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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

The Shape of Magic: Part V – Beast Magic

Updated: Aug 5, 2018


Beast magic. The last piece of The Waking World trilogy’s magic puzzle. But is it a game-changer like the green magic of The Shape of Magic: Part IV? Or is it thrown into the mix simply to add balance and depth to the fantasy universe? Plot twisting or plot enhancing, the Wilden magic of Dellreigh unquestionably steers Hopskotch’s journey through the expanded world of Broken Meadow. But who is animating the animal strings? And are they playful kitten or ravenous tiger?


“Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky, And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack."

So reads the Law of the Jungle, as set down by Rudyard Kipling in The Jungle Book (first published 1894). It’s a blood-stirring pledge of tribal loyalty, acknowledging the age-old truism of strength in numbers. If you’ve seen the 2016 film, you’ll know it doesn’t always help when a vengeful tiger drops into the den unannounced.


Of course, loyalty to the pack is preferable to being a lone wolf. And the bigger the pack, the better. I recently sat through a second viewing of the 2016 The Legend of Tarzan with Alexander Skarsgård as lead monkey man. It was one of those occasions when I had to watch something twice to fully appreciate it.


Apes. Together. Strong.

The plot rebooted childhood memories of watching Tarzan on TV. It was in black and white (yes, I’m that old) and played on Saturday mornings, from memory. The TV Tarzan Ron Ely was cast from the Errol Flynn mould – a blonde, bare-chested swashbuckler who swung through the jungle with the skill of a trapeze artist. His only weapon was a fearsome looking bowie knife and his mighty jungle roar (you know the one). Tarzan wasn’t magic, but he had one hell of a pack to call on when things got hairy.


Crocs and quicksand

As with the 2016 movie adaptation, the template was as simple as you like. Bad guys come into the jungle intent on plundering land and riches. They were cruel, heartless types (just look at the moustaches) prepared to run over the top of anyone who got in their way. In classic Scooby fashion, Tarzan would expose their wicked plan, and set out to stop them, rallying the jungle with his mighty ululating tonsils. It would end badly for our moustached villains, who would inevitably end up crushed beneath an elephant stampede, assuming they had survived all other jungle traps: hippos, giant pythons, crocodiles, quicksand (as a child, I was deadly afraid of quicksand).


Warlords

Even back in the eighties, big-screen beast magic was not limited to Tarzans and Dr Dolittles. 1982 saw the release of The Beastmaster, a schlocky swords & sorcery adventure. For the sake of eighties optics, the mage was no robed bookworm, but a musclebound, shirtless (of course) warrior – a kind-of Tarzan on steroids. I don’t remember much of the plot (all those cheesy S & S films tend to blend into one another: Krull, Conan, etc), beyond the hero Kar (Marc Singer) and his faithful companion animals: eagle, black tiger and a pair of ferrets named Kodo and Podo. But I remember the poster art, and the stunning video jacket sitting eye-catchingly in the action/adventure section of Warlords Video on Beecroft Road, Epping.


No, that's not Mark Hamill the Jedi, but Marc Singer The Beastmaster (1982)

A musclebound beast mage was the perfect fit for a teenage boy with a fast-growing addiction to fantasy-adventure. I can’t claim it was top of mind for any length of time (teenage boys also have very short attention spans), but the idea obviously embedded itself some place deep, only to be tapped decades later when I began conceptualising The Waking World trilogy.


Wary of eighties-era fantasy fails, a budding fantasy author is wise to ponder the perils of adding beast magic into the mix. Count the ways it can go wrong: lame, cheesy, outright cringeworthy. You don’t have to go back and re-watch a shirtless Marc Singer flouncing about in The Beastmaster to appreciate the danger. So how does one get the balance right? How does one break the cheese mould?


Ssslytherin

Depth is the key. Depth and danger. Oh, while I’m at it, let’s throw in a little darkness. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I Voldemort feeds a Hogwarts teacher to his pet snake. The whole thing happens with a table of his lackeys looking on. I never bothered with the books, but the scene is captured in gruesome perfection for the big screen. The camera crosses to Snape as the woman – a former colleague – begs for her life. We know Snape can’t intervene, but the close-up reveals the conflict and despair he's doing his best to bottle. Gut wrenching stuff.


The scene stuck with me long after the credits rolled; perhaps more so that it was supposedly a children’s story (go back to the first film and try to imagine the author swerving into such a pit of darkness). Beast magic can be dark, but is it possible JK Rowling only brushed the surface?



Man’s best friend

The great tragedy of keeping pets is that we tend to outlive them. Anyone who has had to put down a beloved dog, cat, bird (or other) knows the feeling. The grief can be crippling; it take weeks to resume an even keel, months even. Imagine how much worse it would be if you had a telepathic bond with your beloved companion animal. Book III, Chapter 43 – Ravenstrykke takes the reader through a journey into über-villain Therok’s Greifstrykke’s grim past:

“And when the Ravenstrykke felt they had learned enough about my relationship with Seraphael, they made me kill her.”
The words jolted Dobbin back to the world outside his head. He swallowed, surprised to see genuine sadness tearing up Therok’s eyes.
“Can you imagine what it was like to have to kill something that was, in every conceivable way, a part of you. And I, barely out of childhood. Can you imagine that such evil exists in our world? That it endures?”

You would call it magic…

The beast magic of The Waking World trilogy needed depth, but so too those who wielded it – hero and villain. A character-based story needs a sizeable investment in both. In any work of fiction, the black hats must be as intriguing and believable as the white – possibly even more so. What motivates Therok is laid bare in the closing chapters of Book III, but the reader will know a great deal more about his Wilden powers long before then.


