Magic Words and Spells

The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917

In children’s fantasy, enchanted realism and magical realism, there is often an arc word (leitwort) which enters popular lexicon, or sticks in the mind long after the reader leaves the story. These magic words sometimes become a part of the child’s own imaginative play, an improvised version of early childhood fan fiction.

Where Do Magic Words Come From?

Imagine a baby on the verge of learning to speak. For all of her life she has been inarticulate — she wants something, but all she can do is cry or say “Uh, uh, uh!” Then, somehow, the purpose of speech is revealed to her, and after what must be a tremendous struggle, the power of speech. Though we all once experienced it, it is hard now to picture the immense thrill of power we must have felt the first time we cried “Mommy!” or “Cookie!” and saw what we desired appear. From this experience, surely, comes the power of magic words and spells in fairytales.

Small children like simple, repetitive rhymes and games, just as they like repetitive or cumulative folktales such as The Gingerbread Man. As they grow older and more competent linguistically they become impatient with such tales; they learn that the magic spell doesn’t always work and that words don’t always mean what they seem to mean.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
1920s Magic poster 'Brush The Mystic The Hindu Basket'
1920s Magic poster ‘Brush The Mystic The Hindu Basket’

Examples of Magic Words and Spells

  • Nickety Nacketty Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley, in which the spell is in the title
  • Harry Potter is full of them: Riddikulus, Obliviat, Alohomora etc.
  • The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton features trees which whisper ‘wisha wisha’, which as a child reader sent a tingle down my spine. While this onomatopoeia doesn’t directly function as a magic word, it signals that the children have entered an enchanted realm.
AbracadabraOriginates in the late 17th century (as a mystical word engraved and used as a charm to ward off illness). The word comes from Latin and was first recorded in a 2nd-century poem by Q. Serenus Sammonicus.
Presto!From Italian ‘quick, quickly’, from late Latin praestus ‘ready’. In modern English, it’s usually ‘Hey, presto!” This is because magicians started using ‘Hey presto!’ in the late 18th century. English speakers first borrowed presto from Italian as a musical term.
ShazamThis is relatively new, dating only from the 1940s, and a guy called Gomer Pyle, who popularised the Marvel Comics word.
Ta-da!This is from the art deco era, and is simply mimetic, meaning it’s the sound we imagine is made when a magician makes a flourish and presents something magical to the audience.
Voila!French (voilà) from the 1700s, basically means ‘Look!’

What makes a good magic word?

For the answer to this, I turn to the work of scholars who have studied nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes have a proven track record for memorability and infiltration into the real lives of children (and caregivers).

In her paper “From nursery rhymes to childlore: orality and ideology“, Catalina Millán Scheiding writes about the enduring popularity of nursery rhymes under the following headings:

  1. Rhythm rhythm is an especially important aspect of the prosody of nursery rhyme (along with  intonation, stress and tempo of speech). Then there’s isochrony (e.g. whether a language is stress-timed or syllable timed). Children’s rhymes tend to have a ‘binary structure’ e.g. quatrains, or four-beat lines (Baa Baa Black Sheep). Some have proposed that this is because they mimic heartbeats, which we remember from our time in the womb. Nursery rhymes often offer a sense of closure in their rhythm. This is known as a ‘closed circular structure’. Scheiding offers Baa Baa Black Sheep as an example of this. John Prine’s Prine’s rhythmic delivery of “Illegal Smile” is likewise phrased ‘like a children’s sing-along, emphasizing the final two syllables of each line: “I chased a rainbow down a one-way street — dead end/And all my friends turned out to be insurance — sales men.”’
  2. Musicality refers to metrical pattern and how rhythm is marked. English is an example of a ‘stress timed language’, which means native English speakers in most dialects around the world leave the same length of time between stressed syllables. (Māori background speakers in New Zealand often speak native English without the stress timing, borrowing Māori syllable timing unrelated of whether they also speak Te Reo Māori.) ‘Musicality’ of an utterance will partly depend on who is uttering it.
  3. Repetition Binary structures lend themselves to repetition. Rhyme is another form of repetition and the following observation is especially interesting:

Rhymes are generally rooted in the sensory world and make reference to people, objects, and actions, but not ideas, although ideas can and are inferred and assumed from the short actions found in the rhymes. This situational nature makes rhymes more recognizable, as the objects and actions they depict are related to the culture they belong to, and can be found in daily actions. A rhyme could then be recalled and ‘activated’ when in contact with any of these domestic activities which it mentions.

