Oct 17 2008 3:06pm

The numinous underpinnings of fantasy: Bujold’s Paladin of Souls

What’s fantasy about?

One of my answers is that it’s about approaching the numinous. What I mean by that, simply, is that fantasy is about magic. Fantasy may be Tolkien’s “history, true or feigned,” and indeed it’s the feigned history of a place that never was, but what makes it more than that, what actually makes it fantastical, is the fact that it contains magic. (This defines the Vlad books as SF and leaves Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, C.J. Cherryh’s The Paladin, and, arguably, my own Tooth and Claw as platypodes but never mind that for the time being.) However, much fantasy as we have it includes magic without being about magic, and it’s even rarer for anything to go beyond magic to approach the numinous or the way the underlying universe works magically.

It’s something I think fantasy ought to do, so I’m always looking out for it. I saw it in Susannah Clarke’s brilliant Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and in Pamela Dean’s work, for instance, but a lot of fantasy (as I was saying) doesn’t seem interested in reimagining the world and just wants to tell the same sort of story.

Lois McMaster Bujold is a science fiction writer, so perhaps it’s not surprising that when she came to write fantasy she thought about this sort of thing. She thought about the economics of wormhole systems in the Miles books, and she thought about how technology changes over time, so it’s only reasonable when she turned to fantasy that she should have thought about how magic is woven through the world in a really deep way. In the Chalion books, and especially in Paladin of Souls we have it all woven seamlessly together, the gods, the magic, the history, curses, demons, life and death, all in the story of a retired mad queen who goes on a pilgrimage.

There are some writers who are loved and honoured and yet critically not taken seriously, and Bujold for some unimaginable reason seems to be one of them. This drives me nuts. People talk as if she wins Hugos because her fans are mindless legions who vote for anything she puts out, which is demonstrably untrue—none of her weaker books have won awards. Bujold is in fact a writer of subtle brilliance, and she ought to be appreciated more and taken seriously.

Paladin of Souls is about Ista, a woman in her forties who has failed at everything she has done. She has failed as a woman, as a queen, as a saint and as a mother. She has spent more than half her life mad. She is wracked with guilt. She has never been independent. Yet for saying she’s the opposite of every standard fantasy protagonist, she’s surprisingly appealing as a point of view character.

She sets out on pilgrimage, to shrines of the Five Gods. The Daughter, Mother, Son and Father have each their proper season, and the Bastard darts about keeping chaos in control. It’s the Bastard who has claimed Ista, she discovers as the story progresses. The characters are well done, as always with Bujold, the story is moving and exciting, the world, a version of Reconquest Spain, is interesting and well observed, but it’s the relation between the human world and the numinous one that makes this a really outstanding novel.

There are characters who have demons stuck inside them, and other characters who are manipulating demons. There’s someone who’s dead, but his ghost is still animating his body, so he hasn’t actually noticed yet. There are gods who can’t do anything in the world except through human agency, however desperately they may want to. There are things, specific and worrying things, that can happen to people after death. And there’s Ista, with her saddle sores cursing the gods and muddling along through all of it.

One of the differences between the real Middle Ages and the fantasy version of it we so often see is the way the divine lurked behind every tree and theological questions loomed large in people’s minds. Bujold manages a world with very different theological underpinnings but with this same sense of the nearness and significance of them.

Paladin of Souls won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus Award and  it jolly well deserved them.

Seth Wilson
1. eternalcow
I completely agree. I often feel like magic is just another superficial trapping in fantasy novels, and that few authors deal with the way it's woven into the world.

I'm also encouraged by your recommendation of Bujold's "Paladin of Souls". I'm reading the first volume in her "The Sharing Knife" series, and while it's solid and well-written I'm not really connecting to the characters or the world. "Paladin of Souls" seems much more up my alley though, so I'm going to give it a whirl.
Liza .
2. aedifica
I'd like to add the suggestion that one read Curse of Chalion before Paladin. I like Chalion almost as well as Paladin (which is to say, I like it very well indeed) and it adds background that makes Paladin even more enjoyable. (My standard disclaimer when I recommend Chalion: Ignore the back cover, it makes the book sound like fifteen cliches rolled into one!)

Also a small kibitz: the Vlad books do have magic, by my reckoning, therefore are still fantasy by the definition you gave above.
mm Season
3. mmSeason
Where does that leave Michael Scott Rohan's Lord of Middle Air? It's about magic - i forget details of the plot but i'm sure it's about magic and it certainly has a wizard, and what he does, at its heart.

I'll have to dig it out and re-read (it's my favourite of his anyway, and it's been a while) to see if the magic permeates properly. Cos i agree with you.

