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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

The Shape of Magic

Updated: May 27, 2018

Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada – blog – The Shape of Water poster

Director Guillermo del Toro has a gift for creating alternate cinema with mainstream appeal. It's a stupendously simple formula: focus on character, engage the audience and avoid the haughty, too-cool-for-school pretentiousness that makes most film noir so relentlessly insufferable. And make it beautiful. Achingly beautiful. I was customarily late to the party catching The Shape of Water, his award-winning interspecies love story. Not to worry – this post is not a review. This post is about magic.

This is not a review

The magic of The Shape of Water seeps through the set design, art direction and cinematography. The director applies a carefully branded colour palette (shades of Bioshock’s doomed underwater city of Rapture) to bring out the visual elements – warts and all – into symphony like a master conductor. Del Toro's speciality is transforming the mundane into high art. Who could imagine that a cold war-era government facility – cold steel, subway tiles, stacked boxes, buckets and mops – could become something so eyeball-massagingly gorgeous? The visual experience put me into a trance-like rapture. Until I was jolted from it with the sudden and brutal violence.

In a fixed orbit, the characters go through the motions in a world of monotonous grey drudgery (sounds familiar). Del Toro has made them grounded and relatable, though I would have liked to know a little more about what turned Strickland’s heart so black. Michael Shannon’s villainy is channelled with Zod-esque fury, but it never quite convinces me (from Boardwalk Empire, I inherited an unshakable soft spot for the big lug).

This is a segue…

As little as we know of the antagonist, we know even less about the creature. We learn it possesses a type of healing magic. We learn it was captured in South America; that it was worshipped as a god by local tribesfolk. Such a revelations conjured images of the Amazon River, with impenetrable forests sweeping away at the edges. Later, we learn it is a saltwater entity, when Elisa reverses its flagging health by adding table salt to the bathtub.

Was our fish-man perhaps estuarine, haunting the mangroves between river and sea? Or did it live in the open ocean? By the coast? A black lagoon? Did it grow up playing Marco Polo with Hellboy’s Abe Sapien? Del Toro answers none of these questions.

…into this

I know the reason. The reason has to do with magic. Specifically, it has something to do with del Toro’s philosophy of magic in storytelling. Magic needs no explanation. Magic is what it is.

I rarely bother with bonus discs and director's commentary, but if you have the 2-DVD set for Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and have not yet watched the extras, make the time. Make it a priority. The content is as mesmerising as the movie itself, and more revealing by half. The core revelation stuck with me. Let me repeat it: magic needs no explanation. Explaining magic devalues it, eroding the essence of what makes magic magic.

Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada – blog – Pan's Labyrinth
Ofelia meets the faun in Pan's Labyrinth

Navigating the labyrinth

I was halfway through penning Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada when Guillermo del Toro dropped this philosophical bombshell. Which is not to say I stopped the presses. There was no immediate stock-take, rewrite or revision. I still needed the world magic defined in a way that made sense to Broken Meadow and historical Dellreigh as the story evolved.

At that stage, I’d figured out that stopping to explain things – scenery, backstories, clothing, faces, etc – is the literary equivalent of pushing the pause button on your TV. To write fiction is to dance an endless dance balancing description versus pacing. Del Toro's revelation taught me that there might be one less pause button to push. To a point.

A kind of magic

Like the plot itself, Dellreigh’s magic turned out to be deeper and more complex than initially planned. I took del Toro’s philosophy in stride, bending it only as much as was required for the story to make sense (and on occasion, setting fire to it and dousing liberally with kerosene).

Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada – blog – The Shape of Magic fire hand

So how does magic work in Hopskotch’s world? The short version is the old magic preceded the coming of Aethelron, and is divided into plant and animal aspects. The new magic was a gift of the god himself, and is elemental in nature. The latter, known as Whisper magic, is the plot-pumping fantasy heart of The Waking World trilogy. At its most basic, Whisper magic consists of elements in a circle. Like the weapon triangle of a role-playing game, each element – water, earth, air, fire – has dominance over the preceding one (as listed above). It's what puts the fuel in the furnace that breaks Whisper magic free from the elemental template (there's a clue in the name). It goes deep – too deep to cover in a single post.

With that in mind, let’s call this The Shape of Magic: Part I. We will be delving deeper into the competing magics of The Waking World in a follow-up post (possibly more), giving due credit to all that influenced magic lore as it was implemented into the trilogy.

No wands required.

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