In this post in our Tools for Fiction Writers series, we look at Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and the unique way she sets up magic in her world.
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Like many novels, Uprooted celebrates language and storytelling. However, I want us to delve deeper than that. We’ll examine how Novik integrates the importance of storytelling with her novel’s love of magic and language.
These three elements—storytelling, magic, and language—are so tightly interwoven that they serve as the foundation for how magic functions in the story world.
Both the plot and magic of Uprooted are intimately connected with the natural world, especially for our character.The druid-y protagonist’s magical abilities are nature-based as opposed to the memorized enchantments of the other witches and wizards of her realm.
Let’s look at the intersections between language and magic to see what we can apply to our own fantasy fictions. We’ll start with a deep-dive into what’s happening at the language level—and why it’s so powerful. Then we’ll move into the magic level, and why it’s so dependent on language.
the magic of language
“I stopped having to think about the words: they filled my mouth and spilled over like water out of a cup….There was only the easy movement of the song, the memory of faces gathered around a table laughing. And then finally the magic flowed, but not the same way as when the Dragon’s [her teacher] spell-lessons dragged it in a rush out of me. Instead it seemed to me the sound of the chanting became a stream made to carry magic along, and I was standing by the water’s edge with a pitcher that never ran dry, pouring a thin silver line into the rushing current.”Uprooted, Naomi Novik (85)
The first thing I want us to notice in this paragraph is the layered metaphor. The words come naturally to Nieshka (our protagonist) in this particular casting, which she compares to the way water spills out of a cup. (quickly, with a gush, unstoppable)
We break away from this metaphor in the second sentence, though “easy movement” could certainly conjure the image of a shallow brook winding its way through a wood.
pulled along by the metaphor’s current
But after this, the water imagery returns directly. Nieshka contrasts the natural feeling of casting this spell with her magic lessons, which feel like liquid being yanked out instead of flowing.
The problem of the other method of casting being “dragged…in a rush” becomes clear in our final sentence. In it, Nieshka clarifies how the method of spell-casting that’s more natural to her feels: her voice becomes a stream that carries the magic along with it. It and the magic move at the same rate, bobbing along, her voice supporting the magic.
This final detail, however, is the one that’s super critical. Nieshka imagines herself with a bottomless pitcher, pouring “a thin silver line into a rushing current” (emphasis mine.) As opposed to the magic feeling yanked out of her, leaving behind a hole, she not only experiences a renewable source of magic but also finds herself contributing to a magical ecosystem, of which her own addition is only a small part.
And now, for the flip side of this intertwined relationship!
the language of magic
“I did see why he called her spells unteachable, because I couldn’t even remember what I did when I cast them…but for me they were an inexpressible relief after all the stiff, overcomplicated spells he’d set me. My first description held true: I felt as though I was picking my way through a bit of forest that I had never seen before, and her words were like another experienced gleaner somewhere ahead of me calling back to say, ‘There are blueberries down on the northern slope’…She didn’t care how I got to the blueberries: she only pointed me in the proper direction and let me wander my way over to them, feeling out the ground beneath my feet.”UPROOTED, NAOMI NOVIK (92)
There’s so much to love and to take away from this passage! But, let’s pause for just a moment and admire the concreteness with which Nieshka/Novik describes this process of casting a spell through something as familiar—especially for the character—as finding one’s way through an unmarked part of the woods.
Earlier in the passage, Nieshka explains how the spells work linguistically: “They were all alike: a few words, a few gestures, a few bits of herbs and things. No particular piece mattered; there was no strict order to the incantations.” (Uprooted 92)
following the trail to characterization
Now, for the Dragon, this lack of a specific spell with a rote process and precise language, is incredibly frustrating. In addition to developing a multi-faceted magic system for the world, this contrast better characterizes Nieshka and establishes what makes her unique!
One of the things I find interesting about Nieshka’s metaphor is that she doesn’t change the language aspect. As she works through Jaga’s spells, she imagines the older, more accomplished witch calling back to her and offering guidance for navigating the forest.
Navigating the forest is natural for Nieshka, as is accessing spells in this way. Unlike the highly wrought spells, the meandering middle of Nieshka’s spells doesn’t affect the destination—or magical effect—she seeks. But the phrases provide the framework through which she navigates these spells, each syllable a footstep.
The metaphor of the forest for magic and its ties to language becomes more complex as the novel develops. I don’t want to spoil any of that for you here. Besides, part of the fun of learning from the fiction we read is the unraveling! It mimics the journey through the woods as Nieshka describes it above. As we read, we “feel out the ground beneath our feet” while the author calls out to us from ahead. Then, we retrace our steps afterward!
Uprooted is on my list of must-read novels for fantasy fiction authors. Novik builds an incredible, immersive world in the space of a single book and subverts several fantasy tropes along the way.
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