Debbie Pullinger, From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry
  1. Formulaicity babies initially learn language as ‘units’ and later as linked strings of words, initially unaware of divisions. Much adult language is also formulaic, and these shared phrases are an important part of a community’s identity.
  2. Language as Play Memorable phrases are phrases which form the basis of play. Audiences incorporate them into play and build on them, using the original as a model. Where magic words and rhymes accompany movement (e.g. clapping, skipping, jumping) they become more memorable. Memorable phrases are performative (contrasting with descriptive).
Charles Geer 1965 Danger Is The Password
Charles Geer 1965 Danger Is The Password

Magic Words Revisited

  • Nickety nacketty noo noo noo appeals because of its repetition, its musicality and its rhythm.
  • J.K. Rowling’s magical words and spells work a bit differently from the nursery rhymes. They appeal to the older reader’s interest in wordplay and etymology. For instance, “Riddikulus” is an adaptation of “ridiculous” as well as of ridiculum (Latin, “joke”) and ridere (Latin, “to laugh”). The reader doesn’t necessarily know all that in order to appreciate it, but by uttering it in an everyday context, bonds with other Harry Potter superfans.
  • Wisha wisha is beautifully onomatopoeic, and whenever I hear wind blowing through trees, I think they are saying ‘wisha wisha’. This is in line with Pullinger’s theory that the best nursery rhymes (and also the best magic words) are situational, found in daily actions (or natural phenomena).

Header painting: The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917

How to become invisible

Method 1: Rune Stave

For this one you must go to Iceland. Once in Iceland, get your hands on a magical text full of spells and suchlike, a.k.a. Icelandic grimoires. But to save you the trouble, refer to the recipe below.

You’ll need a magical rune stave. There is literally a rune stave for every possible thing you can imagine up.

The invisibility run stave looks a bit like a snowflake. The one you need is called the hulinhjalmur. Google it.

I’m sure you can recreate that with a marker on paper. Hold your horses, it’s not that simple though. You must engrave this rune stave onto a piece of lignite using magnetic steel that’s been hardened by soaking in human blood.

Be careful how you blend the blood. You need three drops from the index finger of the left hand and three from the ring finger of the right hand. Worse, you also need two drops from the right nipple and one from the left.

Next you need an alive raven. Don’t kill it. You will need to extract six drops of blood, though, straight from the raven’s heart.

Melt it all down, along with the raven’s brain and parts of a human stomach. I’m not actually sure if the raven’s still meant to be alive at this point. I assume the human is not.

Now you should be invisible. Bear in mind, there may be rune staves for picking locks, keeping the butter from going rancid and for protecting yourself against ghosts but there is no rune stave to make you un-invisible. This is your life now. I hear Iceland is beautiful.

Method 2: The Witch Way

Are you a witch? Do you want to be a witch? Let’s be witches. We’re going to Papua New Guinea for this one, where witches have the power to see inside others, and also have the power to become invisible. The best of both worlds. In PNG there is a concept known as gwumu. This refers to a spirit which can live in people, rendering them invisible. (There are also evil spirits, known as sanguma or spirit nogut in Tok Pisin. They came to the world via pigs. Look, it says so in the Bible.)

In other countries, witches don’t become invisible per se, they simply transmogrify themselves into other animals, like ravens. No one thinks twice about a particularly witchy-looking raven flying across the sky at night, right? As ravens, witches are free to attend their moonlit sabbats.

But in the Papua New Guinea highlands, witches don’t bother with the faff of transmogrification. They can, I mean, if they want. They might become a quick, highly mobile creatures: bat, rat, bird, moth, grasshopper, butterfly, cicada… or they might simply become invisible.

