What's the Magic Word?

There's a fairy story which I'm sure you're heard. It's about a princess who's visited by an evil dwarf-like creature, who promises her whatever she wishes...provided he takes her first born child. She agrees, thinking she can cheat and keep the child when she eventually has it. Of course, all her security magically fails and the baby (a boy, inevitably) is kidnapped.

She begs with the creature, but he's adamant - she made the contract in full knowledge, and now she's paying precisely what she agreed.

There is a loophole though. If she can say the creature's name, he loses his powers, the contract is void, the princess gets to keep her wishes and she gets her son back.

The name, of course, is "Rumpelstiltskin". Once she learns the name and says it to his face, he can scream and rage as much as he likes, but he's as trapped by the letter of the contract as she was. The contract, it seems, is more powerful even than a supernatural being that has great power over the physical world.

Words are the strongest magic of all.

Word magic, and in particular the magic of names, is a superstition that's persisted for millennia - and it's still around today.

When ancient Greek and Roman armies claimed new towns, often the only difference it made to the lives of the locals was a notice placed in the town square, informing them that they were now part of an empire. But it seemed to work - they believed it.

When the Julian calender was switched to the Gregorian, there were actual riots on the basis that several days had been magicked out of existence by the stroke of a pen - and people thought they'd been cheated out of a part of their own lifespans.

Even now, when state and county lines are redrawn, residents protest at being displaced from one side to the other of an imaginary line.

In Arthur C Clarke's short story "The Nine Billion Names of God", the universe gets literally switched off when all the names of god are calculated by a computer, owned by an obscure order of monks. The monks don't even need to read the output, the assemblage of vacuum tubes has no consciousness of what it's doing, and it doesn't seem to matter that this is done by a few dozen people on a mountain on one unremarkable planet. When the final permutation of written characters is printed, the stars start to go out.

This is obviously a thinly disguised version of the talmudic superstition that when all permutations of JHV are worked through, creation ends. The wordgames of the kabala and biblical skip codes aren't a million miles away. In alchemy, saying the right words is as important as having the right chemicals.

Fantasy literature is a place where hidden cultural superstitions can be more openly explored. In Ursula le Guin's "Earthsea" series, the hero can only defeat the monster he created by figuring out it's name - which is of course his own name. There's also a realm where word-based sorcery doesn't work because things have different names there. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld, you can only defeat the monster if you can bring yourself to say it's name. In "Alice in Wonderland" there's a forest which is spooky simply because things don't have names there at all.

Language is slippery and constantly changing, as is the reality it tries to describe - or control. But we seem to have a persistent belief that if only we can find exactly the right words, they'll describe and control the world in exactly the right way. And they'll be so perfect that even when word and world have changed over centuries, the formulation will still work exactly as well.

This of course is why we have legal documents in tortuous legalese. And indeed the majority of philosophy which consists in trying to tie down the precise meaning by finding exactly the right form of words - in the hope that, tied down tightly enough, the words will merge with the reality, permanently.

It's also why we have the constantly refuted article of faith that our holy books are both clear and eternally true...if read in the original language. And we believe this even when we know that the original documents have been lost, and the ones we have are partial copies of copies of copies.

The Hebrew of the old testament sometimes is just plain incomprehensible - or 'obscure' as theologians delicately put it - but there are thousands of devout believers who devote their lives to the assumption that if only they read the text closely enough, it will become clear.

Sometimes they go mad and write books on how if you read a parable about sheep backwards and make anagrams from every third letter, it predicts their favourite historical events.

It's all very well to smugly note the superstitions about word magic and say you're beyond them. But what about the American constitution? A set of supposedly inviolable super-laws, which determine which non-super-laws can be passed. The failure to (for instance) separate church from state is evident, but if you want to fight the spreading power of lunatic evangelical groups, the constitution is a major line of defence.

When politicians debase language with feelgood cliches and vacuous non-distinctions, we keep hold of reality by reasserting genuine, meaningful language, and using it for our own slogans and polemic.

Perhaps word magic isn't just a superstition we're better off without. Perhaps it's a necessary part of human consciousness - the price of the capacity to categorise the world and conceptualise our interactions with it. A by-product of being able to think at all.

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