For a core explanation, we must pivot back to one of the good guys. From Book II, Chapter 8 – You Would Call it Magic:

“With advanced training, some amongst us can attune our minds to certain birds. We may see what they see, sense what they sense, but it a long way from control. Imagine hitching a ride on a driverless cart. Sometimes the reins are within your grasp, sometimes they slip free and the horse follows its own path.”

Dapple explains that the gift is strongest with those of Floren blood – marshlanders known as Spackles – and works most effectively on birds. The deeper one gets into the series, the more self-evident that becomes. However, it is more guide than rule, and one not all our resident Wilden are inclined to play by. Which brings us back to Therok, and our first clue as to his ruthlessness. From Book I, Chapter 35 – Through the Treetops:

While his power was more than equal to the task, Therok could not avoid conflict with the hive mind. It repulsed and confused him in equal measure. Again, he felt the foulness seeping from his brain into his body. Likewise could he feel their strength, their drive, their mindless dedication to the colony. For all the things that made them strong, he despised them.

Ants are certainly not birds, but supremely effective if one can co-opt the hive mind and redirect it toward one’s master plan. Therok paid the price for his departure from the Wilden rulebook, but it soon becomes clear the side-effects will not deter him from burning it all over again, should it serve cause. Of course, this makes him an exception, rather than the rule for Wilden mages, who are generally distinguished by their reclusive and isolationist nature.


There is good reason for it.


Nighteyes from Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy (he had all the best lines).

Nighteyes

The idea of beast mages as pariahs was a central theme of Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. Protagonist Fitz is an orphan eking out a living as stable boy at the bottom rung of the royal court of the Farseers – rulers of The Six Duchies. Hard to imagine it possible, but life gets even worse in Buckkeep when he develops a mental bond with a wolf he names Nighteyes. Sounds kinda cool, but this ain’t Winterfell, and Fitz is no Brandon Stark. In fact, revealing oneself to be Witted will earn you a long drop off a short rope anywhere in The Six Duchies.


As the series progresses, the backstory reveals more about the twin magics: the Wit and the Skill, putting things into perspective. A recurring reference is made to the Piebald Prince, a cautionary tale about the dangers of bonding too close to an animal (Hobb has recently turned the backstory into a dedicated novel). The message could not be clearer: witted are outcasts, pariahs, shunned by decent society. And most certainly, royals.


Wit and Wilden

Such a stigma does not trouble The Waking World’s resident Wilden, at least not in the current timeline. Go back aways and things were not always so peachy. From Book I, Chapter 36 – Wilden:

From the south they’d originated, a solitary folk of ancient Florenmeer – the long-abandoned salt marshes beyond the ancestral Corsair stronghold of Adensee. In the years following the end of the First Blighted War, they were widely persecuted, for many believed their kind had aided the enemy. When Tarador had fallen to the Blighted, fear and hate was quick to take root. The Wilden were soon to feel the wrath of the superstitious.

Did the common folk have just cause to fear the beast magic? It can be argued that for the ancient Delgardians, their anxiety was well founded, particularly in light of the influence Dewbreck wielded over the Blighted armies overrunning their homelands.


Happily for those so gifted, the Florens were too few in numbers to be an enduring threat to the refugees, whose attention shifted toward more immediate matter of avoiding the monstrous Blighted. Fast forward one millennium and the survivors of the Scouring return to the meadowlands, ushering in The Age of Foundation. For the settlers, priorities had shifted to restoration, which required cooperation between the disparate groups. All memory of what the Wilden were, or the role they played in the Scouring were consigned to the history books.


©HBO
"Ghost, you guard Jon's body. And let us know if there's any change in his condition."

Hobb’s influence can be found on multiple layers within The Waking World trilogy, but greater minds than mine were likewise drawn to the beast magic of Fitzchivalry Farseer. Game of Thrones author George RR Martin makes no secret of the fact he is a fan of Robin Hobb, and one doesn’t have to read far in to recognise her influence. The first book in The Song of Ice and Fire introduces the direwolves, and the rescued litter divvied up to the Stark brood (even the bastard one). You begin to realise these creatures are more than just pets. Mirroring Fitz’s bond with Nighteyes, an ability described as warging allows Bran to enter a trance-like state and see through the eyes of the wolf on the hunt – in essence, to be the wolf. You wonder how far their going to go with this man-beast relationship.


Before George takes us for a mind-blowing detour.


©HBO
By season 7, Daenerys' storyline was dragon on a bit.

Blood and fire

It is perhaps less noticeable in the TV series, but one of Daenerys’ greatest challenges in her time in exile on Essos was controlling her young dragons. Like The Greatest American Hero, she was blessed with a powerful magic absent the instruction manual (and/or surviving Targaryens to play the mentor role). Things get a little tense for the ruler of Meereen when the peasants start turning up asking for compensation for their devoured flocks and burned-alive children. At some point (and I’m still a little fuzzy on the when), things change, and the Mother of Dragons’ reptilian brood all step into line. Whether that is due to Daenerys coming of age, or the dragons themselves, is never made clear. One assumes that it is a blood connection between beast and Targaryen – a truth supported by Drogon’s decision not to turn Jon Snow into a woolly chew toy when they crossed paths on Dragonstone in Season 7.


I have every confidence we’ll get to see Little Jonny riding a big, bad dragon by end of Season 8, and fingers-crossed we may even get to learn a little more about the man-reptile bonding magic, its potential, as well as its limitations. George’s ultimate approach to beast magic was to go large, pull out all the stops. That’s not to say every fantasy adventure needs a trio of fire-breathing dragons to blow readers/viewers away, but rare is the realm that doesn’t at some point host a great, scaly lizard of legend.


Hang in there till Book III of The Waking World trilogy and you may even spot one in Broken Meadow.

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