Odilon Redon, Butterflies, before 1909, oil on canvas

Let’s do that. That way, we can go about our supernatural lives alongside regulars and we don’t have to worry about a thing.

Except for one thing: We will still be blamed for the following:

  • sickness
  • death
  • poverty
  • lack of development
  • portentous world events
  • that overall feeling that the apocalypse is nigh.

Method 3: Escape to the Woods

Are you living in a fairytale reality? If so, entering a forest will work. Disclaimer: So long as you’re not hiding in the English woods, which are not very vast and expansive these days. By the start of the 20th century, just 5% of Britain was wooded. It doesn’t take too long to find you in the spinneys.

This tactic may work better in, say, America, Canada or other parts of Europe. Works really quite well in the Australian bush.

Downside: You may not make it back out alive.

Method 4: Wear a Mask

Admittedly, masks work better if you’re a character within a fictional story rather than in real life because for some reason I’ve always been recognised even when wearing a mask. I have this in common with Dwight Schrute.

The human brain is very good at recognising someone by their gait. So if you really want to come across as someone else, don’t just rely on the face mask. Change how you walk. Change your height and BMI while you’re at it.

Method 5: Creep Around Like A Ninja

Ninja techniques for hiding are called ongyo-jutsu (隠形術), the way of the hidden form.

  1. When sneaking in the dark, slow your movement.
  2. Stop moving if someone is facing you.
  3. Camouflage yourself
  4. Hide in the shadows
  5. Make yourself small e.g. crouch in the shape of a quail (for some reason)
  6. If you have white skin, hide your white face
  7. Be mindful of light sources
  8. Standing in front of a wall or tree may be more effective than you think, because the enemy is busy looking behind rocks and whatnot. Only works if you’re camouflaged and hiding your big white face
  9. Don’t accidentally breathe on your enemy
  10. Be absolutely silent
  11. Risk making noise only while other noise is happening
  12. Use a throw cloth to muffle your footsteps
  13. Bring an animal e.g. a rat to let loose and distract a sentry
  14. Stand downwind of guard dog snoots
  15. Or hide under water making use of a snorkel
  16. Throw down a toothpick to attract the enemy’s attention. While they’re glancing at the toothpick you’ll be able to hide.
Here’s Courage The Cowardly Dog hiding in a toilet. Courage is often hiding inside things.

Dress Like Your Background

Also known as camouflage.

Think outside the box. If you’re playing tennis, wear the same hue as the court, perhaps with one or two white stripes across your body. If you’re planning on staying home, maybe dress like your cushions.

Dahlov Ipcar, American (1917-2017), Winter Window, 1977

Of if you’re freaky, dress like your wallpaper.

Further Reading

A 2001 episode of This American Life asks which superpower would you choose: Invisibility or Flight?

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe Storytelling

NARNIA LAMPPOST LUCY

So much has been said about Narnia already. Can I add a single thing to the corpus by blogging about storytelling techniques in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?

Probably not, but my 10-year-old is studying this novel at school. She’s home sick today. I know the rest of her class is watching the 2005 film adaptation this afternoon for a compare and contrast exercise, because they send home permission slips for PG rated material. (Honestly, heh, I showed this to my kid when she was about 5.) It’s been a while since we cracked open the DVD, so today we are rewatching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, together at home, under a blanket.

This blog post is mainly about the 2005 film adaptation, not about the novel. I haven’t read the novel since I was in my late teens, though I keep meaning to go back. I bought myself a beautiful illustrated version for my 30th birthday. What’s keeping me from dusting it off? Probably all the commentary around it, and knowing how problematic it is as a vehicle for certain ideas.



NARNIA AS A MISOGYNISTIC, RACIST, DOG’S BREAKFAST

Some time ago Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built (among many others), spoke with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand.

