“When you’re touched by magic, nothing’s ever quite the same again. What really makes me sad is all those people who never have the chance to know that touch . . . “ ― Charles de Lint
As readers of fantasy, we know magic. Even if only in our mind’s eye, we’ve cast a million spells (or a hundred million) and whether we plumb the depths of each new tome in search of the reasons a man may bend metal with his will, or whether we simply revel in the audacity of worlds in which graffiti comes to life, or a trumpet solo a can rebuff a hurricane, none can say that “magic” has not left its mark on us.
So perhaps it is only natural that we would seek the same for the characters in our fiction, or perhaps it is because we’ve seen our heroes changed by magic that we are changed by it too. Whatever the case, this beloved trope finds our hearts in many forms, a few of which I thought it would be fun to discuss this #WyrdAndWonder for the prompt: Marks of Magic.
First up . . .
The Power Tattoo
We’ve all seen this in some form or other. The Power Tattoo page of TV Tropes shows Avatar: The Last Airbender as the header image, and I can’t deny that it is a striking and clear use of the trope. I’ve only seen a few episodes so this usage did not immediately jump to mind, but I think it will be a great example for pretty much everyone else alive.
For me, I had to dig back into my childhood, and the Inheritance Cycle (Eragon) by Christopher Paolini to find a decent example. For those of us also blowing the dust off those old memories (and hopefully a couple hardcovers), the Dragon Riders were marked with the gedway ignasia, a silver mark on their palm, which signified them as magic users. I’m sure there are a thousand other examples from books and literature but most of my ready memories of this trope came from video games (I think it’s something that works a little better, and is therefore more common, in visual mediums).
For instance, in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, Abe gets a pair of hand tattoos that allow him to transform into an avatar of Shrykull, the god of lightning. In the sequel Abe’s Exoddus, he gets a chest tattoo that lets him heal the sick. I played these games for HOURS as a kid, and despite all of that, did not progress very far through the game. I have since repurchased the remastered editions as an adult, and am only fairing slightly better. Perhaps if I manage to finish, I can post a review.
A second video game, and prominent tattoo, which jumped to mind was the large red tattoo — which I’m sure many people could recognize the character just based on that alone — which Kratos bears in the God of War series.
Fun fact, this awesome tat is not actually an example of the trope as I thought at first. He does use magic but his power is not related to the acquisition of the tattoo. His tattoos are actually meant to honor his brother Deimos who had a similar pattern of birthmarks which caused him to be mistaken for the ‘marked warrior’ which was prophesized to slay the gods of Olympus.
This works out pretty bad for Deimos and essentially just encourages the prophecy’s completion as Deimos’s kidnapping, and torture, in the land of the dead, just adds to the MANY reasons Kratos’s default setting is kill-all-gods (take a look at what that setting might look like in Ancient Egypt).
With that first one out of the way, our second trope is . . .
The Mark of the Supernatural
This mark of magic can be seen in many fantasies and is generally written as some physical characteristic which distinguishes the character as supernatural or magical.
The range of features that can be endowed with paranormal significance is as broad as the author’s imagination, but some easily visible features have become quite common.
Hair color, for instance, is a distinguishing characteristic for Geralt, the main character from The Witcher. His lovely locks are prematurely white, a result of his supernatural mutations, and the horrific procedures he had to endure to acquire them.
Eye-color seems to be even more common with notable use in Brandon Sanderson’s epic Stormlight Archive (aka the “lighteyes”).
Second, consuming ‘spice’ on Arrakis turns the the whites of people’s eyes blue and their irises an even deeper blue. Consuming the spice has all sorts of supernatural and essentially magical implications in Dune.
Another interesting take on this comes in Kushiel’s Dart. The main character, Phedre, has a mote in her eye which marks her as blessed by Kushiel. She is an ‘anguissette’, someone who endures pain for sexual pleasure. It is essentially her superpower within the first book.
Finally, we could point to Geralt again as one of his mutations is cat-like eyes which allow him to see better than normal people. Surely a boon when hunting monsters that prey on said normal people.
But none of this is quite so dramatic as . . .
The Worsening Curse Mark
This is generally some kind of mark on a character that ends up being significant to the plot because of some change in said plot, or something else unusual happening. Disappearance of the mark or change in its usual behavior counts though a wound healing would not. A wound that won’t heal, festers, or gets infected can count as long as there is some plot or magical reason for this.
Harry’s scar in the Harry Potter series is a great example. The scar was inflicted by an evil curse and it hurts Harry any time Voldermort is near.
In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Davy Jones marks Jack Sparrow with a large cursed boil (“black spot”) which marks him as hunted by the Kraken. This is a throwback to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in which a “black spot”, burned into one side of a card or piece of paper, was handed to another pirate as a verdict of guilt (the unburned side I’m assuming meant innocence).
This device was also used in the 1930 novel Swallows and Amazons (by Arthur Ransome), given to the captain James Turner, homage to whom I believe is split between two main character names in Pirates: James Norrington and Will Turner.
What came to mind for me, perhaps has more to do with ‘worsening curse’ and maybe less to do with a physical mark, but my mind went immediately to Matrim “Mat” Cauthon from the Wheel of Time series. Across the first two novels he acquires and then loses a cursed dagger with a ruby on the hilt. During his possession of the dagger, some magical connection is formed, and the longer he is away from it, the worse his health declines.
So we’re definitely seeing the ‘worsening curse’ part of the trope but so far as I know, no physical mark was left on him aside from the worsening sickness. When (spoiler) the connection is finally broken, I do not believe he has any physical marks to signify his ordeal, however, I feel that he is psychologically changed by the experience. While in possession of the dagger, he does not act like himself, and once he is free of the curse, he is certainly not the same Mat who left Two Rivers. Therefore I’m going to argue that he has indeed been “marked” by magic, it’s just that those signs are more psychological than physical.
(I suppose there is a parallel here between Mat’s experience with the dagger, and Smeagol’s affair with the One Ring in LOTR. However, this post is already getting long enough lol.)
So . . . ?
Honestly, I’m not sure really. Many readers (and writers) are keen on the idea that magic has a ‘cost’, but I think reader’s enjoyment of magic is broader than that. While the Worsening Curse certainly has a cost, the Power Tattoo, and Mark of the Supernatural often have neutral costs, or as in the case of the Light Eyes in Stormlight, a benefit to being ‘marked’ by magic (Light Eyes enjoy higher social status in Rosharan society).
Perhaps it is only a change that is necessary.
Whatever the effect of these marks of magic on our heroes, I think it is safe to say that it is we who are truly marked by the amazing magic we read in our books, watch in movies or TV, or play in video games.
As fantasy readers we have the privilege of experiencing this magic, and to echo Charles de Lint, the only cost is on “…those people who never have the chance to know [magic’s] touch…”
What are y’all’s thoughts? Which ‘Marks of Magic’ are your favorite? Which should I have included in my post? Please leave your answers in the comments!
See you next time and happy #WyrdAndWonder!