Sunday, June 15, 2014

Words of Magic

They say good things come to those that wait.  I don’t know how good this might be, but if you waited for a breakdown of the magical system I’m using as part of the background of my novel, A Spell of 13 Years, here it is.  
There were three things I wanted in the magical system for the world of A Spell of 13 years.  They were...
The Word.  This was directly inspired by the Sefer Yetzirah, the Kabbalistic tome that I had mentioned in previous blogs.  The idea that the act of creation comes from a word, a spoken intent that had no shape or form before it was uttered, appeals to me as a writer.  It also implies that magic comes from a higher order of intelligence and is not either the result of happenstance or a bi-product of natural occurrences.  
Universality.  By this I mean that magic is something that can be performed by anyone.  It is a learned skill, albeit a very difficult one.  But the ability to perform magic is innate to  everyone.  I comes from having a fragment of the “True God” encased in material flesh shaped by the Demiurge that stole it to form our universe.  Having a fragment of divinity is having an infinite amount of divinity.  
Glyphs.  If the practice of magic comes from words, then magic can be written down.  But to write down the method of creating universes filled with living things is dangerous.  As I noted in a previous blog entry, a commonly held belief amongst Kabbalistic practitioners was that the words written in the holy books of Jewish tradition were altered so that some common person reading them aloud wouldn’t accidentally create worlds of their own.  Glyphs, I thought, would be the ideal way of writing something down where people could know its meaning but not necessarily know how it was pronounced.  
This lead me to rely on the one language that uses something similar that I’m familiar with, Japanese.  Japanese kanji, which are based on the Chinese characters imported into the language centuries ago, gives me the basis for how the magical glyphs used in The Twelve Realms of Nao, where A Spell of 13 Years takes place, are used, read and taught. It also gave me some methodology to use in keeping the pronunciation magical practitioners would use secret from the general public, as well as a method for them to cast their spells.  
And here are the rules I’ve come up with (thus far, and in no particular order)...
A spell takes 13 units of time.  
Thirteen has long been considered a number of power in pre-Christian religions.  The reverence of pagan cultures for the number is the reason why it is considered unlucky in Western, Judaeo-Christian cultures.  
Ironically, while 13 is not considered unlucky in the Japanese culture, the numbers 4 and 9 are considered unlucky, and they add up to 13.  The reason 4 and 9 are considered unlucky is because the pronunciation of the kanji for those numbers, “shi” for the number four and “ku” for the number nine, sound like the Japanese words for “death” and “suffering.”
These glyphs are created with twelve strokes.  In other words, when drawing them on paper, the pen would make twelve distinct marks on the page for each glyph.  
The order in which these strokes are made is important.  Depending on the design of the glyph itself, the glyph is created starting from the top and working down, or starting from the left and working to the right.  
For example, below is the Japanese kanji for “uma” or horse: 
The first stroke, the straight vertical stroke staring at “1,” goes down from that point.  The second stroke, starting at “2” goes from left to right.  Each stroke that follows continues this top-down, left-right pattern.  The only one that is somewhat different is stroke 6, which starts left and goes right, then curves down and back to the left.  The last four strokes are placed within the space created by the sixth curving stroke.  All glyphs have their own specific stroke order that must be followed.  
The last time unit, the 13th, is when the practitioner adds the “invisible stroke.”  This final stroke is what releases the word the practitioner has envisioned into creation.  Instead of a stroke of a pen, it can be thought of as the stroke of a knife, which cuts the material veil that separates the practitioner from others and sends forth the magical word he or she has spoken.  
Each glyph has several ways to pronounce it.  
The “Vulgar Reading” is how the glyph is pronounced in everyday life.  This is how the average literate person in the world would recognize and use the glyph when writing letters, posting signs, etc.  
The “Conjunctive Reading” is how the glyph is spoken when combined with other glyphs.  An example from Japanese, one word for “lunch” is 昼ご飯, which is pronounced, “hi-ru-go-han.”  Another word that also means lunch is “chuu-sho-ku,” which is written using the same kanji: 昼食.  In a similar fashion, when two glyphs touch each other, their pronunciation changes.  
Glyphs with more than one Vulgar or Conjunctive Reading are said to have “Surrogate Readings.”  Most glyphs have surrogate readings.  In Japanese, this stems from the two languages involved in creating the meaning for their kanji.  There is the original pronunciation of the character from Chinese, which the Japanese call the “onyomi,” and the pronunciation of the Japanese word the kanji is being used to represent, the “kunyomi.”  From the example above, the Japanese word for noon, “hiru,” is the kunyomi for the kanji, “昼.”  The onyomi, or Chinese pronunciation, is “chuu.”  
I should note that the terms I’m using, Vulgar Reading, Conjunctive Reading, Surrogate Reading, plus those below, are terms that are used in my universe and not in the study of Japanese.  
The most important reading for a glyph, from the standpoint of practicing magic, is its “Formative Reading.”  This is the reading of the glyph when used in spells.  
By long tradition, the Formative Reading is never written down using phonetic lettering.  This is to avoid the same problem that the ancient kabbalists saw of having just anyone create universes after they learned to read.  But the Formative Readings have to be taught, otherwise apprentices could never become practitioners.  This is done through the practice of an “Assigned Reading.”  
Assigned Reading is something I’ve borrowed from the Japanese concept of “ateji.”  It’s almost an exact translation, since ateji means “assigned characters.”  It is the practice of assigning kanji to a word for pronunciation purposes only, without any regard to the kanjis original meaning.  
The best example I can think of is for one Japanese word almost anyone who goes out to eat Japanese food is familiar with: sushi.  In Japanese, the kanji used for sushi are “寿司.”  The first character, pronounced “su,” is the kanji for “lifespan.”  The second kanji, pronounced “shi,” means, “to administer.”  Neither kanji has any meaning associated with fish, food, raw, eating or anything close.  But their pronunciation together, “sushi,” is the same as the Japanese delicacy of eating uncooked fish on rice.  This is ateji, or assigned characters.  
In the world of A Spell of 13 Years, during the last stage of their training, magical apprentices are given texts to learn the Formative Readings of the glyph-words they’ve been studying.  These texts are written as very intricate riddles or puzzles, or mystery stories with intertwining clues.  The solution of these puzzles, or the answer to the mystery to be solved, will provide the apprentice with the method of taking the pronunciation of the glyphs used and assigning that pronunciation to the glyphs whose formative meaning he or she is trying to learn. 
It is one reason why the magical practitioners in my world are overly fond of puns and word games.  It is the means by which they learned to craft spells of awesome power.  
Next time, more on the glyphs and how they are used to create spells. 


Anonymous Shannon said...

I like the sound of your magic system. Prior to the written part, it reminded me of the magic words in a Dave Duncan series from the early 90s called A Man of His Word. The words were spoken and an individual could only know so many (3 or 4) before they would...hmm...I don't remember, blow up or something. The power of each word was diluted by how many people knew it. The most powerful people knew the rarest words. I thought it was a fun series. There was a follow up series, as well. If you haven't already, you might be interested in picking up the books to see how Duncan played with the magic word concept. The first novel in the series was called Magic Casement. (Yes, there's a magic casement, too. And memorable goblins.)

June 15, 2014 at 11:22 PM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

Hello, Shannon.

Thank you for your comment. I'm not familiar with that series. It sounds interesting.

Another series which I think influenced me was the Belgariad by David Eddings. The Sorcerous magic was based on "The Will and The Word," where you had to speak the word with sufficient will to make it work.

June 19, 2014 at 7:07 AM  

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