Word magic
The broader conversation

Ordinary magic

Tales from Earthsea illustrated by Charles Vess

Following yesterday's post on magic and magicians, here's a passage from David Abram's second book, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. In this section of the text, he discusses a long journey through the Himalayas meeting with indigenous medicine workers and shamanic practioners -- sharing his own techniques of sleight-of-hand magic while listening, observing, and attuning himself to the local landscape:

Tehanu illustrated by Charles Vess 6"In the course of these first months in the Himalayas I came into contact with several jhankris of very diverse skill, and I lived for several weeks with two of them, a husband and wife who were both highly regarded as healers....The strangest thing about my time with Sonam and his wife, Jangmu, was how deeply I came home to myself during those days and nights. Rather than sampling alien practices and exploring beliefs entirely new to me, it was a quality of my own felt experience that became ever more fascinating, the carnal thickness underlying even my most ephemeral daydreams. From that first evening in their house, I found myself noticing ordinary, physical sensations much more vividly than I had realized was possible....Their home, with its stone walls, had a palpable density that hunkered close as I slept on the mud-caked floor across from Sonam and Jangmu, and when I woke in the morning I seemed to emerge from my private dreams into the wider dreaming of this breathing house nested within the broad imagination of the bouldered hillside.

"My hosts were already at work, whether feeding their few animals or hauling water back from the stream or consulting the spirits regarding the faltering crops of potatoes in a nearby village. Later I would be carrying fallen deadwood gathered from a stand of trees by the far below river, walking up the switchback trail behind Jangmu -- she seeming to float up the steep trail in her bare feet while her back was bent forward, its huge load slung from a single rope tumpline around her forehead, me straining and staggering in my hiking boots with a far smaller stash of fuel under my arms. I remember how completely those walks annihilated any separation of my conscious thoughts from my aching shoulders and my hammering heartbeat and the step and tumble of my legs.

The Books of Earthsea illustrated by Charles Vess

"And herein was the strangeness: the more my consciousness sank into the muscled thickness of my animal flesh, the more I could feel the tangible earth around me swell and breathe and move within itself -- trees, riverbanks, and boulders quietly responding to all the happenings in their vicinity. It seemed the ground itself felt my footsteps and nudged my feet in the most serendipitous directions, ensuring that I'd come across some unexpected event at just the right moment -- that I'd encounter a hawk just as it swerved into a tree to feed its nestlings, or that I'd step into the precise spot to glimpse, through a momentary opening in the monsoon clouds, two mountain goats coupling on the high ridge.  As though by dissolving my detached cognitions into the sensory curiosity of my body I had slipped into alignment with the sentience of the land itself. Awakening as this upright, wide-eyed, smooth-skinned thing, I noticed that all the other things around me were also awake.

Tehanu illustrated by Charles Vess

Tales from Earthsea illustrated by Charles Vess

"It was as profound an experience of magic as any I'd yet tasted, and yet it was entirely ordinary. There was nothing extraordinary about it, not in the least. It was not the encounter with a supernatural dimension that unfurls somewhere beyond my everyday, into which I might elevate myself now and then, but with a dimension always operative beneath my conventional consciousness, a carnal realm where my animal body was engaged in this ongoing interplay with the animate earth.

"Hence I began to feel far more palpably present, and real, to the rocks and shadowed cliffs than I'd felt before. I felt that I was known to these mountains now. This experience -- this awareness of my elemental, thingly presence to the tangible things that surrounded me -- has remained, for me, the purest hallmark of magic, the very signature of its uttermost reality. Magic doesn't sweep you away; it gathers you up into the body of the present moment so thoroughly that all your explanations fall away: the ordinary, in all its plain and simple outrageousness, begins to shine -- to become luminously, impossibly so. Every facet of the world is awake, and you within it.

"The deeper I slid into the material density of the real, the more I found that there was nothing determinate or predictable about existence. Actually, this inexhaustable mystery cannot be domesticated. It is wildness incarnate. Reality shapeshifts."

I highly recommend David Abram's books to those writers and storytellers seeking to invest their words, worlds, and characters with enchantment. He reminds us that magic is all around us in the world that we walk every day.

The Other Wind illustrated by Charles Vess

The Books of Earthsea

The art day is by Charles Vess, drawn from the magnificent body of work he created for The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Charles worked closely with Ursula over four years to create fifty-four illustrations faithful to her vision of the Earthsea archipelago and its denizens -- from wizards and dragons to farmers, sailors, temple-dwellers and kings. The result is a masterwork of mythic fiction and art, a perfect embodiment of word magic.

"I’d pretty much reconciled myself to drawing what she was looking at in her brain," Charles says. "I had no problem with that. She’s particularly brilliant. I really wanted to let her see the world that was in her mind....She envisioned Earthsea as a world mostly comprised of people of colour. It wasn’t just black people, but also Mediterranean or Native American people. All sorts of shades of brown. No one ever put that on a cover. She’d had a lot of fights about that. So, this was an opportunity to gird for battle -- to make the book look the way she’d always envisioned it."

Go here to learn more about the project, here to see some of the sketches made for it, and here to see more Charles' exquisite, unique, and visionary art.

Tales of Earthsea endpaper by Charles Vess

Becoming Animal by David Abram

Words & pictures: The passage quoted above is from Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram (Pantheon, 2010). The Charles Vess illustrations are from The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Simon & Schuster, 20  ). All rights reserved by the author and artist.