Thursday, February 21, 2008

Books I wish I had written

There is something that is so fundamentally annoying about the Harry Potter books that, in spite of the fact that I've enjoyed reading them (and re-reading them), they just don't... do it for me. The problem is the premise of how magic works in the HP world. The idea that you can say a bunch of latin words (I should say latin-sounding) and produce magic is just a little counterintuitive to me (not that magic should necessarily be an intuitive thing). Why latin? Did the romans invent magic? No explanation I can think of is very satisfactory to what seems like a very amateur way of thinking about magic.

One author that gets it right, in my mind, is Ursula LeGuin in her Earthsea trilogy. In that world, magic is based off of calling things by their true name, the name by which they were created in the beginning in a sort of Adamic-type language. In the books, the worlds of magic and nature are intertwined since magic is, after all, just another way of interacting with nature. Things will naturally respond to their name in the language of the creator, whether its an animal, a person, the wind, or the fabric of space. In a way, it reminds me of our Mormon "magic", the priesthood. In blessings, we call people by their proper names, and address things in the language (or authority) of God. So LeGuin's magical world almost feels natural to me since I've grown up believing that things will respond if addressed properly.

I'm always thinking of books I would like to write someday, and I sometimes sit and try to think of interesting plots and worlds that I'd like to write about. Sometimes when I read books, I judge them on whether I would have liked to write them or not. Harry Potter, not so much, for the reason I gave already- that the whole system of magic is counterintuitive to me (though the money would have come in handy). The Earthsea trilogy, yes. I don't really have a favorite book, but these definitely are in the top 10. When I sit and think of what kind of world I want to base my to-be-written book in, if the genre is fantasy and magic, my thoughts always turn to an Earthsea type universe, and thats when I say "Doh!"- that world is already taken.


Cabeza said...

I see your point, Nick, but I do have a couple of things to say in response.

First, the magic does not simply come from saying the Latin-esque words. The magic comes first from a person being a wizard or witch--it comes from inside them. Additionally, a lot of the magic lessons that Rowling describes incorporate extra elements of mental and emotional control.

Second, I can't really get too down on Rowling for her simplistic means of choosing magic words. I think there is some precedent and some rationale for this. Precedent: presto and hocus pocus. Hocus pocus is likely derived from the phrasing of the prayer over Catholic eucharist, "Hoc est enim corpus meus." Some speculate that the act of transubstantiation was seen as magic--making a wafer into the flesh of Christ--and that these words were thus perceived as magical. That's kind of a long way of saying that this isn't the first time that Latin has been used as a foundation for magic words.

Rationale: This is a series of kids' books (at least they started out that way). I really don't expect anything too complex from Rowling when she started out writing for ten-year-olds. She might have even chosen Latin roots on purpose, the language of magic being an Easter egg of sorts. Kids feel smart (and so do I) when they can feel like they've discovered something in a text. I can easily imagine an eighth-grader reading the Harry Potter books and realizing that the magic words sound a lot like the things she's been learning in her Spanish class, eventually feeling triumphant when she discovers the roots of the words she's been reading.

I do agree that there's certainly better magic and fantasy writing out there. But I respect Rowling for successfully creating a magical world that intersects so well with our own. It helps make Harry Potter feel real. Maybe Latin roots is another connection to a common history that we can recognize.

Nick said...

I didn't mean to sound like I was bashing JK Rowling, in fact I think I said I very much enjoyed reading them, and even re-reading them. I really do like the books, and when I said I was annoyed by how magic works in her world, I meant only a slight background annoyance that I soon forget when I get lost in one of the books.

My main point was to single out LeGuin for coming up with a system of magic for her books that felt so natural to me that it makes me think, If there really is magic, then this must be how it would work. Rowling's was a fun read, and I'm sure I'll read it again, but LeGuin's feels far more real to me, even though it is set in a fantasy culture with dragons and so forth.

Julie C said...

Cool. For some reason I've always enjoyed the idea that it was your will power that made magic work. Not that the true names thing didn't always make sense to me too - it did - just that will power did too.

One example I recently read was in Tamora Pierce's book Wild Magic where the greatest magician Numair has a new apprentice Daine. Numair keeps trying to teach Daine to separate her physical actions from her mental actions - like not reaching for something with your hand in order to move it. Daine is surprised because most wizards/magicians/sorcerers use physical trappings for their magic, but Numair explains that those trappings are merely tools to focus the sorcerer's mind, and that a truly powerful sorcerer can do the whole thing by will power alone.

Side note - it was okay with me if some people had a Gift or Magic in them and others didn't, just like some people can curl their tongues and I can't.

JonnyF said...

I have considered writing fiction from time to time. And when I'm thinking of plots for a book set in a fantasy world I often come back to the same idea. The main character is a young man from an isolated island and the plot involves a lot of traveling by small boats. Not until I read your post did I realize that this was Earthsea. Doh. I hate it when I think I have an original idea and it turns out I'm just thinking of something I've seen or read before.
It's a little creepy that you have had similar experiences with Earthsea.