Spufford considers The Chronicles of Narnia the ‘essence of book’. (He went on to write Unapologetic.) As a child, the Christian bits meant least to him, but the allegories weren’t mysterious to a church-going boy. What Spufford loved about Narnia was the sensuousness of it. Looking at it critically from an adult point of view it’s easy to criticise this series as a ‘dog’s breakfast’. (After all, it has water nymphs and Father Christmas in the same world.) But Lewis loved all of these elements and he had the ability to bring his passions to life. No other series delivered a world like those ones did. (A modern audience has Harry Potter for an equally sensuous setting, bringing many different elements together.)

Reading as an adult, Spufford noticed misogyny and racism. The racist elements are easy enough to figure out — Lewis was influenced by Arabian Nights and other things. The author’s feelings about women, on the other hand, are harder to figure out. There are a lot of dangerous snake women who keep popping up in the different chronicles and there are no women (apart from mothers) who are safe, at all. Fantasy is a horribly revealing form. People make fantasy out of the deep material of their imagination. Where did this misogyny come from?

C.S. LEWIS: MISOGYNIST BUT NOT SEXIST

Spufford reminds us that C.S. Lewis’ mother died when he was very young. He adds that it now ‘seems unfair to ask the past to know what the present knows’. I disagree wholeheartedly with Spufford on this point. Missing a mother does not make misogyny. As evidence, I proffer every single misogynist who has a perfectly good mother. Instead, all we need for misogynistic tales to thrive is a misogynistic world. And the 1950s were nothing if not that.

Others make the case that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is empowering to women. Here’s the argument in a nutshell, from what I can gather:

  • Lewis wasn’t making women subservient to men; he was making humans subservient to God. Lewis intends to exalt divinity, not men. (Gah, now that’s a damn stretch.)
  • Sure, the bad people in Narnia are women, but bad women are powerful women. (I am on board with this argument. I get this one. We’ll know we’ve reached true gender equality when we see as many flawed women in positions of power as there are flawed men. Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that point yet. This real world fact means that a preponderance of terrible females in positions of fictional power feeds into the existing idea that women are generally terrible when given any power at all.)
  • Susan and Lucy are allowed to be heroines. (Yes, but very specifically female ones. As my ten-year-old said as they laid their heads upon poor, dead Aslan, “Ugh, so they make the girls cry.” Moreover, Lucy is given the stereotypically feminine role of healing, like a wartime nurse.)
  • Lewis isn’t ranking masculine coded activities as higher than feminine coded activities. He doesn’t rank Peter’s skill with the sword HIGHER than he rates Lucy’s ability to heal and empathise. (I’ve heard this a lot before, but ranking is beside the point. Simply assigning gender to certain tasks keeps women in their ‘rightful’ place as caregivers, nurturers and providers of emotional labour.)
  • All of the main characters in Narnia embody feminine characteristics, because submission (to God) is a feminine coded thing to do. All people are feminine to God. And this is the Christian ideal. (Sure, Peter looks after Lucy’s feelings at times, but on the other hand he’s in a clear patriarchal big struggle with his own brother. Peter is a benevolent sexist, at best.)
  • Some have pointed out a difference between ‘classical heroism’ (masculine) and ‘spiritual heroism’ (feminine). These characters go on a spiritual journey, therefore they all go on a feminine journey, rendering gender binaries moot. Some go so far as to say Lewis is even critiquing classical heroism.
  • Lewis plays so much with so-called feminine and masculine virtues that we can’t even think of his characters in this binary gendered way. (Yes, this is always a sticking point in such arguments. But people who study this stuff know full well which attributes are coded feminine by the dominant culture and which are coded masculine. People who use this argument are derailing.)

That is not an exhaustive list of the arguments in favour of gender equality in the Narnia Chronicles. Instead, I want to leave you with a quote from Lewis himself:

I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.

The Weight of Glory, p 168

If you don’t see that exact ideology shining through in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I don’t know what to tell you.

Here’s the vital thing to grasp about Lewis and his world view: He didn’t just believe that there is a biological difference between the sexes; he believed there was a spiritual difference as well. To him, femininity represents subjection to God. Men, to Lewis, were literally closer to God. This is still the case for many fundamentalist Christians.

