"Magic spells"


If, as Alice Hoffman is everywhere quoted, “Books may well be the only true magic,” then she is only following a tradition that has been acknowledged in all literate cultures: writing is magic, and magic is the written word.

We can point to the beginning of St John’s gospel to see this concept expounded:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Without getting into a theological discussion of what exactly John meant by Logos (‘the Word’), I just want to point out that the spoken word (and later the written word) is seen as the act of creation, and the creative act is magic, in its purest form.

All our language surrounding the concept of words, spoken or written, is closely bound up with magic.

Let’s start with spell. The Medieval French word espeler (modern épeler) gives rise to one meaning for ‘spell’: the naming in order of the letters of a word. The old meaning of épeler was to ‘explain’; it may or not be related to Old English spel, meaning a saying, a speaking or a story, as in godspell or gospel, the ‘good story’.

Old English spel leads to our modern sense of spell, a set of words supposed to have magical power: the spoken phrases cause something to happen, perhaps against its nature. This naturally lead on to charms, words or even objects designed to bespell people and things. The word charm originates from the Latin carmen, ‘a song’, revealing its origins as an intoned or sung spell.

When someone is described as charming they have somehow cast a spell over their companions, perhaps through mellifluous words and a pleasing manner. Naturally this is another form of enchantment, unsurprising as this last term derives from the French chanter, to sing. And of course, the Latin word from which we derive ‘chant’ is cantus, the core of the sung spell we call an incantation.

The written word is often magical of course, as many spells and charms are found inscribed on paper, on talismans and so on. Runes, which we know from Old English and Viking examples, are often closely associated with magic, especially when placed on a sword or other portable object like a ring. Little surprise then that ‘rune’ is related to Old English rūn, meaning a whisper, or a mystery. Runic writing may thus be whispered spells made manifest.

A book of magic is frequently called a grimoire. This is simply an altered form of the word ‘grammar’, used for a book in Latin or Greek and then, by extension, a book of written spells and incantations, invoking spirits and powers both angelic and demonic. From ‘grammar’ is derived the Scottish word glamour, that deceptive charm which certain people wear, concealing their true nature.

So many words attesting to the power of words to shape events, to shape reality — or at least our perception of them — that it’s small wonder that books are not just gateways to magic but are magical of themselves. Let’s then end this short tour exploring how books are indeed true magic — through their words and phrases ensorcelling us to believe all things are possible — by quoting Kipling’s Puck of Pook Hill:

She is not any common Earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye
Where you and I will fare.

Now although Kipling refers to England as Gramarye it’s clear that by ‘she’ he means the whole island of Britain; in fact T H White is explicit when, in The Book of Merlyn, he describes “a country called Wales, part of the isle my master calls Gramarye”.

It’s very appropriate then that Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye takes its name from a book,”the only true magic” as Alice Hoffman might say.