Magical Mondays: Power, Privilege, and Morality in Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic Series

circle-of-magicEver since Saika wrote her Throwback Thursday on Tamora Pierce’s The Circle of Magic series, I’ve been excited about going back and revisiting them. As a person who loves YA, The Circle of Magic books are some of my favorites, and now that I’ve reread them, I can say that it is not only the diversity of the worldbuilding that makes this series unique; Pierce also does an excellent job building the magic of her world.

In this universe, there are two types of magic: academic magic and ambient magic. Academic magic is never explicitly explained, but it’s understood to be what you would normally think of when you think of magic: chanting, drawing runes, studying books, and the like. In Winding Circle, the mage community in which our protagonists are raised, academic mages aren’t well thought of. Our protagonists and most of their teachers are ambient mages: they have a particular set of magical skills that’s tied to a practical skill. Sandry is a thread-mage, Daja a smith-mage, Tris a weather-mage and Briar a plant-mage. Though they have magic, same as the academic mages, their skills lie not in runes or obscure skills, but rather the practical things that one might encounter in everyday life.

Although both types of magic seem equal in stature, this being a world where mages are as common as any other type of artisan, Pierce strongly implies that academic mages are too book- and regulation-bound to really think in the creative, unbridled way that ambient mages, and especially the protagonist ambient mages, think. One of the Winding Circle dedicates, Dedicate Crane, is an academic mage who graduated the Lightsbridge mage academy, and Lark and Rosethorn, two of our protagonists’ teachers, often lament that he was “turned into” a book-bound mage thanks to Lightsbridge. Another of the group’s teachers, Niklaren Goldeye, is an academic mage who also went to Lightsbridge, though he’s much less prickly than the others seem to be. As Sandry puts it, “Some of these university mages are like overbred cats. They dress to kill and don’t want to get their paws wet.”

Protagonists Sandry, Daja, Briar, and Tris (via miniuko)

Protagonists Sandry, Daja, Briar, and Tris (via minuiko)

With ambient magic, which must be tied to a craft or a practical thing in real life, Pierce has the opportunity to introduce exacting limits in her story, as well as play with them later on. Sandry can only weave threads and threads of magic; Daja can only call fire to her, and so on and so forth. Later on the gang starts to pick up bits and pieces of each other’s magic, and that comes with its own troubles; Briar inadvertently fries a bunch of crocuses with Tris’s weather magic, and Sandry accidentally melts a metal thread with Daja’s smith magic. Because the protagonists’ magic is in the very building blocks of any world—in plants rather than in spells, in nails rather than in runes, etc—it is very easy to make any and all action scenes seem very exciting. Sure, an academic mage can do something more like Harry Potter—Niko can create illusions and determine if someone is telling the truth—but an ambient mage like Daja can pull a ship up by its nails, and a mage like Briar can make the very thorns on the roses reach out to kill you.

By making her important mages ambient mages, Pierce includes a moral that goes beyond privilege. It would have been easy to imply that all the well-off mages were academic mages, and all the working-class people were ambient mages, as that would fit the image of academic mages as educated and ambient mages as craftsmen; it would have been easier to suggest that only certain people of certain classes could be either type of mage. However, Pierce doesn’t go this route. Her ambient mages come from all walks of life—Sandry is a noble, Daja a Trader, Tris a merchant, and Briar a lowly street rat. They are all ambient mages, and they all work with rough crafts, sometimes against their class’s will. The Traders, who like their name implies only barter and trade, think it is the lowest thing to make something with physical labor; when Daja is offered a chance to join a clan, she is told that she must stop being lugsha—a craftsman. Sandry, of course, being nobility, is told that she should only embroider—weaving and sewing is best left to lesser women. All the students overcome their past prejudices and fears in order to further pursue their own magic.

Academic mage Niko and ambient mage Tris coming together to help some people. (via minuiko)

Academic mage Niko and ambient mage Tris coming together to do some good. (via minuiko)

In this, Pierce pushes a greater message: it is not enough just to be a mage of either stripe—one must also be willing to help people. An ambient mage who can turn their craft to their power can help through doing. Duke Vedris, Sandry’s great-uncle, emphasizes this in a notable scene when he sees Sandry’s efforts to help a hospital prepare for an oncoming pirate attack. He inspects the bandages that Sandry has woven with her magic and says that Sandry’s parents were “totally useless… you may achieve enough in your lifetime to make up for the emptiness of theirs.” An academic mage cannot bend raw material to their will in the same way that ambient mages can, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help others in their own way. Niko may be an academic mage, but he brings our protagonists together, and he teaches them that no matter how much they think they know, one cannot go against nature. Tris can turn away but not stop a storm, and Daja can hold but not destroy a fire. This advice saves their lives on many an occasion, and other academic mages who are only concerned about their own reputation or glory, not about helping people, are shown to not understand this.

Pierce’s Emelan books—The Circle of Magic, The Circle Opens, and their ensuing sequels—are full of diverse characters and cultures, and they’re also filled to the brim with creative magical systems that set firm limits on what any individual character can do. The books show that magic can be in anything, even the threads in your clothing, and they also show that in order to be a good mage, one must first be a good person. That’s a meaningful, far-reaching message for any series of books to have.

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3 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: Power, Privilege, and Morality in Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic Series

  1. Pingback: Stealing My Heart?: Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne Review | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

  2. I’m so happy someone reviewed Tamora Pierce! Even now as an adult I still completely adore her books, and how she portrays female characters!

  3. Pingback: Fanfiction Fridays: Would You Like Some Lightning With Your Soup? by alyoraShadow | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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