants all the way down” is an aphorism from the Indian origin story that has the world supported on the back of a pachyderm, who is, in turn, supported on another elephant, and so on, ad infinitum. Everything is supported, but there is no transcendent foundation, only the infinite series of carrying all there is. (“ A Personal Reflection on Love and War”  126)

The Light Fantastic begins with our heroes catapulted over the edge of the world into outer space in pursuit of the big questions: Where is A’Tuin going? And what is the Great A’Tuin’s sex? While the second question is never answered, the plot of the novel answers the first one.

The central crisis in this novel focuses on the appearance of a bright red star in the sky, the fear that A’Tuin is going to collide with this star, and various but mostly  inept attempts to prevent apocalypse. (Unlike the sun that rises and sets every day on the Disc, and which the wizards estimate to be about a mile across, this red star is very large, even bigger than A’Tuin.)

And as the star waxes, magic wanes: “Magic is weaker here, on the littoral of light.”  In the cities, where panic sets in and cults of the red star grow in size and power, wizards are killed or forced to flee.

Rincewind is a wizard who can’t cast spells because he once read the Octavo, a book with eight great spells, and one of the great spells in this book hid in his mind. In The Light Fantastic, the wizards want to read all eight spells to ward off the red star, but the spells don’t want to be read, so they try to prevent the wizards from finding Rincewind. Rincewind is accompanied by Twopenny, the world’s first tourist; his luggage, a trunk (or chest) made from the “timber of the sapient pear tree,” which follows Twopenny everywhere; Bethan, a chiropractic former Druidic candidate for human sacrifice; and the geriatric and toothless Cohen the barbarian.

There are a large number of similarities between Pratchett’s The Light Fantastic and other fantasy worlds.  For instance, Hayao Myazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城 or Hauru no Ugoku Shiro, from Ghibli Studios) strongly resembles the magical traveling shop in The Light Fantastic. Both Howl’s Castle and the magical traveling shop seem to mediate between worlds and places. Akin to the reworking of science fiction that occurs in Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s series and Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy , Pratchet’s Discworld series is a comedic and satirical parody of fantasy that pokes fun at the clichés to create humour and subverts generic conventions to produce novel effects and insights that are picked up by later writers.

The looming red star anticipates George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings where a red comet hangs over the sky and is variously interpreted by different characters. Martin’s comet reverses the loss of magic in Pratchett’s The Light Fantastic: instead, the comet corresponds with the rise of Daenerys Targaryen and the return of the old powers to the continents of Westeros and Essos.

Akin to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Martin’s sprawling epic fantasy series engages in serious world building. The similarity is evident in their preoccupation with mapping and history–their effort to provide a complete fantasy world. Similarly, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea offers tantalizing maps and an ontology: the linguistic being of Earthsea is the very basis of the fantastic.

Map of Earthsea

The waning of magic associated with the red star in The Light Fantastic is also reminiscent of Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, the third novel in the Earthsea Quartet published in 1972, and Gorō Miyazaki’s 2006 Studio Ghibli film Tales from Earthsea (ゲド戦記 Gedo Senki) which fuses The Farthest Shore with Le Guin’s fourth Earthsea novel Tehanu.

What is striking about these variant crises in Martin’s Westeros and Le Guin’s Earthsea is that they involve changing worldviews. In Westeros, it is mostly a matter of forgetting why people 8000 years ago would  go to the effort to build a wall that is 300 miles in length and more than 700 feet high on average. But it’s also a matter of the magic having gone out of the world, so the sensible world view is one that rejects such silly nonsense. But what if things change and the sensible worldview is wrong? What if a worldview produces blindness to a threatening reality? It is similar in Earthsea where magic is fading from the world, and wizards have been discredited. In both cases, the fantasy trope of magic represents an alternative to a failing worldview. In Tales from Earthsea, Le Guin’s critical feminist revision of patriarchal magic in Tehanu is enacted in tandem with the crisis in worldview. Indeed, the crisis is resolved by way of the awakening of Therru to her true being, by asserting the feminine. 

