Saturday, 7 November 2020
Labels: A to Z
When it comes to magic, pretty much anything goes, especially if you’re creating a fictional world and its associated rules from scratch. As I write the third book in the Beyond Androva series, Kellan’s backstory brings the chance to explore Xytovia in a bit more detail, and it got me to thinking about the history of magic in storytelling.
I have always loved stories that contain magic, and it was probably inevitable that fantasy would be my genre of choice as a writer. It’s been a while since I did an A to Z, so today’s post is a lighthearted list inspired by magic in fiction. I’ve tried to include a variety of sources—books (of course!), film, television, and even some folklore. Is there anything on the list that you hadn’t heard of? Would your choices be the same as mine? I hope you enjoy it, and thank you very much for visiting my blog today 💕.
Amulets are typically small objects worn or carried for protection, and their long and varied history dates back to prehistoric times. The “magic” in the amulet comes from what it’s made of, or its shape, or what’s written on it, or the particular way it was constructed. A couple of great fictional examples include the glass snowdrop in Stardust by Neil Gaiman, and the Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud.
The picture shows a Wedjat Eye from Ancient Egypt, a symbol associated with both Horus the sky god and Ra the sun god. Amulets with the eye—in this case a sandal buckle—were believed to bring protection, healing, and regeneration. (Horus lost his eye in a fight with his uncle, but it was magically restored.)
The Bifrost is from Norse mythology. It’s a rainbow bridge that connects Asgard, the world of the gods, with Midgard, the world of humanity. Heimdall guards the bridge and controls who enters and leaves Asgard. The Bifrost also appears as a visually spectacular special effect in the Marvel films, functioning as an obstacle and an enabler for various characters.
Healing crystals and stones have been around for thousands of years. The Ancient Sumerians (4,000 years BC) used crystals in their magic formulas, and “crystal” comes from Ancient Greece and the word for ice. Clear quartz crystal was thought to be water that had frozen so completely it would never thaw.
The picture is lapis lazuli, a crystal prized by the Sumerians for its ability to heal a wide variety of ailments. In terms of crystals in fiction, some of my favourite examples include the Elfstone created by J. R. R. Tolkien (it became Arwen’s Evenstar necklace in the Lord of the Rings films), lightsabers in the Star Wars universe, Marvel’s infinity stones, and the Seventh Tower series by Garth Nix.
“If I own that dagger, I control the Dark One. If I kill the Dark One with the dagger, I take his powers.”
—Rumplestiltskin to his son, Baelfire
Appearing in the television series Once Upon A Time, the dagger contains a curse that grants immense magical knowledge and power. The name of the Dark One is inscribed on the blade. Anyone in possession of the dagger has the ability to control the Dark One, and if the Dark One is killed with the dagger, the curse passes to the murderer, and the name on the blade changes. It makes for an interesting plot device that the dagger is the source of the Dark One’s strength but also makes them vulnerable.
King Arthur, a legendary English monarch from the late fifth century, has been linked to two swords. The first was a sword embedded in stone that could only be drawn by the rightful king (Arthur). The second was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake after the first sword was broken. Both swords have been associated with the name Excalibur in subsequent stories, and the sword is usually considered to be of magical origin and/or to possess magical powers. (The Dark One Dagger was found to be part of Excalibur’s blade in a later series of Once Upon A Time.)
Myths about sentient weapons may have started because the process of sword making seemed magical to ancient civilisations. A lump of earth being transformed into a shiny but deadly object like a sword would have seemed a lot like magic!
