Unseen: Informal Magic in Among Others

There is no wiki for Jo Walton’s Among Others and even if there was it probably would not be particularly helpful. This is because unlike many other, more well-known fantasy stories, the magic the novel is not something that can be codified for fans to pour over the technicalities of. Instead Among Others is built around an informal magic system that the reader experiences only through Mori, the first-person narrator. Walton is very successful in moving focus away from the minutia of magic systems that are often at the heart of fantasy novels towards the ways in which Mori’s magic integrates with the real world. This is a novel that is successful in its world building choices but that also runs the risk of disappointing readers who expect to find a complex system to engage with.

In Among Others, Walton is able to use a very informal magic system because her protagonist is isolated from a wider community of magic users. If other characters in Mori’s direct vicinity were able to perform magic inconsistencies would be obvious and frustrating to the reader. However, Mori is isolated from a community of magic users or even people who believe magic is real. There is a great deal of flexibility in this as the reader must take the narrator’s descriptions of magic largely at face value because there is no alternate explanation presented to compare it with. Being separated from a wider community of magic users also means that there is less of a need for magic use to be predictable. When there is a group of characters who could potentially be doing magic there is more need for results to be consistent and to some degree predictable in order for readers to stay invested. However, with the narrator as the only magic user for much of the novel Among Others is able to stave of being frustrating and successfully encourages the reader to let go of the need to completely understand what is possible for Mori.

This willingness of the reader to let go is in fact a key part of how magic is integrated with the non-magical world that Mori moves through. The informal magic of Among Others is often indistinguishable from chance or coincidence, so instead of focusing on the mechanics of magic’s rules and limitations that reader’s focus instead turns to whether or not magic is being performed at all. In a formalized magic system like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings it is obvious if a spell works, the feather floats or the hobbit turns invisible. These are results that are confirmed by other characters and cannot be explained by chance. It also means that the magic of those stories does not integrate with the ‘real world’, there is possibility of either of the above events happening without magic. Much of the tension through Among Others arises from the lack of certainty over Mori’s magic. There is doubt if she is actually performing any magic and even if the reader does accept that she is magical it is a system that integrates with the real world. Making Mori appear strange to the characters around her but not making her impossible to them.

Walton doesn’t just create a magic that is plausible in the real world, she makes an effort to contextualize her character’s world with the magical worlds readers are familiar with. Most notable are the numerous returns to the Lord of the Rings. In many ways this seems an essential inclusion for the character of Mori who is obsessed with speculative fiction and lacks the support of a magical community to share her beliefs. However, for readers this results is an inevitable comparison between the magic of the Lord of the Rings and the magic of Among Others. The gap is striking as Mori gives the creatures she encounters names like Glorfindel while the same creatures fail to behave in the consistent manner of Tolkien’s elves. While instinctive magic adds an element of uncertainty to the plot of Among Others this direct juxtaposition with Lord of the Rings can show the reader how unfulfilling informal magic can be. There is no structure to understand and become invested in, no set rules for what is and is not possible which makes full immersion in the story difficult.

Enjoyment of Among Others comes from a different place than reading other fantasy books, rather than becoming invested in a constructed world and magic system there is a sense of shared love of those elements. Walton’s novel shows the grey areas between magic and coincidence that can be developed through characters who are isolated from the magical communities that are a staple of fantasy books. There is no Middle Earth reach in Among Others, but it does offer a magic that exists on the edge of plausibility for the majority of the novel. Reading it is a choice between buying into the narrators presentation of her own magic outside of a structure or to read about a girl whose love of fantasy and social isolation sees her attempt to bring it into her everyday life.

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