Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ecology of Magic in Seventh Son

Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son is set in a world akin to our own 19th-century America, but he has twisted and changed certain elements and ideas to make the world his own. Many of these changes are simple and still strongly link to the truth, like calling the the Ohio the Hio, but some are bigger, such as George Washington fighting for the crown, and then being beheaded for treason. Of course, Latter-Day Saints also notice the similarities between Alvin Maker and our own Prophet Joseph Smith.

Unlike many fantasy writers who enjoy building an entirely new world, it's interesting Card stuck so closely in some respects to reality, and where he deviated seems completely random at times. Laura Gibbs discusses what she calls the "ecology of magic." She explains that magical powers "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...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."
Perhaps Card uses his setting to for magical ecology purposes; it's a way make fantasy "realistic"—meaning fantasy keeps in the limits of good story telling. Things in Alvin Maker's world are skewed enough that we realize we're in a new realm where new things are possible, but there are enough echoes of truth and fact to give it a sense of reality, even as an altered reality.

However, seeing how the intended audience is young adults, I wonder if some of those mixings of reality and fantasy are too subtle. For instance, the character Taleswapper composes proverbs and poetry, and I noticed right away that they came from William Blake. Ok, I thought. Real poetry from the literary canon mixed with a fictional character. But, how many 15, 16, 17 year-olds would actually pick up on that? Laura Gibbs pointed out that Taleswapper is actually suppose to be William Blake. I slapped my forehead when I read that. Duh!

Taleswapper composes Proverbs of Hell just like William Blake
He wants to be a prophet, but his religious views are unorthodox just like William Blake.
And Old Ben always called him Bill short for William.

BUT, these connections only seemed obvious because I'm an English major and I took Romanticism last semester. I wouldn't have picked up on all that in high school. I barely would have recognized "The Sick Rose" poem.

I caught another allusion when Reverend Thrower is despairing over his own nothingness, and he thinks that he is like a spider that God is dangling over a fire, but he's too worthless to even be cast in the fire. Somewhere in my brain, I've stored the "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God" speech that I read in AP History in high school. AgainIf the readers are currently studying Calvinism in colonial America, great! They'd probably get this reference,but the chances might be slim.

I guess we leave the book wondering why he handled his ecology of magic they way he did. Why does he point out the differences in founding fathers when they don't really play a role in the plot? And what is Card's purpose for more subtle mixes of reality?  Does he really expect his audience to understand his allusions to Blake and the Calvinist Edwards? Did he put those in there for his own satisfaction?

I suspect an author is often like a magician. They rarely tell their secrets.

Source: Gibbs, Laura. "Magic in the World of Alvin Maker: Seventh Son." Journey to the Sea. 1 July 2008. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.


  1. I agree with you, authors rarely tell their secrets- that's why it's up to us readers to interpret and come up with conclusions haha. And yes, William Blake was totally subtle in there and not many people (including myself) would have caught that if it hadn't been pointed out. As for your questions, I think Card didn't exactly expect readers to catch his subtle mixes of reality, but more like hope they would discover his cleverness and be as excited in these discoveries. I don't know, that's how I would see it as a writer.

  2. I caught the William Blake poem, but none of the rest of that, so way to go! Even though the partially true, partially invented history of Alvin's world confused me a bit, I loved it. And I could feel the promise of unseen brilliance--could tell there were more references and connections waiting to be discovered. It's one of the things I loved best about the book. So I don't mind that I haven't caught them all yet, and I don't think it's a problem that kids or adults won't catch them all. As long as they catch a couple, which most should, they'll feel the gist of Card's artistry. I think that's what matters most.

  3. I never thought of authors being like magicians but i think it is brilliant. If authors were to give away the details that we imagine it would be like knowing how a magic trick works and we wouldn't be able to enjoy the material as we could if not. I also agree how you connected how English Majors can "catch" things but not all things so how would someone who doesn't have literally analysis be able to see these things. It kind of like a no brainier.