A few weeks ago I made a visit to a friend of mine who lives in Shakopee Minnesota. His name is Rob, and one might say that he is the quintessential oppressed male of 21st century American society. I say oppressed, because although he is hesitant to use that term to describe himself, it is certainly a position he holds: He has a crippling porn addiction, struggles with serious paranoia and depression, has trouble forming intimate relationships (according to him, this is because of the danger surrounding our idea of consent in courtship), and he is very interested in traditional games – board games, D&D, video games, etc.
Our conversations together are usually quite open, sometimes political, and sufficiently geeky. He doesn’t have an education, and his job pays poorly; he is trying to change these things. For most of his life he held a prejudice against the very idea of college, his notion being that they had a monopoly on higher education. Very briefly, this position is untenable because not every college answers to a central governing body. Regardless! Rob is quite a smart man when he’s talking about his games, even if I think his opinions are a bit swampy.
So imagine him: about six feet tall, long flowing locks of brown hair, Minnesota-winter-grade beard, glasses.
And I ask him one simple question: “In order to cast a spell in Dungeon’s and Dragons, does the spell caster have to understand the words of the spell?”
Now clearly, this query has a place in the hall of fame of pointless questions, but I wanted to know what exactly made spells in D&D magical. I knew there was a linguistic component to casting spells in many fantasy realms, and as a disciple of language (an English major) I was very interested in this aspect. So in my mind, there were two possible explanations for the magic of words in D&D:
- The language of the spell has to be interpreted by the user/target correctly, because language itself, to be useful at all, must be interpreted. (No word has objective meaning).
- The language of the spell does NOT have to be interpreted, because spells are much like coding reality. The interpreter is a God, or some other entity that curates the laws of the universe.
Rob’s claim was the latter, and at some point he said (but he will deny it) that the whole world of D&D is predicated on the world-shattering possibility of some malicious or careless individual obtaining a Wizard’s spells. A Wizard, he said, does not write in a common language. He writes in Draconic, which is a totally superior language, and he doesn’t even write in neat Draconic. He writes like a madman – like Leonardo Da’Vinci – encoding his spells by writing backwards, in the margins, blanketing his pages with prose or poetry that is not nonsense only to him. So the wizard is, supposedly, master of his own spell book. His entirely unique way of writing is perhaps the magical aspect he imbibes in his language. Moreover, when the wizard prepares these spells, he must wake up early in the morning, brew a cup of coffee, and actually read his work out loud, loading each individual spell, and stopping before reaching the last word. Because once the last word of a spell is spoken, the spell is cast, and so the wizard walks around the rest of his day with his party with his head full of spells that wait for the last magical word.
The Wizard is undoubtedly a master of language in the D&D universe. But is he not also a madman? And isn’t it by sheer virtue of his madness that his spells are magical? Because I find it unsatisfactory to chalk all of this magic business in fantasy worlds to the explanation that magic simply is. Draconic is simply a magic language, and therefore any Draconic that is spoken is a spell. How boring! What you’ve given me is a cop out!
Here’s something: The poet, the writer, the artist is a wizard.
The highest achievement any artist can attain is a revolution in language, a creation of something entirely new in the way we perceive the sentence, words, or even aesthetic principles. In the same way, they might write like madmen, and scribble fervently like the wizard inscribing his spells into his spell book.
But when, say, a poet reads their work, they too cast spells. Their words and syntax, the tone of their voice, their pacing – all of this accumulates and acts its influence upon the minds of the listeners. The poet’s spell is a wave of energy that injects feeling into others, and what this feeling may be depends entirely on the poem and wizard.
But even rhetoric is magical, perhaps the most sinister of magic there is. Take for example the 2016 election. Many of Trump’s base heavily criticized Barrack Obama for being a smooth talker and speaking in a rather high-class manner. These people saw through the spell cast by Obama’s linguistic abilities or were simply immune to it. But, listen to Trump, who casts his own spell with simpler language and with a less formal rhetorical approach, and suddenly we realize that these same people are equally enraptured by what is only a different species of linguistic expression that influences people.
Now, I realize my blog posts are quite erratic these days. But I find the analogy of the wizard as writer-artist fascinating and useful. It wrenches open the possibilities of what we can do with language, and after all, what’s the point of the writer? Are they malicious? Do they want to control the way people think? Do they want to teach? What do they want their spells to do? That is perhaps a better question than asking:
“What do you want to say?”