The sun begins its lazy fall into the sea, and children play on the beach. The wind carries the sounds of the Ferris wheel still, even though it is closed for the summer. Parents and worries and time and tomorrow all wait unconsidered as the children play.
The waves crash on the beach and the waves crash on the beach. A group of friends huddle together completing serious business.
A castle of sand.
There is time yet to play. Evening will not fall, must not fall until it is complete. There is time yet to play and winter and evening shadow can wait.
“I suspect that via the insidious medium of picture books for children the wizards will continue to practice their high magic and the witches will perform their evil, bad-tempered spells. It’s going to be a long time before there’s room for equal rites.”
Because, here it is. In 1985, Terry Pratchett beat me to the punch. In a speech he gave at a convention he perfectly explained what I’ve been fumbling around for years trying to express. He summed up Swordpunk in an aside:
“But a part of my mind remained plugged into what I might call the consensus fantasy universe. It does exist, and you all know it. It has been formed by folklore and Victorian romantics and Walt Disney, and E R Eddison and Jack Vance and Ursula Le Guin and Fritz Leiber — hasn’t it? In fact those writers and a handful of others have very closely defined it. There are now, to the delight of parasitical writers like me, what I might almost call “public domain” plot items. There are dragons, and magic users, and far horizons, and quests, and items of power, and weird cities. There’s the kind of scenery that we would have had on Earth if only God had had the money.
To see the consensus fantasy universe in detail you need only look at the classical Dungeons and Dragon role-playing games. They are mosaics of every fantasy story you’ve ever read.
Of course, the consensus fantasy universe is full of cliches, almost by definition. Elves are tall and fair and use bows, dwarves are small and dark and vote Labour. And magic works. That’s the difference between magic in the fantasy universe and magic here. In the fantasy universe a wizard points his fingers and all these sort of blue glittery lights come out and there’s a sort of explosion and some poor soul is turned into something horrible.”
The “consensus fantasy universe’. That’s swordpunk. In three goddamn words.
He then proceeds to document the gross dichotomy of gender roles in magic. Wizards are wise, powerful and male — witches are crafty, evil, and female. And that’s troubling and stupid.
It just absolutely flabbergasts me. I’ve been floundering around with these concepts for years, since before I even started work on Spell/Sword, and to find it put so neatly when I was five years old is amazing.
It makes me feel inspired. It makes me feel — I’ll say it — proud. Proud and important, even though it’s completely unwarranted from such a silly book. I want to raise my hand from the back of the speech hall and say “I’m here, Mr. Pratchett! I’m here, and I’m trying. I’m trying to do that thing better! I have three magic users in my book and all of them are female, and through them I’m trying to explore the spectrum. Cotton, wizard of order, seer and battle-mage, the refined and learned wizard of lore and might. Rime, mage of chaos, unfettered and burning Reality like a sun going nova. And The Gray Witch, unknown and unknowable, the magic of forever, of stone and sorrow. I have a witch that is different! SO different!”
Mr. Pratchett peers over his glasses at me, and drums his knuckles on the lectern. An awkward cough fills the sudden silence.
I leap back to the present before some sort of time rift develops or I collapse from Hyper-Anxiety.
My witch is different, as I hope the few of you that have read the book can attest.
In lore and legend she is the expected crone, laughing and mad and malevolent. But when Jonas stumbles into her yard with Rime in tow, she is not what he expected — or I hope what the reader expected.
She is gray, all gray like the edge of a storm. She is nude and unconcerned, merry and strange, her brown-eyes still human but beyond that completely Other.
And she is sad. And sure. The greatest curse of all is certainty. Necessity.
The character is overtly sexual, but never in a prurient manner. Her nudity is barely described, as component as the red hat she wears in her wide-bucket garden.
I know so little about her! Writers are supposed to be God, but she eludes me. She frightens me more than a little, which is why I skitter into poetry when I describe her.
The fear and loathing that Mr. Pratchett correctly observes in the depiction of the Dark Feminine I do not truly jettison, but wrap it into the character along with all the strange unknowns of her identity. She is not a gibbering octogenarian that can be dismissed, pitied, or relegated to lesser status. She is a character of ill portent, but should never be seen as a minor force – -she is Beyond. Almost beyond gender entirely, but never quite.
I’ll try to put in some dopey male wizards next time around, Mr. Pratchett. To underline. It’ll have to wait for Book Three, the cast of Riddle Box is already set.
“I’m here,” I whisper across the years and the ocean to Mr. Pratchett. “And so is the Gray Witch. Be careful what you wish for?”
With each line, each lyric, each spatter of paint, each glob of clay we cast it. Careful and mad we summon the spirits once again, the true power of our race, that we may act as conduit to the Unknown. Even the dullest brute among us calls out to the demi-god of the television remote, the demon of the freeway, the howling eidolon that lurks in stones and stars and the thousand turns of dumb luck.
But artists are the true shamans.
We need it to mean, we need it to matter. With matter we shape the energy latent, the paths untaken. Some see God in the scratch of the violin, some seek God in the twist of wire and glass. Others just want to show the pain, the rain, the song of the train. All energy, all magic, passing through our hands in an instant then gone.
But if we cast proper, cast careful, cast well…the spell can linger. The shape and form of enchantment can suck in air, and its hands close as if by reflex and it shambles forward into the world to wait for a new victim, a new audience. What we make with true hearts can ward and weave the world, sing it quiet into a better form, shine as a light in the dark, cage the dark beast for a time, hum and giggle like a wine-drunk fairy.
So take it serious, take it real, pound your bones to meal. Stomp and stammer and crash and clamor.
Sing a song, write a tale, draw a thing. Dance or build or break or live.
Make it. Make the thing. Cast your spell and keep your eyes clear. Open the gate in the back of your spine and let the magic work.