Arthur Clarke is dead, there was a LiveJournal strike, the Hugo nominations have just been announced, it’s Holy Saturday, the US Democratic primary is starting to get genuinely ugly, and the best cheese in the world turns out to have poison in it. So naturally what’s on my mind is the proper spelling of the word magic: with or without a k?
When this came up on the SFReader Forums I barked out my usual Pavlovian reaction:
Then I got to thinking. (Is this ever less trouble than it’s worth?) Magick(e) was fine in the English Renaissance: Shakespeare used it, Marlowe used it. But spelling hadn’t been regularized then, even for names. Marlowe sometimes signed his name as “Marley” or even, apparently, as “Merlin.” (You can bet that, as a teenaged fantasy-reader and addict of Marlovian bombast, I tried to make something out of that. Fortunately the world will never know how badly that story sucked and will simply have to take my word for it.)
And magick is clearly a back-formation. It comes from Latin magicus, which derives in turn from Greek μαγικός “Magi-like, Magian.” The k that appears in some forms (like magicking, magicked) is just to prevent the softening of the c to an s sound (like the k in mimicking, mimicked) and was misinterpreted as being part of the stem of the word. We don’t write mimick in standard English and we shouldn’t write magick either.
So: that was then; this is now. Magick(e) and its byforms was okay before the 18th Century, and if people want to use it nowadays in or referring to occult religious observances it’s no skin off my walrus. But it’s clearly not to be used in a fantasy novel written in standard English. Not to be used in any fantasy novel written within the last century. Certainly not in any 20th Century classic of the fantasy genre. (No. Stop it. I’m not listening!)
Oh, well: there it is in Chapter VIII of Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. And it doesn’t bother me a bit, though why it doesn’t bother did bother me, if you see what I mean. Then I looked a little closer at the context:
And were he so fortunate as scape these mantycores, yet cowlde bee never climbe up the gret crages of yce and rocke on Koschtre Beloorn, for none is so stronge as to scale them but by art magicall, and such is the vertue of that mowntayne that no magick avayleth there, but onlie strength and wisdome alone, and as I seye these woulde not avayl to climbe those cliffes and yce ryvers.
This is from one of the 2 or 3 densest passages of the book where Eddison actually inflicts on the reader a fair imitation of Renaissance English without the benefit of kindly editing. So this isn’t really a 20th century example. It’s a sixteenth century example, which just happens to have been written in the 20th C. I hold no brief for Eddison’s social opinions (he seems to have been been pretty antidemocratic) but stylistically he was no quack.
And that’s what bothers me when fantasists drop fake-archaisms like magick into their text to create atmosphere. It’s just quackery, like vendors at a Renaissance Faire who screech “melord! melady!” in fake-Cockney (I’ve-seen-Benny-Hill-I-know-what-English-people-sound-like) accents. The “atmosphere” created is ersatz: Shannara, not Middle-Earth.
Should fantasy novels be written in standard English, though? Why not move away from the standard–change the standard?
Well, aim high, I say. But asking people to learn a new dialect of English so that they can read your book is maybe asking a little too much. Burgess might have been able to get people to do it, but most people won’t have similar success. And I’d add that the greatest of all sf/f stylists, Ursula Le Guin, achieves her effects with very plain language. So you don’t need to mash up words to impress people. All you need is genius.