Magic on the Edges

February 15th, 2013

by K. V. Johansen

Magic—not spells and hurled fireballs, but that inspiring combination of wonder, awe, and excitement that drives artistic creation—is, for me, born on the edges of things. Edges mean boundaries and borders, tension and change and flow. In the landscapes of fiction the rise of desert into mountain, the uneasy meeting of the cleared and settled with the primeval forest, the hint of island shadow on the horizon of the sea, are the sorts of places that suggest Story. They are zones of transformation where things can or might or should happen, the places where change is found, and change coming for good or ill to a character or to their world is what drives stories.

A lot of my favourite stories, the ones I read when young and which fuelled my desire to tell stories myself, start off with edges. The Shire of The Hobbit (never so named in it, of course) is a domesticated land on the edges of a great unknown, but the unknown forces its way in over the borders, prowling on the fringes of collective hobbit awareness. Wolves came out of the wild in a hard winter; goblins were fought by heroic ancestors; “lads and lasses” used to run off into the blue for adventures, and dwarves now pass through, travelling on their own mysterious business, while in The Lord of the Rings itself strangers begin to cross the southern border and like distant thunder, there are rumours of unease in the wider world, though the sun still shines on the bucolic idyll of Hobbiton. In Sutcliff’s The Lantern-Bearers, Aquila lives in an edge time and an edge place. Rome is withdrawing from Britain, the empire is failing, the barbarian raiders are settling and staying. The frontier of civilization is retreating like the tide, and an era is coming to an end. The kingdom of Damar, in McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, has beyond its frontier an unknown land of strange and dangerous magic, out of which the hero Aerin’s mysterious mother appeared. Taran, in the Chronicles of Prydain, lives with his elderly guardian in a cottage surrounded by forest, where a straying boy can be pursued by a monstrous huntsman out of myth and rescued by a legendary hero only a few miles from the safety of his home. The known and explored universe in Cherryh’s Chanur series is revealed to share a frontier with unknown aliens; that discovery disrupts the balance of power, creating new lines of tension between the several intelligent species of ship-captain Pyanfar’s known world. In Glen Cook’s Black Company series, the political world is on an epochal edge, an empire breaking apart.

The heroes of these stories that played such a role in forming the compost out of which my own stories began to grow are on the edges themselves. Bilbo is not, at first, an edge character, but he becomes one by daring to cross over the boundaries of his illusory safety. Afterwards, he never fits properly into his former place again. “… Bilbo was cracked, and Frodo’s cracking,” says Ted Sandyman: Frodo is already regarded as odd, not quite fitting into his proper place as a moneyed gentleman of the Shire, and he is restless, hearing the call of the road. Aquila, a British-born Roman officer whose family is generations removed from Rome, stands on an edge between places and times and between duty and family. Aerin is born on the edge, child of a suspected foreign witch, never accepted, never her father’s heir. Taran, a foundling ambitious for heroism, stands at the edge of himself, always looking outwards to become something more. Pyanfar finds herself an edge person whose decisions push her out of her place and into a role where she stands between species, negotiating a new balance of power. The mercenary physician Croaker is on the edge, ever observing and recording the history happening about him, standing back from it all, until he falls into the heart of a disintegrating world and pulls the company with him into a long transformation.

In my own writing, it’s the characters who exist on the edges who most fascinate me and fire my imagination. They’re the wanderers who are not wholly of the societies through which they pass, or the outsiders not entirely at home with or accepted by the people amongst whom they must live. Wren, Rookfeather, and Kokako of the Torrie books, Maurey and Nethin from The Warlocks of Talverdin, and Moth, Mikki, Holla-Sayan, and Attalissa of the Blackdog world are all edge people, by choice or by circumstances or both. Of the nine above, only two, Wren and Kokako, are entirely human, and that’s another edge that drives my imagination when I sit down to write. By being outside of humanity, even if only a little, they are immediately set apart, and by being apart, they become the observers, the restless, the ones who will most likely be the first to notice the shadows on the horizon and decide to investigate, or who will be that shadow on the horizon themselves. It’s characters such as these who kindle my urge to find out more about them by telling their stories. In setting out to discover them through their stories, I have to build and explore their worlds, which leads to adventure, history, politics, gods and goddess and demons, battles with enemies and solitary struggles with the self in the dark, but in all my fantasy novels, it starts with that one character on the edge of being something else, and a horizon, a frontier, that must be crossed. That’s where magic lies.

About the Guest Author

K. V. Johansen


K. V. Johansen

K. V. Johansen was born in Kingston, Ontario, and is the author of numerous works for children, teens, and adults. She predominantly writes secondary-world fantasy but is also the author of some science fiction, picture books, and two books on the history of children’s fantasy literature. Johansen has an MA from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Her lifelong interest in ancient and medieval history and the history of languages has had a great influence on her writing and world-building. Aside from travelling to the Republic of Macedonia in 2010 to receive the first-ever “International Ana Frank Award for Children’s Literature [in Macedonian]”, меѓународната награда „Ана Франк“ за најдобра книга, for the Macedonian translation of Torrie and the Snake-Prince, Тори и принцот-змија, she has not done anything terribly interesting or adventurous in her life; she’s been too busy writing. Her most recent book is Blackdog, an epic fantasy for adults published by Pyr. She lives in New Brunswick, Canada, with a wicked white dog who, thus far, has not evinced any sign of being a shapeshifter, though if slipper-stealing constitutes evidence of a demoniacal nature, he might quality.

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3 Responses to “Magic on the Edges”

  1. [...] Magic—not spells and hurled fireballs, but that inspiring combination of wonder, awe, and excitement that drives artistic creation—is, for me, born on the edges of things. Edges mean boundaries and borders, tension and change and flow. In the landscapes of fiction the rise of desert into mountain, the uneasy meeting of the cleared and settled with the primeval forest, the hint of island shadow on the horizon of the sea, are the sorts of places that suggest Story. They are zones of transformation where things can or might or should happen, the places where change is found, and change coming for good or ill to a character or to their world is what drives stories. . . . The complete essay is a guest post over at Fantasist Enterprises, so you can head on over there to read it all. [...]

  2. [...] Magic—not spells and hurled fireballs, but that inspiring combination of wonder, awe, and excitement that drives artistic creation—is, for me, born on the edges of things. Edges mean boundaries and borders, tension and change and flow. In the landscapes of fiction the rise of desert into mountain, the uneasy meeting of the cleared and settled with the primeval forest, the hint of island shadow on the horizon of the sea, are the sorts of places that suggest Story. They are zones of transformation where things can or might or should happen, the places where change is found, and change coming for good or ill to a character or to their world is what drives stories. . . . The complete essay is a guest post over at Fantasist Enterprises, so you can head on over there to read it all. [...]



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