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Magic in The Armor of Light

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Jul. 23rd, 2016 | 12:13 pm

The Armor of Light is part of the current HIstorical Fantasy Storybundle, so I thought I'd talk a bit about the history involved, and particularly the history of the magic. Years ago, Delia Sherman gave Lisa and me what is still my favorite blurb ever, for The Armor of Light. I’ve quoted it in full in the Storybundle page, but the relevant portions are “They played around with the history, saving Sidney from his Dutch wound and Marlowe from his tavern in Deptford, and punched up the magic a lot… Cecil would probably have had them silenced.”

While I’m delighted to think — from the safety of some 400 years later — that our book might have upset Sir Robert Cecil, one of Elizabeth’s spymasters, I do have to quibble just a little with the idea that we “punched up the magic a lot.” I’d say, rather, that we punched up the results of the magic; the rituals and beliefs are as accurate as we could make them. After all, at the end of the 16th century, we’re in that odd period when the modern division between “magic” and “science” hasn’t yet solidified. Things that we think of as obviously untrue, the result of superstition or category error, were repeated as well-known and obvious facts by scholars who were laying the foundations for the next century’s Scientific Revolution.

Some of this, of course, is the result of observation with imperfect tools. The Elizabethan commonplace, quoted in Hamlet, that “the sun breed(s) maggots in a dead dog” is accurate as far as it goes: dead things left in the sun will soon produce maggots. What’s missing is the stage that can’t be seen with the naked eye: the flies’ eggs that result in the maggots. Some is the result of beautiful, logical, and entirely unprovable theories, like the notion that the orbits of the planets form Pythagorean solids, and that the music of the spheres follows those rules. And some, of course, is flat-out magic, like the use of scrying glasses or the evocation of angels.  But for most Elizabethans, these pieces fit neatly together into a logical system that went very far toward explaining the world that they lived in, and there are enough texts remaining to make it possible to write “magic” that any Elizabethan scholar would recognize. (He or she might not have approved of all of it — the persistent legend that an extra devil appeared on stage during a performance of Dr. Faustus speaks to that unease — but that’s another matter.) We wanted our magic to feel like Prospero’s magic as well as the darker magic of Dr. Faustus.

Of course, our results were a bit more… immediate and visible… than most Elizabethans would have expected or approved of outside the theater. But at the same time, none of it would have been dismissed as impossible. And that was something we really wanted to do with the novel: come as close as possible to the Elizabethan worldview, and build on the magic already present there.

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Comments {5}

Melissa Scott

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from: mescott
date: Jul. 30th, 2016 02:00 pm (UTC)

You're welcome! I had so much fun with this one... :-)

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