Magical Mondays: Magic and Magicians in The Raven Cycle

Maggie Stiefvater is now three books into her tetralogy, The Raven Cycle, with the concluding novel now coming over the horizon. Meaning: we’re all sitting around, checking our calendars every fifteen minutes to see if it’s September yet. As of this writing, that tactic has not borne fruit, as time stubbornly marches on at the usual rate.

raven_boysStill, through three books, she has achieved the rare feat of successfully building a world of myth and magic in the New World—and in particular, small-town Virginia. Nothing personal, Ye Olde England, but we’ve all spent enough time in your castles and moors. The series transports a few bones from Celtic and English lore to North America, and then fleshes out its own magical world, which works in the setting of present-day America. The worldbuilding here does a marvelous job playing with the fantasy genre conventions of magic, by developing five protagonists in a spectrum. It reflects both the importance of personal choices while reflecting the individuality of its heroes, by making them more than a blank slate for those choices.

Spoilers below the break!

The story imports two magical elements from Europe to North America: the messianic king Owen Glendower, and the mystical geography of ley lines.

Glendower was a Welsh king in the 14th century, who ascended from history to mythology when the man simply vanished from the face of the Earth. He led Welsh revolts against the English in Wales, evading capture and refusing to emerge, even when offered a royal glendower portraitpardon. His fate is unknown to historians, but he’s been transformed into a Welsh folk hero, the equivalent of King Arthur. Two centuries later, even William Shakespeare viewed him as something supernatural; appearing in Henry IV, Part I, Glendower reports that at his birth “the frame and huge foundation of the Earth shaked like a coward”.

For this series, Glendower’s escape from death brought him to America, leading his household over the waters and eventually to Virginia. He still eludes death, sleeping for centuries until he may make his return.

Glendower’s Virginian home has more going for it than merely being very far away from England: instead, he followed a ley line. Ley lines are a surprisingly recent addition to the realm of British folklore—developed only in the 20th century. The concept is that many places of ancient power—Stonehenge and the like, can be linked by a single straight line. Proponents point to the “Malvern Ley” which passes through St Ann’s Well, the Wyche Cutting, a section of the Shire Ditch, Midsummer Hill, Whiteleaved Oak, Redmarley D’Abitot and Pauntley. The increasing obscurity of these sites suggests that a line in a dense country could pick up anything, but the theory is that old civilizations built along these lines in order to tap their power. Glendower has chosen a hub of ley-line power called Cabeswater for his long sleep.

These two factors lay the groundwork for magic in the world of The Raven Cycle, and importantly, the interplay between magic and magicians. The novel follows five teenagers: four boys at the prestigious and exclusive Aglionby Academy, and the townie girl who is the daughter of the local psychic. Magic is innate to their world and several of its inhabitants, but ostensibly takes place in our world, with knowledge of magic limited to very few. The five seek to discover and awaken the powerful, sleeping Glendower, and to protect him from those who would claim his power for their own, malevolent purposes.

The search is led by Richard Campbell Gansey III, the son of a wealthy Congresswoman and Virginia gentry. Gansey has no magic, but he’s got power—he has money, he has connections, and he has intelligence. He encounters magic entirely by accident: a bee sting puts him in anaphylactic shock at the exact moment another boy is murdered; both were standing on the same ley line, without knowledge of the other. Gansey is spared because the ley line balances the death of one who should live with the life of one who should die. And so Gansey learns that magic is real. He begins the search for Glendower, and an investigation of the ley lines, with expensive equipment and chartered helicopters, but his own senses are blind to it.

It goes ding when there's stuff.

It goes ding when there’s stuff.

He is matched by Blue Sargent, the audience’s window into the plot of the novel. Magic has always been within her understanding of the world—her mother is a psychic, and they live together with women with equally powerful psychic abilities. She seems to lack the gene, but discovers that her presence can amplify the abilities of her mother and her friends. Magic, therefore, is something that she can coax from the people around her, as part of their humanity. She doesn’t need Gansey’s fancy gear to find it. Her mother, and the other psychics in their home, have an even more direct reach into magic.

Two others, the oft-shipped Adam Parrish and Ronan Lynch, take intermediate roles. Ronan discovers that he has the ability to pull material things out of his dreams. He is not unique in this—his father had the same ability, and he is hunted by powerful men who seek to seize control of this ability. However, this is not a talent that can be taught—Ronan was born with this power, and only needed to learn to control it. However, unlike Blue, whose amplification powers come from within her, Ronan finds that Cabeswater and the surrounding ley lines weaken to accommodate his creations. He would have no magical ability without Cabeswater, but the link came from within him.

Adam, on the other hand, is as mundane as Gansey by birth. Unlike Gansey, however, he lacks the superpower of wealth. Instead, he volunteers himself as a sacrifice to Cabeswater and its ley lines, and though he survives, he changes, in some ineffable way. Like Ronan, he is dependent on Cabeswater for his magical powers, or rather, Cabeswater is dependent on him to put its own power into the world.

Finally, there’s Noah Czerny, Gansey’s counterpart in death. Noah is the murdered boy who dies when Gansey lived, though he persists as a ghost. His position with respect to magic is fully involuntary, even more than the others. His power is limited to his existence after death, and he has become something magical, rather than human.

All that stands between you and wizardry.

All that stands between you and wizardry.

These are unusually diverse relationships with magic within one text. There is no up-or-down split between wizards and Muggles, or boons from the Red God, or the lifetime study of ancient grimoires implied on so many character-creation screens. The result is something almost ordinary—magic is something that some people are great at naturally, and others need to work for; that some can imitate but never achieve, and others can never escape; that some come into by birth and others by circumstance; that some can gain only by taking it and others only give it away.

Keeping these elements in balance is what lets The Raven Cycle stay in the real world, without needing to introduce Hogwarts or Westeros. For magic to stay at home, it needs to work like its familiar counterparts do. It is extremely difficult to develop magic in a world with fast cars and cell phones, but Stiefvater’s development of magic means that she does not need to hide iPhones and Camaros from her immortal Welsh kings and families of psychics.

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