Talismans

January 15, 2013

Some recent online discussions have got me thinking about an issue with talismans—items of power—in fantasy fiction. There is sometimes a tendency for an author to fixate on a favorite creation and to focus on it more and more. What might have begun as an important plot device can take on such significance as to completely overpower the rest of the story.

Sometimes, this works. The Lord of the Rings began as a brief sequel to The Hobbit, but it famously “grew in the telling.” Bilbo’s ring is a key element in the plot of the first book; it is a profound equalizer, making him more than even with his dwarfish companions. From the protagonist’s point of view, the finding of the ring is the most important part of the story; Tolkien even points this out explicitly: “It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it.”

Yet in The Lord of the Rings, the ring is converted into epic fantasy’s ultimate artifact of doom, and practically everyone agrees that this works. Tolkien benefited from having written Bilbo’s original encounter with Gollum very well. Bilbo’s show of mercy—not killing Gollum when he had the chance, but instead risking his life to escape—provided the author with a good explanation for how the ring could be a source of corruption without tainting Bilbo’s heroism.

However, more frequently (it seems to me), this kind of change in focus is damaging to the overall narrative structure. Roger Zelazny started writing The Chronicles of Amber without the slightest idea where the story was going. A man wakes up in a hospital, and crazy stuff starts happening. The author seemingly made the first book, Nine Princes in Amber, up entirely as he went along. At some points, the story is full of detail and irrelevancies; other chapters cover world-shattering battles in barely a few pages. It’s uneven, but it works. The second book, The Guns of Avalon, has a more consistent plot, and it sets things up for a world-cris-crossing conflict. Through these two books, something called the Pattern makes several important appearances. It is through walking the maze-like Pattern that the lords of the transdimensional city of Amber come into their power. But there are other seemingly equally powerful sources of magic in the story as well, such as the Jewel of Judgement, worn at the neck of the city’s master.

From the third book onward, Zelazny had figured out where he wanted the story to go, and it had problems. One of the problems was that the Pattern seemingly expanded to be responsible for everything. There was a copy of it inside the Jewel, and the plot starts to revolve around securing and protecting the various copies of the Pattern that crop up around the multiverse. Of course, this isn’t the only problem with the later books (which extend to ten, actually, although I gave up reading after the original five). The characterization also fails. In The Guns of Avalon, the hero, Corwin, calls himself an evil that holds back other evil. By the end, he decides that his sociopathic family isn’t really so bad after all, and his youngest brother, who was ready to murder a gas station attendant for being mouthy in the first book, is raised up as a just and noble king. But what I remember about the story is that it’s all about the Pattern, which really began to grate.

Another example where a specific piece of a story’s magical impedimenta comes to totally dominate the storyline is the Staff of Law in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson. Donaldson wrote three separate series of books (plus a short gaiden story, representing material excised from the second volume), and I must confess that, in this case as well, I never made it to the last series (which was written long after the others). In the original trilogy, the heroes spend much of the first book, Lord Foul’s Bane, trying to retrieve the Staff of Law from the clutches of some middling baddies who are easily manipulated by the true villain, the evil god Lord Foul. Unfortunately, by the third book, Foul gets ahold of the Staff of Law and uses it to mess with the weather. In the course of dealing with this problem, the hero burns the iron-shod staff into ashes; and that really should have been the end of it.

Supposedly, Donaldson didn’t really want to write any additional books, but he ended up getting talked into two more series. However, he fixated way too much on the Staff of Law as the key to the natural balance in his fantasy world, The Land. The second trilogy is focused around recreating the Staff. The characters (and, even more, Donaldson expects his readers) are supposed to be oblivious to the fact that the super-powered golem travelling with them—a creature of pure structure—is supposed to turn into a new incarnation of the Staff. This was dead obvious to me from the moment when the construct, Vain by name, slipped on the iron bands from the ends of the original staff that was burned up in book three. Even when one of his arms turns to wood after contact with the One Tree, from which the first staff was cut, the characters remain utterly mystified about what Vain is planning. Having to go on a quest to completely recreate this artifact does provide enough material for a whole trilogy (to the extent that Donaldson ever has enough material to fill up his 500-page books), but the author took an artifact idea that was essentially already milked for all it was worth and based another whole series on the item. (Moreover, my understanding of the third set of books is that the obsession with the Staff of Law persists.) It just doesn’t really work.

There are more examples, but I think these are illustrative. And, in retrospect, I think I should have named this post “Talismania.”

