Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Magic in the World of Alvin Maker: Prentice Alvin

Posted by Laura Gibbs • Sep 1st, 2008

In Seventh Son and Red Prophet, the first two books of the “Alvin Maker” series, Orson Scott Card focuses his attention on European and Indian traditions of supernatural powers. In the third book of the series, Prentice Alvin, Card introduces a third stream of the supernatural in America: the magical traditions which the slaves brought from Africa to America. As Card broadens his magical canvas in this way, he confronts the unspeakable horror of slavery and its tragic consequences for American identity.

The main African-American character in the series is a little boy, later given the name Arthur Stuart, who is the son of a southern plantation owner and an African slave woman. After she gives birth to this “mix-up boy,” the slave woman decides to run away. She makes a poppet, an image of herself, out of wax and breast milk and spit. She then gets feathers from a blackbird and sticks them on to the poppet:

Very strong thing, this poppet with her own milk and spit in it, blackbird feathers on. Very strong, suck all her life out, but boy-baby, he never kiss no White Boss feet, White Boss never lay no lash on him. (Chapter 2)

The power of this magic allows the woman to turn into a blackbird and fly away, carrying her baby away with her. But it does indeed suck all the life out of her; she barely makes it into northern territory and finds a home for her baby before she dies. Later on, Arthur Stuart tries to explain to people what happened to his mother, although they cannot make sense of what he tells them: “My mama was a blackbird. She flew so high but then the ground caught her and she got stuck and died” (Chapter 17). For Arthur, the supernatural events surrounding his birth are somehow, mysteriously, a part of his own conscious memories.

Although Arthur Stuart is adopted by a loving family up north, the Fugitive Slave Treaty puts him at risk of being returned to his former owner. There are Finders who hunt down the runaway slaves, identifying them by means of a cachet of hair or nail clippings supplied by the slave’s master. As one of the Finders explains, “It’s our knack. Who knows how it works? We just look at it, and we — it’s like we see the shape of the person we’re looking for” (Chapter 18). The same invisible power inherent in the body which allowed the slave woman to turn herself into a bird and escape is, ironically, also what leads to her son’s capture by the Finders.

In order to rescue Arthur from the Finders, Alvin  realizes he has to change Arthur from the inside out, so that the cachet can no longer identify him. Using his own powerful knack, Alvin is able to look inside the boy’s body and see “that tiny signature that marked every living bit” of Arthur Stuart (Chapter 18). That “tiny signature” is something we would call DNA, although obviously Alvin cannot use such a term. Alvin then changes the “living bits” of Arthur Stuart — or, more precisely, he calls upon those bits to change themselves — so that he can replace a tiny piece of Arthur’s signature with a bit of his own signature:

I’m dealing with these living bits, and each one of them is alive; maybe I can tell them all what they ought to be. […]  I can just say — Be like this — and they’ll do it. (Chapter 18)

In this way, Alvin manages to summon the “living bits” of Arthur’s unique personal signature from every cell in his body and rearrange them in a slightly new way, making him unrecognizable to the Finders.

As a result of this transformation, Arthur is no longer the person that he was before. Outwardly he looks the same, but he has lost the magic power, the “knack,” that was his own remarkable talent: perfect mimicry. Previously, Arthur had been able to transform his own voice in order to mimic the voice of any other person, male or female, young or old, black or white. As Alvin altered Arthur’s inner signature, he unwittingly erased part of Arthur’s inborn genius:

He still had the near-perfect memory of what others said — he still had all the words. But the voices were gone; only his own seven-year-old voice remained. (Chapter 18)

Like his mother, Arthur has had to change his identity in order to escape from slavery. It is not just a disguise that he puts on and can take off again later; it is a more radical and magical transformation, and it comes at a cost — although the price that Arthur pays is not as high as the price paid by his mother, who gave up her life in order to bring her child to freedom.

In telling this story of Arthur Stuart’s escape from slavery, Orson Scott Card adds an important new dimension to the picture of an imaginary America that he had begun to sketch in the previous two novels. We see an America of different peoples — Indians, Europeans, and Africans — who all wield their own distinctive magical powers. With its subtle combination of magic and science, fantasy and fact, myth and history, the “Alvin Maker” series follows in the ancient tradition established by the authors of the Bible or the singers of the Homeric songs, who likewise synthesized myth and history into an imaginative whole.

In this series of articles about magic in the world of Alvin Maker, I have focused on the first three books in the series: Seventh Son, Red Prophet, and Prentice Alvin. Card has published an additional three books — Alvin Journeyman, Heartfire, and The Crystal City — with a seventh book, Master Alvin, forthcoming. I have not said much in these articles about the memorable characters and suspenseful plots of the novels — with a masterful writer like Card, you know you can count on great characters and plots. What makes the Alvin Maker books truly remarkable, I think, is the way that they embrace the invisible and supernatural dimensions of our country’s history, providing both warnings and wisdom for the questions we face today, drawing upon the legacy of our variegated past.  Who were we, who are we, and who will we become? You will find surprising new ways of thinking about those questions by journeying with Alvin Maker through Card’s imaginary America, and I would welcome your comments and thoughts about the series. Meanwhile, I’ll be back with one more article as soon as Card publishes what he promises will be the final book in the series, and we can see to what destination he will have brought us in the end.


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4 Responses »

  1. I like how you state that modern fantasy has picked up where traditional myth has left off, by using many of the same features as myth. Perhaps this accounts for the appeal that fantasy, and science fiction for that matter, has for people today, as myth did in ancient times.

  2. Thanks for the feedback; I’m glad you are enjoying the articles here. There does seem to be a connection between modern fantasy and traditional mythology. I wouldnt’ say they are identical: I suspect we do not approach our fiction the same way people approach their traditional myths. But the relationship seems quite strong to me, and I find it quite fascinating to think about it!

  3. I appreciate your reference to the similarities in story-telling between the bible, Homer, and the various authors of the Old Testament. I have offended people by doing similar, although by telling one particularly obtuse individual that I had learned more from Tolkien, Card, and Asimov than he ever would from the bible was probably a little harsher than was necessary. What I find personally ironic is that I grew up with a bias towards Mormons and their “Biblical Parody”, and come to have such respect for a “Mormon” and what is essentially a very similar work in scope and scale. I suppose it doesn’t matter where we learn or what, as long as we do in fact learn, and appreciate. Thanks….

  4. In reference to Card, something I have come to appreciate from reading his blog is how our shared interest in stories and storytelling can overcome would probably be a bitter clash of personal politics. I’m pretty sure that when Card and I go vote, our ballots cancel each other out exactly every time… but that does not stop me from enjoying his amazing skills as a storyteller and the worlds he is able to create through the magic of his imagination.