The feather of Ma’at (an Egyptian goddess who personified truth and justice) was used to judge the dead. Hearts were weighed against a single ostrich feather in the Hall of Two Truths. If the heart was lighter that the feather, the deceased was granted eternal life in the realm of the dead. If the heart was heavier, the outcome was rather less positive. The feather was the reason hearts were left in Egyptian mummies while the other organs were removed. Before being judged, the dead had to make their “negative confessions” and list all the bad deeds they didn’t commit. I guess the more you had to confess, the better your chances…
Greek Fire is an incendiary weapon that water can’t extinguish. I’ve included it as a magical item (in spite of the fact that it did once exist) because of its fictional use in ghost fighting in the Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud. Also, the formula for creating Greek Fire as used by the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century has been lost to time, and no one today has been able to successfully recreate it.
Specifically, Rapunzel's magic hair from the 2010 Disney film. Taking its power from the golden flower that healed Rapunzel’s mother, the queen, it’s very long, super strong, and has the ability to heal anything and everything. Including old age, if old age can be seen as something that needs healing! (Mother Gothel certainly thinks so…)
Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak is an incredibly useful magical object that plays a role throughout the whole series. It enables Harry (and therefore the reader) to discover important plot points that other characters would never reveal in front of him. It’s not infallible either, as we see when Draco Malfoy realises Harry is spying on him beneath the cloak. And in the final book, the cloak is revealed to be one of the Deathly Hallows. The special effects in the films make the cloak appear very convincing!
I thought Tom Riddle’s Diary was the most interesting out of the seven horcruxes (Harry excepted!) not just because it was the first that Voldemort created, but also because it allowed the reader to “meet” Voldemort while he was still Tom Riddle. When I first read the book, and the letters in Tom Marvolo Riddle rearranged themselves to spell I am Lord Voldemort, I was on the edge of my seat!
How does a witch or wizard get around if they don’t want to apparate or use the Floo Network? They hail the Knight Bus, as Harry did in The Prisoner of Azkaban. The bus was apparently commissioned in 1865, taking inspiration from the Muggle bus service of the time. It’s invisible to Muggles, and it causes other objects to dodge out of its way. That’s a trick that would make the traffic on my journey to work a lot easier to navigate…
Aladdin’s story is closely associated with the Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights) even though it wasn’t actually part of the original Arabic text. It was added later in an eighteenth-century French translation. In most film adaptations, the genie of the lamp is a much bigger star of the story than the lamp itself. Have you ever wondered what you’d wish for if the lamp (hypothetically) came into your possession? Would you use one of your wishes to grant the genie their freedom?
Mirrors are the perfect example of an everyday item that can become a credible magical object. They can be windows. They can reveal or hide. They can be used to communicate. Some of my favourite fictional examples include the mirror used by Snow White’s stepmother (who’s the fairest of them all?), the mirror in Dracula by Bram Stoker (“this time there could be no error, for the man was close to me… But there was no reflection of him in the mirror!”), and the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter (haven’t we all wondered what we’d see if we looked into it?).
The necklace I’ve chosen is from Arthurian legend, and it was given to Sir Pelleas by the Lady of the Lake. Sir Pelleas was a Knight of the Round Table said to have been rescued from an unrequited love by Nimue (the Lady of the Lake in many versions of the legend). She came across Sir Pelleas after his heart had been broken. Using magic, Nimue made the other lady love Sir Pelleas while he would be cured, feeling only hate for her in return. Sir Pelleas later fell in love with Nimue, and they married. The necklace contained an enchantment to make its wearer “unfathomably loved.”
I had to include this one! Arguably the most powerful artefact in Tolkien’s fictional realm of Middle-earth, it was infused with Sauron’s evil intentions and almost impossible to destroy. You only have to look at how Déagol became Gollum to understand the ring’s ability to distort and corrupt its bearer.
Given the role of portals in my own books, there was only one possible choice for this letter 🙂. Portals, or magical doorways, are exciting and unpredictable. Anything and anyone could be on the other side. As a reader, the first portals I discovered were in the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. The wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is probably the most famous one, but the characters were able to go to Narnia through other doorways too. I think the wardrobe is the most memorable because when I was eight years old, it seemed almost possible it could happen to me.