Btw i keep coming across you in the last week or so - having followed a LiveJournal comment to your page and thence found the sample chapter on your website, i then signed up here and found you again. And i fear i'm hooked which is dangerous since i haven't even read a book of yours yet... But when an author just keeps turning up in different places you have to take the hint, don't you? I love the way you put your arguments, and i love the way you apparently react as i do to, and want what i do from, what you read.

Hey, i NEVER gush. ;0)
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Aedifica: I think The Curse of Chalion is a fine book, though not as quite good or as original as Paladin. I don't think you need to read it first. Paladin is entuirely independent of it, and only direct spoiler for reading them the other way around it is that Chalion ends well, which... well, it would be more surprising if it didn't.
Del C
5. del
More than magic, the Chalion books have supernatural beings with a moral agenda. Fantasy sometimes has "magic" but lacks that, and while I'll allow that such stories can lack the above and still be fantasy, I say they can't have the above and not be fantasy.
Sam Kelly
6. Eithin
The Chalion books, like Jo's other examples, have magic that's not reducible to rules or systems - magic mediated through people, magic that's a character in itself. (This is my reasoning as to why the Vlad books aren't fantasy, at least.)

A lot of (what's published as) fantasy does tend to treat magic as just another tool, another system to be learned or a set of secrets to be discovered. I've always put the tendency down to the prevalence of roleplaying games, or at least the local prevalence of system-heavy games and game novelizations (fantasy fast food) over Good Stuff.

Michael Scott Rohan is a halfway house, really - less numinous than Chalion or Mirrlees, but still there. It's - well, the ones I'm most fond of are - intrusion fantasy, so de Lint is probably the best comparison, despite the massive differences in style. Steph Swainston's books are weird, ambiguous, and perhaps also platypodes. Steven Erikson's doorstop set also does it right, but only in patches.
David Lev
7. davidlev
I think Neil Gaiman and Charles De Lint are pretty good examples of writers who write about magic but whose works are relatively free of magic as it is generally understood. American Gods, on its surface, is just about a couple of guys wanderiong arounf the US and talking to a bunch of strange people. But it's one of the most magic-filled stories I've ever read. From what few Newford books I've read, I find this true of Charles De Lint as well: magic is woven deeply into the stories, but there's no Harry Potter-esque wizards fighting it out in the streets or anything.

Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light is an even more extreme version of this, I think. The book is full of magic, even though judging simply by what happens in the book it'd be straining to call it sci fi (a little bit of telepathy between the main character and some dolphins is about it). I just read it recently, and it's pretty good.

I'm trying to decide whether A Song of Ice and Fire counts. Magic is rare in the series, but that makes when it is actually used that much more powerful, because magic in-universe is so strange and incomprehensible to most characters
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
I use "numinous" rather than "magic" because it's a way of saying "magic that feels magical" and also including whatever gods -- supernatural beings with an agenda, as Del says. Fantasy can deal with questions like the problem of pain and what happens after death and come up with creative answers -- as Bujold certainly does here.
Cam Laforest
9. camlaforest
Very interesting post. Echoing a lot of the comments here, I'd agree that a lot of fantasy seems to use magic more as window dressing than as something fundamental to the world in which the story takes place.
A very good example of magic being integrated into the fibre of the story is Mieville's Perdido Street Station and The Scar (I haven't read the third book in this setting, but I'd assume it's just as good). They're great stories that couldn't exist without the magical properties of the universe. Mieville's characters treat magic like any other natural force, they're able to investigate it using scientific methods and exploit it using technology - all in all, a great example of what you're talking about.
Vicki Rosenzweig
10. vicki

I don't think it's just the role-playing-game influence: the "magic as just another set of tech, with learnable rules" goes back to The Incompleat Enchanter and maybe Garrett's Lord Darcy books.
Dave Bell
11. DaveBell
I wonder how the medieval thinking, about how to build a vaulted roof in a cathedral, matches with the modern engineering approach. I have a sort of dimly lit idea of magic and technology being not so different in that sort of world.

It's like extracting medicine from foxgloves: there is science there, but you don't have the tools to measure what you're using.
Sam Kelly
12. Eithin
vicki, Good point! I do think there's something in particular that does stem from RPGs, but obviously not all of this.


Basically, the mediaeval thinking is that if you do it according to the Mystery of your Craft (ie. all the inherited heuristics the elder guildsmen passed on to you) and if you get it right, then it won't fall over. When it falls over (there is no 'if' involved, generally) you add bits till it stops, and you make sure it stays looking beautiful.

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