Magic in THE CHILD EATER

My novel, THE CHILD EATER, was published in America July 7, after previously coming out in Great Britain, where it was listed in The Guardian’s Notable Books of the Year. Here, it’s already received a terrific review from NPR online.

http://www.npr.org/2015/07/16/423200086/-the-child-eater-has-an-appetite-for-dark-heartfelt-fantasy

If anyone is interested in setting up interviews, or reviewing the book, please contact Alex Knight, at alex.knight@hbgusa.com

Meanwhile, the paperback edition has come out in Britain, and for that I contributed an essay, Magic In The Child Eater, which I’m including here.

The Child Eater is about many things—heroism, secrets, child abuse, flying, and two boys who are bound together without ever knowing of each other’s existence. It is also about magic.
Magic is a major part of Matyas’s world. Though the wizards officially serve the king and nobility, they themselves are the true power. This is part of why Matyas wants to become a Master, for he hopes that magical power will allow him to escape the brutality and shame of his childhood.
Simon Wisdom’s world appears closer to our own, but magic hums beneath the surface. While Matyas actually becomes a sorcerer, Simon struggles to suppress what he and his father take to be simple psychic powers. It is only when Simon can glimpse the greater magical structure surrounding him that he can do what he needs to save himself, and generations to come, from the hidden figure of the Child Eater.
In creating a magical underpinning for the book, I wanted to make it a world of its own, rather than relying on an existing magical system. Of necessity I would take ideas from different sources, but not simply import a complete structure into my story.
I also wanted my sources to be not the ones we see all the time. It often seems to me that certain traditions get over-used in contemporary fantasy. Celtic Faerie lore has fueled a vast number of books, some beautifully written, but for me, at least, it has come to feel overly familiar. Almost the same goes for what some call Western Ceremonial Magic (or magick, as Aleister Crowley called it), with all its hordes of demons and angels summoned to serve the magician.
I realized as I tried to develop the book’s magic that it would need two things. The first was a sense of an overall structure, and a history that would lie behind it. The second was the actual experience of magic—what the power, and the knowledge, felt like, and what it might be to experience and understand the world in a completely different way. The power to cast spells, to alter reality itself, would certainly overwhelm someone who discovered he or she could do that. One of my favorite scenes in the book occurs when Matyas, now grown and a Master, returns to his parents’ inn, and then simply stands in a room, stunned at the realization of all the terrible punishments he could bring upon his father.
This is magic as personal power. For Simon it comes when he confronts bullies by saying out loud all their secret thoughts the second after they think them. There is another level of magic, however, when the Master suddenly perceives the vast and beautiful magical universe itself. To hint at such an experience, I drew upon Peter Lamborn Wilson’s passionate essay about Charles Fourier, in Wilson’s book, Escape From the Nineteenth Century. Fourier, who lived at the time of the French Revolution, believed that true revolution does not simply create a more just society, but changes consciousness itself. He believed that we see only a limited range of colors, hear only a narrow range of harmonies. Revolution must open the cosmos to us.
In the novel, I attributed these teachings to the mysterious founder of the Academy, Florian, whose writings most wizards find too difficult. Matyas studies them, not sure why, until the moment comes when he experiences a personal revelation. Carrying wood for his teacher’s fire he looks up at the Moon, seemingly caught in the horns of a tower, and suddenly he sees colors beyond colors, hears sounds beyond sounds, discovers the ordinary world transformed into wonder and beauty. Without even knowing it he begins to teach, to share, and all the wizards, and their students, and even the spirits, known in the book as The Splendor, gather round him.
For Simon, and his father Jack, magic becomes a thing of fear, in the person of the mysterious Man In Gray, who enters their lives in crucial moments. They will finally know him as the Child Eater, a sorcerer whose great power depends on hurting children. Veil, Matyas’s teacher, tells him that what the sorcerer does, known as the “Spell of Extension,” is a flaw in Creation itself, and the Creator wept when She discovered she could not make a world that did not contain it.
The idea for this spell came from a bizarre Jewish legend I discovered while reading The Tree Of Souls: Jewish Mythology, by the great Howard Schwartz, whose writings on Jewish folklore have influenced me for many years. Schwartz tells of the teraph, a talking head that can foretell the future. The origin of this idea comes from a mysterious Bible passage, where Rachel has married Jacob and the two leave her father’s tents to return to his homeland. The Bible tells us that she took her father’s teraphim (plural), but not what these are other than valuable, and small enough to hide among her belongings. Most commentators see them as “household gods,” but that’s a problem, since it would make the Mother Of Israel an idol-worshipper.
Over time, speculation about the teraph moved further and further from its origins. In the Middle Ages the idea developed that an evil sorcerer could lure a boy away from his parents just before he would be due to be bar mitzvahed, decapitate the poor child, and use his head as an oracle. In the novel, however, the Child Eater seeks something more basic than foreknowledge—life itself.
For the background to magic in the book I turned once again to Jewish myth, a famous and deeply mysterious story from the Talmud, “The Four Rabbis Who Entered Paradise.” It tells how the great Rabbi Akiva led three of his disciples into the heavenly palaces, and how all but Akiva came to a bad end. In the novel, Florian, her teacher, Joachim, and a mysterious unnamed “Other” travel “behind the Veil of the Creator” to seek help for humanity. Florian and Joachim return unharmed—and with the power of magic—but the third becomes corrupted, with a destiny that will work itself out over thousands of years.
Finally, there is the Tarot Of Eternity, which appears in different places throughout the novel. As someone who has read Tarot cards, and taught and written about them, for nearly fifty years, I am well aware that the cards originated as a game in Italy in the early fifteenth century, and only much later became associated with fortune-telling and spiritual symbolism. But I also am aware of a powerful myth about the cards, what I call their “secret origin.” In 1781, around the time of Fourier’s visions, two French scholars and Freemasons made the bold claim that the Tarot originated in Ancient Egypt and contained all the great teachings disguised as a game. This idea took off, and ever since, people have argued not whether the Tarot contains hidden secrets, but rather which ones.
In the novel, the Tarot Of Eternity—the “original” Tarot—does not foretell the future (Simon can do that all by himself), but acts as a link between the millennia, and, ultimately, Simon and Matyas. Near the beginning, Matyas encounters the cards, or rather what their magician owner calls “a copy of a copy of a copy.” He tells Matyas an ancient saying: “Whosoever holds the true Tarot Of Eternity, he shall be healed of all his crimes.” Matyas will not understand this until the very end of the book.

Published in: on July 24, 2015 at 2:57 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love this book and look forward to your event in August. Thank you for your blessing that I might always hear the songs of the Kallistochai!

    • Thank you, Lauren. Yes, that is kind of a special blessing. I kind of secretly believe that the Kallistochai exist, and their songs all around us.

  2. I love reading this explanation of your writing / creative process! And I look forward to getting this book now; it’s on my ‘wish list.’

  3. Thank you, James.


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