Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Magic in the World of Alvin Maker: Red Prophet

Posted by • Aug 1st, 2008

In my previous article, I discussed Orson Scott Card’s book Seventh Son, which tells us how Alvin Maker came to terms with his magical powers, or “knacks” as they are called,¬† by taking an oath never to use those powers for selfish purposes. In the second volume of the “Alvin Maker” series — Red Prophet (first published in 1988, and nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards) — Card expands on the idea of knacks, showing us how the use of magical power is not simply determined by individual choices, but is instead part of a larger ecology of magic, a balance and harmony expressed as a “greensong” which is sung by the American land itself, for those who can hear it.

When Red Prophet begins, we find ourselves cast back in time, prior to the events of Seventh Son, as we meet the character who will become the Shining Man in Alvin’s vision, Tenskwa-Tawa. Tenskwa-Tawa is an actual historical figure, also known as “The Prophet” or “The Shawnee Prophet.” He was the brother of the famous Shawnee warrior Ta-Kumsaw (Tecumseh), and he founded the Native American settlement called “Prophetstown” at the juncture of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers in Ohio territory (modern-day Indiana). This is where the so-called Battle of Tippecanoe took place in 1811, when troops led by William Henry Harrison, future President of the United States, burned Prophetstown to the ground in a bloody victory that earned him the nickname “Old Tippecanoe.”

As Card weaves the story of Alvin Maker into these historical events, Alvin learns from the Indians Tenskwa-Tawa and Ta-Kumsaw  that his knacks are not some kind of personal prowess, but instead derive from the powers of the living land itself. When the Europeans practice their knacks in ignorance of this fact, they are stumbling in the dark, not even aware of what they are doing. This makes the Europeans and their knacks contemptible in the eyes of someone like Ta-Kumsaw, who lives his life in full awareness of the natural order:

These White men with their weak little knacks. These White men with their hexes and their wardings. Didn’t they know their hexes only fended off unnatural things? If a thief comes, knowing he does wrong, then a good strong fending hex makes his fear grow till he cries out and runs away. But the Red man never is a thief. […] To the Red man a knack is like a fly, buzz buzz buzz. Far above this fly, the power of the living land is a hundred hawks, watching, circling. (Chapter 2)

With the help of Ta-Kumsaw, Alvin is able to deepen his understanding of his own powers, going far beyond the tricks he had learned to do with his knacks. As a result, Alvin is able to perceive the greensong and feel a connection with the land itself, much as Ta-Kumsaw and the Prophet are able to do.

At a certain point in the novel, Ta-Kumsaw and Alvin must make their way on foot to Fort Detroit, 200 miles, which Ta-Kumsaw planned to travel in a single day. How could that be possible? The Indians are able to travel that distance by calling on the power of the land itself:

The Red man called on the strength of the land to help him. The ground pushed back against his feet, adding to his strength. The bushes parted, making paths, space appeared where there was no space. […] Ta-Kumsaw’s hunger to arrive at Fort Detroit was so strong that the land answered by feeding him, giving him strength. (Chapter 11)

These are powers which Ta-Kumsaw has known all his life, but he did not expect that Alvin would be able to keep up with him, and he planned to carry the boy. Instead, much to Ta-Kumsaw’s surprise, Alvin was able to hear the greensong of the land and keep up with Ta-Kumsaw, pace for pace, in their 200-mile journey. Prior to this journey, Alvin did not know that he had this power, this connection to the land. It is the first of many lessons that he will learn in his journeys with Ta-Kumsaw.

These magical powers which Ta-Kumsaw and the Shawnees use are part of the natural order; they are what you could call perfectly natural powers, with nothing supernatural about them at all. To the White men, however, the Indians’ powers appear to be supernatural simply because the White men’s magic is itself an act against nature, something that stands outside the natural order and violates the limitations that keep that ecology in balance. Indeed, the entirety of White civilization is seen as an assault on the natural order of things, and Ta-Kumsaw and his brother Tenskwa-Tawa are struggling to drive the White men from the land before it is utterly destroyed:

Hack and cut and chop and burn, that was the White man’s way. Take from the forest, take from the land, take from the river, but put nothing back. The White man killed animals he didn’t need, animals that did him no harm; yet if a bear woke hungry in the winter and took so much as a single young pig, the White man hunted him down and killed him in revenge. He never felt the balance of the land at all. (Chapter 2)

The ecology of magic turns out to be about the ecology of nature itself, and the balance of the living ecosystem. When Alvin leaves Ta-Kumsaw and returns to his family’s home at the end of the novel, he still hears the greensong around him:

At night in his own bed, Alvin listened to the distant greensong, still warm and beautiful, still bright and hopeful, even though the forest was getting so sparse, even though the future was so dim. (Chapter 19)

Of course, this is just the end of Book 2 in what will be a seven-book series, with much opportunity still for Alvin to struggle towards a brighter future, even after the tragedy at Tippecanoe.

The themes of magic and environmentalism are beautifully entwined in this book, providing a new dimension to the ethical moralism of Alvin’s vow in Seventh Son. Alvin had recognized that there were moral limits which limited his magical knacks, but in Red Prophet he begins to learn how those magical powers are part of a larger natural order which depends not just on individual righteousness but on the principle of balance, and the limitations which are needed to sustain that balance. In my next article, I’ll turn to the third magical stream which flows through Card’s imaginary America — African magic — to see what it has to teach us about magical powers, and about their limits.


  • Card, Orson Scott. Red Prophet. New York: Tor Books, 1988.

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