However, C.S. Lewis did believe in political and vocational equality. Donald Trump, by the way, is exactly the same. This is why it’s important to make a distinction between sexism and misogyny. C.S. Lewis, like Donald Trump, was not a clear sexist. He did believe that women were capable of contributing fully to the world (and was happy for women to do just that, recognising that their labours would benefit him). However, he was a keen upholder of the police force of patriarchy, otherwise known as misogyny. For more on this point, I refer you to the excellent book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne, specifically page 89.

STORYWORLD OF NARNIA

There’s an entire article on the Setting of Narnia at Wikipedia.

Narnia is a quasi-medieval world written in the mid 20th century.

I can’t think of a clearer example of The Symbolism of Seasons in Storytelling. Winter means death, summer means life.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a classic portal fantasy. C.S. Lewis knew to really dwell on the portal. Getting all four children through the portal dominates the first quarter of the story.

C.S. Lewis also made full use of The Symbolism of Altitude, which is not only symbolic but also lends dimensionality to a landscape. Characters go below ground (with the beavers), above ground and high above ground (up trees, on mountains, in a palace).

The 1972 map of Narnia depicts a setting which is mostly forested, except for marshlands in the north. In the Bible, the enemy of God’s people come from the north, bringing destructionFalse kings come from the north. See also: The Symbolism of Cardinal Direction.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (2005 FILM ADAPTATION)

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is your classic home-away-home story with a mythic structure.

SHORTCOMING

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe features an ensemble cast with no stand-out main character. The story crosscuts between Lucy and Edmond, or whoever happens to be the most alone and vulnerable at the time. However, we definitely empathise with Lucy. For my purposes, I nominate Lucy as ‘the main character’. She is also a ‘viewpoint’ character, because when Lucy sees Narnia for the first time, so do we. However, Edmond undergoes the biggest character arc so we could just as easily pick him. (If not more so.)

Lucy’s main shortcoming is that she is the youngest, and therefore expected to be immature and unreliable.

Nobody believes Lucy when she walks through the back of the wardrobe. Honestly, wouldn’t you believe Edmond?

Edmund’s lie of omission, failing to tell his siblings about his encounter with the White Witch, drives much of the drama in the first Narnia story. Interestingly, though, he is probably judged more harshly by contemporary readers than Lewis intended. It is almost impossible, now, to imagine the feelings a child – used to the privations of wartime Britain – might experience on being offered some Turkish Delight. This is one of those occasions where some of the context is lost in the passage of history. If you had grown up with rationing, been shipped out to the country for protection, and found yourself in a magical land where you were offered extraordinary, rarefied sweet things, wouldn’t you lie too?

The Guardian

For more on that, see Liars in Storytelling.

In this new fantasy world she does not understand the threats. Narnia is a fascination to her. This is the shortcoming that could cost Lucy her life.

DESIRE

The Pevensie children stumble into a fantasy world entirely by accident, and as soon as they get there, their mission is to have fun with it. When the learn the stakes, they at first turn down the Call to Adventure (saving everyone from the White Witch), which Joseph Campbell calls Refusal of the Call. It’s mandatory, basically. Against their will, the children are forced to fight on behalf of everyone, proving their mettle.

OPPONENT

Edmond is the black sheep of the Pevensie kids, but I can see why. Peter is so annoying. I call him Patriarchal Peter — we see another identical personality in Peter from Famous Five. “Just do as I tell you! I’m the better-looking, more sensible one!” Peter shames Edmond constantly by demoting him to the status of ‘girl’, first by insulting him during cricket, then by telling him he deserves to wear a girl’s fur coat, as if lying is a naturally feminine attribute. (Highly, highly problematic. It makes my skin crawl.)

The White Witch is your classic Thriller villain — her desire is for power, at whatever cost. She’ll even kill you and your family. She’s almost inhuman, but her logic is understandable to a human audience (she’s not a supernatural horror villain). This makes The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe a children’s action thriller, by my reckoning. Within the setting, the White Witch is a descendent of Lilith the ‘Jinn’. In real world, ancient Jewish mythology, Lilith was a female demon, representing all things “dark and terrifying.” In Jewish folklore she was referred to as the first wife of Adam. She left the Garden of Eden because she did not want to be Adam’s wife. (Why ever not?) A ‘jinn’ is a term sometimes used to refer to genies.

