Magic is everywhere in myths and legends. Heroes may be born with magical powers, or they may acquire them as part of their quest. There are endless variations of Vladimir Propp’s “donor sequence,” when a hero is tested or questioned and then receives a magical agent or object in return. Harry Potter gets his wand, Aladdin finds the genie in the lamp, the Little Mermaid buys her magic powers from the Sea Witch, and so on. These magical powers, however, have to be limited. There wouldn’t be much of a story if the hero could achieve his goal simply by saying the magic word, or perhaps just by wiggling her nose, like Samantha in Bewitched. Precisely because magic exceeds the normal limits of human ability, there must be limits on magic itself, if you want to have a good story to tell.
In this series of articles, I will examine the rules for magic in a variety of fantasy and science fiction novels, what you might call “the ecology of magic” which these modern storytellers create for their imagined worlds. I will begin with the alternate America imagined by Orson Scott Card in Seventh Son, the first novel in his “Alvin Maker” series. (Seventh Son was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1988, but did not win; Card had won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1986 for Ender’s Game, and in 1987 for its sequel, Speaker for the Dead.) So far, Card has published six books in the “Alvin Maker” series; The Crystal City was published in 2003 and the final book, to be titled Master Alvin, should be published soon.
The world that Card creates for Alvin Maker is recognizably our own world, but radically altered. Card draws on the history of early 19th-century America as it really happened, including many famous characters and events, while re-inventing that America in entirely new ways. For my purposes here, what is most important is that America in Seventh Son is full of magical powers, or “knacks.” Card’s imagined America has become a land particularly strong in knacks, because the Protestant authorities in his alternate Great Britain, in their effort to stamp out witchcraft, have been in the habit of banishing people with impressive knacks to the colonies. When the character named Taleswapper (none other than the mystic and visionary William Blake) meets up with the seven sons of Alvin Miller, he finds out that they each have their knacks: Calm has a knack for music and dancing, Measure can see things from far off, the twins Wastenot and Wantnot have a knack for sensing trouble, and so on. Taleswapper himself is a keen observer of knacks, having lived with America’s greatest “wizard” and master of many knacks, Ben Franklin, before deciding to venture out west, where he meets the pioneering Miller family.
The seventh son of Alvin Miller, Alvin Junior, has a bit of every knack, as it turns out. In fact, Alvin is a “maker” — the first true maker born into the world since “the one who changed the water into wine,” as Card cagily explains. Yet Alvin has a problem: there is no teacher to help him learn to use his knacks. Worse: the Presbyterian minister who runs the local school believes all knacks to be the work of the devil, a sinful sort of self-delusion. Without guidance of any kind, Alvin is not sure what to make of his powers — until one fateful night when he has a vision that both teaches him about his powers and also prompts him to take an oath voluntarily limiting those powers.
The evening had begun with typical childhood shenanigans: Alvin has played a trick on one of his sisters, and they have paid him back by putting pins into his nightclothes and bedsheets. Ouch! Alvin decides he will get revenge by sending all the roaches from his room into his sisters’ room (for those of you who have read Ender’s Game, the presence of insects here will come as no surprise). Previously, Alvin had made an agreement with the roaches: if they didn’t climb into his bed, the roaches could have whatever they found on the floor, and Alvin promised never to stomp on them. As a result, there were more roaches in Alvin’s room than anywhere else in the house. So, he uses his knack to make the roaches think they will find food by crawling into his sisters’ bed. Don’t be afraid, he tells them; it’s safe. The roaches swiftly head off into the girls’ room and climb up into their beds. The girls start screaming, of course, and they stomp on the roaches, killing most of them. The final result is just what Alvin thought he wanted: the girls are furious, and he has gotten the last laugh.
But then, in the night, Alvin has a vision. A Shining Man comes to him, and that Shining Man makes Alvin see what happened through the eyes of the roaches. The roaches had trusted the peacemaker, and had gone to the other room, but there was no food there, only the “hard sharp crushing agony of death, each small trusting life, betrayed, crushed, battered.” Alvin is horrified at the consequences of what he has done. Wordlessly, the Shining Man then leads Alvin to see that both good and evil can come from “his knack for making things go just where he wanted [ ], for understanding how things ought to be and helping them get that way.” Alvin finally realizes that he did wrong to use his knack selfishly, for his own benefit and pleasure alone (emphasis mine):
He had a knack, and he’d use it, but there was rules in things like that, rules that he would follow even if it killed him. ‘I’ll never use it for myself again,’ said Alvin Junior.
This vow against selfishness will indeed put Alvin’s life in danger before the end of the book, and he still has many lessons to learn. This is not his last encounter with the Shining Man, and it is not the vision that will ultimately give Alvin his quest in life, building the Crystal City. Yet when Alvin sees in his vision the world as the roaches see it, he realizes that he must place limits on his own power; learning how to use his powers consists also of learning how not to use them.
In my next article, I’ll look at the second book in the series, Red Prophet, to see what other questions Card poses for us about the rules of magic, as Alvin crosses paths again with the Shining Man, and with the Shining Man’s brother, the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh. Together the Shining Man and Tecumseh reveal to Alvin a different understanding of the magical world, a Native American “ecology of magic” which deepens Alvin’s perception of the otherwise invisible world, and adds to his powers.
- Card, Orson Scott. Seventh Son: Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 1. New York: Tor Books, 1987. All quotes come from Chapter 7 of the book.