Sunday, December 19, 2010

The subtle magic in Random Magic...

So, subtle magic -- what does that mean?  Well, to begin with, subtle is defined as: “finely textured.” “Delicate.”  “Elusive.”  “Perceptive, refined”  “Having or marked by keen insight and ability to penetrate deeply and thoroughly.”   “Cunningly made or contrived: ingenious.”   And looking at this story, what does that really mean?  And please be warned -- there are some spoilers ahead.....

If you’ve been following this blog tour, you know by now a bit about the story. And if, not, no worries -- my review will be posted next.   This story has magic in abundance, although not all of the magic is overt.  For sure, there are the bigger magics: Winnie changing a rubber duck into a boat, for example.  These are the kind of magics a reader might expect, especially if you are used to the world of Harry Potter.  However, there are many smaller, more subtle magics at play throughout this book.    

Take, for example some of the small hints.  On page 92,  Henry encounters “Erebus root,” which has a nasty stink to it.  So what’s Erebus?  It’s not a what; it’s a person.   According to Greek mythology, Erebus was the Son of Chaos, and he married his sister Nyx (who, incidentally, also pops up in the story).  He and Nyx had several children, including Charon, the ferryman (who also has an encounter with Winnie and Henry).  (Other member of their brood, by the way: “Nemesis, Hypnos and Thanatos).  So what does this have to do with magic?  Maybe not much, but you never know --- either way, it’s a hint about what Winnie and Henry are encountering, and might come into play later.  When reading this book, I frequently would discover little things like this that I would delight in.  Such as: the salad described on p. 119 -- it contains blooming nightshade, briony, laburnum and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.  All of these are poisonous.  To know this is to know what kind of nasty (and yet cool) salad this is.   And by the way, you might know “Laburnum” from Richard Adams’ Watership Down -- Hazel encounters a rabbit named Laburnum, which is disturbing, because in their language, the name means “Poison Tree,” something a rabbit should never be named.

Or how about this subtle magic -- names.  As many readers know, throughout mythology and stories, examples can be seen of secret names, or names that had great power.  In many fairy tales, one’s own name holds great power (which is why you should never tell a fairy your real name).  To invoke is a name is to draw power.  In this story, one example is Nevermore, the raven that Winnie and Henry meet, and whose name Winnie later invokes in a desperate moment.  There is also subtle magic in words -- Winnie uses this power to call upon “The Letter of the law,” cleverly using words to her advantage (to cross bridges, for example).   And speaking of words, I took notes on some I particularly liked when I came across: “pipsqueakery” (p. 48), “sniggling” (p. 85), and “snarky black something” (p. 108).  .....  I have days where I believe I have a snarky black something lurking close by.

And there’s the subtle magic of objects.  Think of your favorite pair of earrings, or pair of shoes.  Maybe you have a good luck charm that means nothing to anyone except you.  Winnie has a feather.  Does it perform magic tricks?  Does it turn into a brilliantly-winged bird that then turns into a magical hat?  No.  But it does something wondrous, nonetheless.... it tickles.  And yes, you’ll have to read the story to find out more.   And what about the worn blanket that Henry gives to the gatekeeper?  Or the old knife he gives up at another gate?  These objects would seem ordinary at first glance... but then it is explained to Henry that “The blanket was woven with more than thread.  It was woven inextricably with the memory of someone who shivered so you could be warm.  And the knife...wasn’t just a broken blade.  It was used by someone who went hungry so you could be fed.”  (p. 279)    

This is the beauty of subtle magic --- something can appear to be ordinary, or or common, but the real value in it can be something intangible, and yet invaluable if seen differently.  Imagine a favorite toy (or stuffed animal) you loved as a child and forgot all about --- if you discovered it one day, tucked away in your attic, you might feel like you’ve found a treasure, even if it looks worn or old.  An old coat discarded by one person could be prized by another, seeing in that coat the warmth and shelter they need.   This is the subtle kind of magic we all encounter, and is all around us.  I see small magic at work when I see birds at my feeders, or when I encounter tiny new plants in the Spring.  Or make something like a necklace out of odd beads and discarded keys.  In this story, Henry doesn’t always understand that the wonderful, colorful, and amazing things might not have the most magic, but the smallest things just might.  It’s good encouragement to look around you with fresh eyes from time to time. 
And if you’re wondering where I found my information about Greek mythology, etc. -- I’m a librarian, so I look in all sorts of sources -- encyclopedias, databases, and good old-fashioned Wikipedia.


vvb32 reads said...

nice piece on the subtleties. aha, the feather! makes me want to reread this book with your notations.

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