I don’t know why, but magic and quills seem to be a frequent combination in storytelling. Perhaps it’s because the traditional image of a magician in a fantasy setting might seem a bit strange if there were a plastic biro on the table (you know, next to the parchment 😉).
There are two particularly memorable quills in the Harry Potter books. The Blood Quill is used by Professor Umbridge to deliver a nasty form of detention. Painful magical cuts appear on the back of the user’s hand to mirror the lines they are writing. “I must not tell lies” in Harry’s case. The Quick Quotes Quill is used by journalist Rita Skeeter to take notes during her interviews, sensationalising the words of her interviewees to the point that they bear little resemblance to the truth. “My eyes aren’t ‘glistening with the ghosts of my past!’”
Riptide is another magical sword, this time belonging to Percy Jackson in the world created by Rick Riordan. The sword is made from Celestial Bronze, a material that is only deadly to gods and demigods (and a few other non-human characters). If you’re an ordinary mortal, Riptide will pass straight through you as if the sword were an illusion. Percy is able to keep it in his pocket as a pen, turning it back into a sword by taking off the cap.
Steles are tools used by Shadowhunters in the books by Cassandra Clare. Made from the heavenly metal adamas, a stele looks a bit like a kind of wand, and it glows when being used to draw runes onto the skin. These runes grant the supernatural abilities that Shadowhunters depend on in their fight against demons.
I guess this one is more of a story enabler than a magical item (unless you include the Time Turner used by Hermione Granger). As a reader, I’m a big fan of time travel, though I do prefer it when the characters go back instead of forward. I love the chance to learn about the past through the eyes of a modern-day character. My favourites as a child were Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce and Can I Get There by Candlelight? by Jean Doty. More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon.
This one comes from Scottish folklore and refers to a special kind of water that has magical healing properties. The water itself is not magical, but the method used to collect it makes it so. It must be taken “from under a bridge, over which the living pass and the dead are carried, brought in the dawn or twilight to the house of a sick person, without the bearer’s speaking, either in going or returning.”
I suppose on reflection, the Vanishing Cabinet as described in Harry Potter is like a portal, although it only works if you have two of them. A person who steps into one of the cabinets will instantly emerge from the other. Draco Malfoy repaired a Vanishing Cabinet at Hogwarts that was linked with another at Borgin and Burkes, allowing a group of Death Eaters into the school. The resulting confrontation with Dumbledore forced Severus Snape to make good on both his promise to Dumbledore and the Unbreakable Vow he made with Narcissa Malfoy, Draco’s mother.
No magical list would be complete without a reference to wands! The mention of wands in fiction dates as far back as the eighth century BC, when Homer described the use of magic “rods” by Hermes, Athena, and Circe in The Iliad and The Odyssey. There are so many fictional characters that are associated with wands, heroes and villains both, from Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother to the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And I will hold my hand up and admit that I do own a Harry Potter wand from when I visited the Studio Tour a couple of years ago (Severus Snape’s).
In Chinese mythology, Xirang (Breathing Earth, Living Earth) is a magical substance with the ability to continuously grow, something that can be extremely helpful in stopping flood water, for example, or creating land for farming.
Yggdrasil is an enormous ash tree from Norse mythology that is supposed to connect the Nine Realms. It was pretty much considered to be the centre of the known universe. The idea of “warden trees” continued right up to the nineteenth century. They were believed to bring good luck to the land on which they grew.
The thunderbolt was a weapon made for Zeus by the Cyclops in the war against the Titans, a dynastic conflict that ended when Zeus killed his father, the Titan Cronus. Before you feel too sorry for Cronus, legend has it that Cronus had previously seized control from his own father and had become so paranoid that his own children would one day do the same to him that he ate them all! Zeus, the youngest child, was hidden by his mother until he was old enough to return, rescue his siblings (who were growing inside Cronus) and wage war. The never-ending bucketful of thunderbolts proved to be a deciding factor in Zeus’s victory.
Thank you for reading!