Magic has been a prominent figure of Enlightenment rationalist discourse for several centuries. It marks the antipode of reason. James Randi put it this way: “Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What’s left is magic. And it doesn’t work.” (The Mask of Nostradamus 66) The problem with his statement isn’t what it says about magic.  Randi is emphasizing a dichotomy with science on one side and magic on the other, and this simplified way of organizing the world into either this or that immediately forgets a few things.  Science doesn’t always work. Science is often motivated; indeed when it becomes the lackey for big business or defence departments it can become downright myopic and dangerous.  Donna Haraway’s account of being assigned to teach an undergraduate biology course at the University of Hawaii is helpful here:

I was part of a team of young faculty, led by a senior teacher, who had designed a course to fill an undergraduate general education science requirement for hundreds of students each year. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, home of the Pacific Strategic Command that was so critical to the Vietnam War with its electronic battlefield and chemical herbicides, this University of Hawaii biology course aimed to persuade students that natural science alone, not politics or religion, offered hope for secular progress not infected by ideology. (126)

She goes on to observe that she couldn’t teach the course this way because she was “acutely aware of how intimately science, including biology, was woven into [the Vietnam War]—and into every aspect of our lives and beliefs” (127).

Perhaps most important—and what falls out of Randi’s dichotomy—is that there are so many things that “work,” but for which we don’t have a scientific understanding.

Randi is a great sceptic, but is he a good scientist? Certainly the tactics that he used against  the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in the late 1970’s have been criticized. The McDonnell Laboratory was set up to investigate paranormal phenomena. As Jim Schnabel shows, in “Puck in the Laboratory,” Randi had two conjurers present themselves to McDonnell Laboratory claiming they possessed “psychokinetic (PK) and extrasensory perception (ESP) abilities” (468).  The Laboratory was initially somewhat taken by the two conjurers, but eventually applied tighter controls, under which the PK and ESP effects couldn’t be replicated. Despite the fact that they discontinued their study of the pair in 1982, Randi held a news conference in 1983 in which he announced his hoax, apparently in an attempt to publicly humiliate the McDonnell Laboratory (470). As Schnabel observes, the “episode received wide media coverage, and when the McDonnell Laboratory’s funding expired in 1985, it was not renewed” (470).

My focus on Discworld is intended to highlight the fetish for world-building that is one of the striking features of so much fantasy. Beginning with medieval revival, which exploited the supposed irrational worldviews of the so-called Dark Ages  between the decline of the Roman empire and the Renaissance, fantasy plays a delicate game of inhabiting the familiar and rationalizing (or often just positing) the remarkable.

Marion Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon offers a vivid case in point. The story carefully follows the traditional storylines established by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, Alfred Tennyson, and others, but it diverges by shifting the point of view from which the story is told to that of Morgaine (Morgan Le Fay). Most of the geography of the world is familiar—post-Roman Britain. This is a world that is already fantastic—dragons, headless knights, Merlin—because it reiterates the conventions of medieval romance. But Bradley modifies the “already fantastic” by identifying it with the Celtic matriarchal Avalon, and especially the Lady of the Lake and her priestesses of the Goddess. The rest of the world—the new patriarchal and Christian world—falls out of the fantastic for the most part.

This precise revision of the fantastic in Bradley corresponds with the removal of Avalon from the world, just as the fairies, in the book,  were themselves displaced at an earlier time. The power of the Goddess isn’t questioned or problematized, which makes sense because Morgaine tells the story.

In some ways, the novel is akin to a protracted version of Borges’ “The Witness,” which marks the transition from a pagan to a Christian worldview.

In Bradley, magic is redeployed as a feminist trope: while we’re invited to suspend our disbelief and accept its literal power, it symbolizes the feminine and a worldview that is antithetical to patriarchy.

One the most compelling incidents in The Mists of Avalon occurs to Morgaine after she is pregnant with her half-brother Arthur’s son. Twice, Morgaine becomes lost on the isle of Avalon and finds herself in a fairy world.

Avalon and the “elf-mounds” that lie beside or behind it are adjacent or overlapping fantasy worlds.

“There are now two Britains, Igraine: their world under their One God and the Christ; and, beside it and behind it, the world where the Great Mother still rules, the world where the Old People have chosen to live and worship. This has happened before. There was the time when the fairy folk, the Shining Ones, withdrew from our world, going further and further into the mists…” (13).

The alternate ways of seeing the world are merely false or eradicated, but they remain latent in the geography, traps or havens for the unwary. Morgaine tells us that “only an occasional wanderer now can spend a night within the elf-mounds, and if he should do so, time drifts on without him, and he may come out after a single night and find that his kinfolk are all dead and that a dozen years have gone by” (13).