C.S. Lewis has included in his character web the entire gamut of familiar opponent (the siblings), really scary new opponent (White Witch), possible opponent (the Professor), annoying adult opponent (the housekeeper) as well as a false-ally (Mr Tumnus), a possible opponent who turns out to be on their side (Aslan) and everything in between. The true goodness of each character is kept as a reveal, as the audience, alongside the characters, work out who is good and who is evil in this strange new world.

PLAN

In a thriller (yep, I’m sure this is a thriller), the hero (heroes plural in this case) need a special super power to help them overcome their enemy. The Pevensie kids are pretty ordinary but Father Christmas turns up to help them out. He endows them with actual gifts — a sword for Patriarchal Peter, bow and arrow for Susan, healing medicine for Lucy and I’ve completely forgotten what he gave to Edmond, oh well.

(My daughter thought Father Christmas was the Professor. Like me watching Game of Thrones, old men in grey beards all look the same. Are we meant to think the professor is secretly the Father Christmas of Narnia? The Professor portrayed as bafflingly conspiratorial in the film.)

The children are led by their allies, Mr Tumnus (after he turns), by the beavers and so on. The kids just keep ploughing along the path and battling whoever fights them. That’s the big plan. When they find themselves on the throne they aren’t all that surprised — it’s their birthright. (This is a very white story, in more ways than one.)

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene is hugely elongated in this film and reminds me of the most boring parts of Lord of the Rings (ie. most of it).

I found this image on Comic Vine, so the similarity must be obvious to everyone. (Return of the King came out two years prior.)

Gandalf White Witch

In 2005, the CGI of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe would have been enough to impress. Now it’s showing it’s age a little. (Characters don’t look fully integrated with the background scenery.) But if you enjoy watching strange creatures running towards each other then doing hand-to-hand combat, this movie is for you.

During this big struggle, I started to side with the White Witch. Tilda Swinton has great costume, great hair, her own fake lion’s mane (or maybe it’s meant to be real) and she gets lots of low angle shots which allow her to show her power. Whatever you say about this White Witch, she knows what she wants and she goes for it. She ain’t no bitch of the patriarchy.

ANAGNORISIS

For Peter, Susan and Lucy, their experience in Narnia is a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story in which they discover their true power.

But Edmond undergoes a more significant character arc, because he had the furthest to come. He shifts from lying traitor to loyal younger brother who knows his place in the patriarchal hierarchy. Peter says, after saving him during Battle, “When are you going to learn to do as you’re told?” echoing the wrapper story of the London bombings. Even before then, he is shown as acceding power to older brother Peter.

This is seen as a good thing, because now the brothers are less Cain and Abel, more like friends. And friends is always a good thing, right?

Edmond’s arc doesn’t sit right with me. The idea that ‘younger siblings must obey older siblings’ led to significant fraternal bullying in the past. Now, with smaller families and/or more vigilant parenting, sibling hierarchy has mostly disappeared. If older siblings are still in charge it’s because they’re developmentally more advanced, not because of a patrimonial culture which grants permanent, life-long power to eldest children, especially to eldest sons.

NEW SITUATION

When the Pevensie children return to their primary world, ‘the wonderful adventure [in Narnia] has been merely a “time-out”, a picnic.’ Nikolajeva likens these books to a modern computer game, in which the player ‘dies’, but simply plays the game again, consequence free.

The fact is that in most quest stories for children…the protagonists, unlike the hero in myth (or a novice during initiation), are liberated from the necessity to suffer the consequences of their actions. What is described is not the real rite of passage, but merely play or, to follow Bakhtin’s notion, carnival.

Maria Nikolajeva

For more on Nikolajeva’s concept of ‘picnic’ and how that relates to ‘genre’ in children’s literature, see this post.

RELATED

Dick Clark’s Unique Flintstone Style House For Sale In MalibuSecret door inside this wardrobe leads to a Narnia themed playroom.

If you’re a Narnia fan, you can listen to the story online here.