Morgaine’s own experience of the elf-mounds is one of the genuinely fantastic sequences in the novel:

To this very day I have never known how many nights and days I spent in the fairy country—even now my mind blurs when I try to reckon it up. Try as I may I can make it no fewer than five and no more than thirteen. Nor am I certain how much time passed in the world outside, nor in Avalon, while I was there, but because mankind keeps better records of time than the fairy folk, I know that some five years passed. (407)

Given Bradley’s descriptions of Avalon and the fairies, we might wonder if “world” is even the proper word. Perhaps enclave or pocket would make more sense. Are these fantasy pockets? Pockets within pockets. Tom Shippey might call them polders: adapted from the Dutch technique of reclaiming land from water, fantasy polders  are “demarcated by boundaries…from the surrounding world” (Encyclopedia of Fantasy qtd. In Shippey 166-7). In “Threshold, Polders, and Crosshatches in the Merlin Codex,” which elaborates a model of fantasy in terms of “boundary situations,” Shippey cites a range of related terms including thresholds, crosshatches (one of China Mieville’s favourite words), wainscots (Harry Potter), and portals (think Alice in Wonderland and Narnia).

We could explore each of these ideas at length, but the key to The Mists of Avalon  is that the pocket or enclave or receding but still occasionally accessible realm is a literal recollection of an older worldview. (I wonder if palimpsest might be the right word—thinking of H. D.’s Trilogy.) The new world that replaces it—the Celts replaced the faeries, the Romans replace the Celts—is a physical manifestation of a set of beliefs about the world. In this sense of worldview, the pockets or polders become “worlds”—and such worlds become inherently geopolitical.

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Semley’s Journey: Fantasy at the Inception of the Hainish Cycle

Usually described as science fiction, Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, which includes seven or so novels and a few stories, is marked by lucid instances of genre inversion. This might be expected given that Le Guin is writing in the late sixties when she also begins the Earthsea fantasy series, but such inversion doesn’t occur in the Earthsea novels–only in the  Amazing Stories cover Hainish Cycle.  In general, fantasy characterizes the isolated world, while science fiction often supercedes or displaces fantasy as these worlds are enjoined with the broader galactic community. The most vivid instance of this occurs right at the very beginning of the cycle: first published as a short story in Amazing Stories (1964), “The Dowry of Angyar” later served as the prologue for Rocannon’s World (1966) and again as “Semley’s Necklace” in the retrospective collection of Le Guin stories called The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975). Alternatively, as can be seen in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which I’ll discuss another time, fantasy  operates as a mode that informs and potentially subverts the premises and assumptions of science fiction.

The science fiction rubric is clear enough: these are novels about the Hainish, an ancient galactic civilization that has collapsed and is being re-enjoined by the League of Worlds and then the Ekumen. The worlds, including Earth, are rationalized in terms of colonization by the Hainish some hundred thousand years ago. Species are ambiguous hybrids of autocthonous and alien, with some suspected genetic modification and probable evolutionary change. There is advanced technology such as ansibles, which provide instantaneous interstellar communication, and faster than light travel (no one can survive it, but it can be used for genuinely terrifying military purposes that anticipate Iain M. Banks’ 1987 Consider Phlebas). There is travel between the stars at nearly the speed of light, and so there is time dilation.  And so on—many of the obvious markers of science fiction.

Immediately at the beginning of the prologue of Rocannon’s World there is an italicized anthropological entry that identifies the different “High-Intelligence Life Forms” for “Galactic Area 8, No. 62: FOMALHAUT II.” The physiological characteristics, social state, and level of technological progress are noted for each species and race. The Gdemiar are “[h]ighly intelligent, fully hominid nocturnal troglodytes, 120-135 cm. in height, light skinned, dark head-hair,” who possess “a rigidly stratified oligarchic urban society modified by partial colonial telepathy, and a technologically oriented Early Steel culture” (3). The Fiia are likewise highly intelligent and fully hominid, but they are “diurnal, av. ca. 130 cm. in height”; they seem to live in “village and nomadic communal societies,” with “partial colonial telepathy, also some indication of short-range TK,” and they appear “a-technological and  evasive, with minimal and fluid cultural patterns” (4). The Liuar are taller hominids, above 170 cm, and they possess “a fortress/village, clan-descent society, a blocked technology (Bronze), and feudal-heroic culture” (4). There are two races of Liuar: the Angyar, who are very tall with dark skin and yellow hair, and the Olgyior, who have light skin and dark hair. The Angyar are “lords,” while the Olgior are “midmen.”

Obviously, this particular style of anthropological documentation is itself unfamiliar. We could peruse an entry on hominids on Earth and feel unsettled.  The discourse is pseudoscientific, that of a quantifying observer who fancies naming and classification. The bare rudiments of taxonomy, metrics, and abbreviations allude to a broader scientific culture. This perspective is that of the League of Worlds, of which Rocannon is the main representative in both the prologue and the subsequent narrative. Rocannon peruses the entry while trying to identify Semley, one of the Angyar, but it doesn’t tell him “who she is…” (4).

The story that gives us Semley’s story is not told from Rocannon’s point of view.  In this sense, it differs from the novel proper, which follows Rocannon in limited third person. The story, instead, follows Semley on her quest to recover her great grandmother’s jewelry, a necklace with one jewel called “Eye of the Sea” that is worth a kingdom, literally. Once we turn away from Rocannon’s point of view and follow Semley’s story, we enter into a fantasy world despite carrying this anthropological catalogue that cues us to science fiction. It immediately elicits us to think about the fantastic and all of the markers that constitute fantasy.

Marina Krasilnikova’s “Rocannon’s world”

The Angyar themselves are startling. They seem mythical or heroic. They are large, almost gigantic, beatific  and lordly people. Their world is feudal, and it is so essentially: they rule over the Olgyior by natural right. The coming of the Starlords seems to have initiated a crisis or decline—one that Semley responds to by seeking the necklace to restore her family’s status. They are sublimely beautiful in that oxymoronic sense to which Samuel Taylor Coleridge so strongly objected:  giant dark skinned and golden haired.

Semley’s quest for the necklace is, as Mary Fraughton has observed, a fantasy quest, in part because she seeks treasure, in part because the journey that she undergoes is the archetypical hero’s journey, what Joseph Campbell called Monomyth. (Campbell’s theory is problematic; I use it here as a shorthand for a narrative pattern.)

The crisis that precipitates her departure is the general decline of the Angyar. The discontent that leads Semley to leave home has been affecting her from some time before she acts. She is finally driven to leave by the humiliation of the Starlords using “a couple of dwarvish Clayfolk as interpreters” when they come to collect taxes.

The “Eye of the Sea,” the heirloom she seeks, went missing before the present crisis, and her attempt to recover it is really restorative: to restore the world and her family to its former status and social order. The quest is fundamentally nostalgic, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. It is, after all, a sort of unfathomable journey. Indeed, the “necklace all of gold, with the blue jewel set in the center,” described as a “kingdom’s ransom,” haunts the entire novel with an almost mystical presence—a quality of returning, an emblematic aesthetic that counterpoints Rocannon’s own quest. And yet, as Durossa and the Fiia tell Semley, she is what her husband Durhal values—not some token of wealth and status.

Monomyth is typically marked by a series of challenges and temptations, helpers and guardians, crossings of thresholds into abysses (the belly of the whale) and eventual return or rebirth with mastery of both spheres.

Semley’s two most prominent helpers  are also the starkest fantasy elements throughout Rocannon’s World: the flying beasts of the Angyar called windsteeds and the elf-like Fiia. Half feline and half raptor, the wingsteeds resemble griffons with tiger heads: “striped coat fitting sleek over hollow, buoyant bones, green eyes slitted against the wind, light and mighty wings” (8). Married women among the Angyar don’t ride for sport, so the wingsteed represents a return to her childhood.

Semley's wingsteed

Moreni Zaczytana’s Semley na wiatrogonie (Semley on windsteed)

The Fiia “are fair; they look like children, only thinner, and wiser” (7).They have no interest in gold. For them, “there is sunlight in warmyear, and in coldyear the remembrance  of sunlight; the yellow fruit, the yellow leaves in end-season, the yellow hair [on Semley]” (9-10). They are collective and telepathic, lovers of and dwellers in nature. Of course they don’t have the necklace—why would they want it? In the hero’s journey, the Fiia represent either wisdom or regression.  They don’t think she should go to the Clayfolk in pursuit of the necklace. She goes anyways. This double possibility–are they wise or merely like children who can’t engage with the realities of the world–continues to the end of of Semley’s journey. If we question Semley’s pursuit of her inheritance, we probably find the Fiia wise. If we admire Semley’s quest, we may well see the Fiia as an obstacle on her journey.

The Clayfolk are the Gdemiar. They have “lank black hair and gray-white skins, dankish looking like the skins of grubs, eyes like rocks” (11). In some ways, they are the crucial figure of transfiguration in the prologue—they are both the guardians of the threshold and the means of transport. As alluded to earlier, these troglodytic people are based on the dwarfs of Germanic or Norse mythology (or perhaps, more likely, J. R. R. Tolkien). Dwarfs, as we know from The Hobbit, love treasure. Indeed, they originally made the “Eye of the Sea” and sold it to the Angyar.

In the domain of these “Night-lords,” as the Gdemiar call themselves, Semley encounters significant technological progress, without understanding or even caring about it. They have “lights that burn forever,” cars that pull themselves, and machines that make clothes, cook food, sweeten the air, and serve (15). Such progress was implied in the anthropological entry describing the Gdemiar as “a technological oriented Early Steel culture” with technology “enhanced to Industrial” who were presented with an “Automatic Drive ship” (3-4). It may seem hard to believe that the League of Worlds would accelerate an iron age society to an industrial society and lend them a star ship, but this is exactly what has happened. Perhaps equally difficult to grasp, but of the utmost importance, the materialistic Clayfolk agree to take their star ship some four to five light years to New South Georgia in order to recover the “Eye of the Sea.” And they do this in return for Semley’s “thanks” (and perhaps a some groping of Semley’s golden hair enroute). Their adoration for Semley is evident in the compliance to her request—a request that is absurd by almost any measure, especially for a culture with a “bargain-obsession.” It is also seen in their “grudging wonder, a sullen yearning” manifest in their desire to touch her hair and her hands, feet, and throat during the voyage.

I want to emphasize Semley’s own perspective of the journey in order to hold it against what readers, who perhaps want to privilege the Gdemiar’s technological point of view  at this point, might overlook. As I’ve argued before, such instances of genre inversion mark different investments of belief and disbelief.  Held in tension here are two variants of the journey. Semley’s interstellar journey is stunning from a genre perspective. In fantasy terms, a journey into the underworld and the realm of night, a visit to the land of the dead, punctuates the big stories of mythology from Odysseus to Virgil. Bilbo Baggins is lost in the Goblin tunnels and has his encounter with Gollum. Gandalf has his battle with the Balrog. The Gdemiar tell Semley that they will take her “to the place where the treasure lies” on a “greater windsteed”—it is a “very far journey,” yet “it will last only one long night” (15).

The salient point, noted by the Gdemiar, is that Semley does not understand nor care about their superlative technology. Her wingsteed is packed away in some cryopreservation box. She is taken on a space ship at speeds approaching that of light. But Semley doesn’t understand these things. To her, a couple nights have passed and she just wants to put it behind her: “The price was paid, the past was the past” (20). For Semley, her ability to persist and undergo the unknown is the price she pays.

In many ways, Semley’s journey through the “long night” resembles the crossing of the magical threshold in the hero’s journey, what Campbell calls the “belly of the whale.” For Campbell, the hero is “swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died” (75). When Semley experiences the lack of gravity as she wakes up enroute, she asks, “Am I dead?”

And yet there is a marked difference between Campbell’s sense of the “belly of the whale” and Semley’s transit. “Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again,” Campbell tells us. But, of course, Semley goes precisely outward and well beyond the confines of the visible world. She doesn’t go inward. Indeed, Semley lack of interiority remains a constant from beginning to end. Nor is she reborn.

Semley goes on the hero’s journey and she returns from the sea of night with her prize, the “Eye of the Sea.” But the return  is not what she expects nor what we would expect from the hero’s journey. For, of course, nine years have passed in what has only been a few days for her. Her husband is dead. Her daughter is grown up. Semley breaks on what is, for her, an incommensurable experience.

Of course, Campbell’s hero’s journey seems overly focused on male heroes. As a woman, Semley has her own journey and her own conclusion.  She is heroic and her journey is a story, unlike her broken father, whom Semley visits in Kirien, and for whom “the story’s over” (9).  Semley’s journey marks the beginning of a new story. Her encounter with Rocannon in New South Georgia is what motivates his visit to her world.

The change to the world marked by Semley’s journey is encapsulated by her daughter Haldre, many years later when speaking with Rocannon, who has now come to their yet unnamed world: “The world itself has become a grain of sand on the shore of night. All things change now” (41).

Postscript: Rocannon’s World can be found in the three volume collection Worlds of Exile and Illusion (Orb Books, 1996).

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

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” ( (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