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9 Responses to “Talismans”


  1. Regarding your terminology: in magic, a talisman, properly speaking, is an item which protects its bearer, or some penumbra surrounding him, from spirits or evil, and which, in contrast to an amulet, is constituted not of stones, animal parts or herbs, but of written words (jolly in Ankarloo/Clark, pages 42-3 of the 1st edition; also, personal experience [trust me: they’re not generally effective against bears spirits, unless the words are of supplication and meat or honey is also provided] )

    • Buzz Says:

      The OED says:

      1. A stone, ring, or other object engraven with figures or characters, to which are attributed the occult powers of the planetary influences and celestial configurations under which it was made; usually worn as an amulet to avert evil from or bring fortune to the wearer; also medicinally used to impart healing virtue; hence, any object held to be endowed with magic virtue; a charm.

      2. fig. Anything that acts as a charm, or by which extraordinary results are achieved.

      I was aware that the earliest meanings of “talisman” meant something with protective writing or engraving on it, but I was not familiar with the specific suggestion that it was related to astrology. However, in all the OED’s earliest citations (from the early and middle seventeenth century), the talismans are explicitly astrological. By the late eighteenth century, the second meaning, which is probably more common today, seems to have been in regular use.

      I chose “talisman” in this post because of the association with engraving (which all the examples I discussed feature; the Pattern, seemingly, is nothing but a magical engraving), rather than the association with protective value.


  2. For what it’s worth, I think your comments about ‘Amber’ are pretty dead on and incisive, far beyond what I’ve written about it. However, I take excetion to some of your ‘ring’ argument. For example, I wonder if, in describing ‘The Hobbit’ and its relation to the sequel,, you’ve fully taken into account the alterations done to the original version of the story to make it (more) compatible with the ring’s later hegemony over the story.

    For what it’s worth, you may as well leave off your ‘practically everyone’ argument. Argue on the merits of the case, not using an appeal to the masses. Not only is it a classic fallacy, there are special conditions applicable to this cycle of works: people don’t notice the tension between early and later treatments of the ring because:
    1) LoTR is now treated by many as the primary work, by choice or ignorance, while
    2) Others are simply uncritical of Tolkien, to the point of cultism.

    Also, I disagree with your ‘ring’ contention to the extent that, if one grants ‘The Hobbit’ the same primacy you grant ‘Nine Princes in Amber’ and its natural sequel, ‘The Guns o Avalon,’ the later works feel like they’re retconning the original ring–even in Tolkien’s retconned version, the hints are there, and the transition is a bit of a stretch (thus the need for Tolkien to go back and rewrite the relevant sections of the original)

    • Buzz Says:

      The edition of The Hobbit at our house is a quite authoritative annotated version. It actually has every version of the published (English) text, chronicling the corrections Tolkien made over the years and the substantive changes to “Riddles in the Dark.” However, I had nonetheless mistakenly thought that the section in which Bilbo declined to kill Gollum was (more or less) original; checking online indicates that this is not the case. So the retcon there was more substantial that I had thought.

      I do give Tolkien some credit for explaining the retcon part of the framing device. However, many people do not like the framing device of the Red Book that much, and Tolkien himself was not especially careful about keeping the story consistent with the nature of the frame. (There is the famous incident with the passing fox, for instance.)

      Finally, I would say that the appeal to popularity is simply not a fallacy when it comes to judgments of esthetic value.

      • Diapadion Says:

        I just talked to The Bear about this the other night. I happened to look at the Annotated version recently, Riddles in the Dark, especially (since I wanted to learn more about the riddles Tolkien chose), and wound up discovering a whole bunch of retcons.
        Its worth pasting what I wrote then, here.

        Between the 1st and 2nd editions, Gollum’s psychosis was changed considerably. I assume you remember the canonical version; in the original story, if Gollum wins, he still gets to eat Bilbo, but if Bilbo wins, Gollum will give him “his precious”, the ring. Bilbo has of course already found the ring, unbeknownst to Gollum. When Bilbo
        wins, Gollum goes looking for the ring, to give to Bilbo, but can’t find it. So Bilbo asks Gollum to show him out of the caves, instead. Gollum obliges, and doesn’t make a fuss about the ring. Bilbo later discovers the ring’s power of invisibility. So basically, the One Ring had no evil power before Tolkien changed the story to fit the Lord of
        the Rings.

        LotR wouldn’t have made any sense if this section was left as is; the ring has no psychological power. I wouldn’t say the original vision is superior, so I don’t think it really matters that Tolkien changed it, but it is an interesting tidbit at very least.

        • Buzz Says:

          This site appears to have a complete side-by-side comparison of the two versions of the chapter: http://www.ringgame.net/riddles.html


        • Seems to me that Sauron’s ‘soul’ is overreading a bit, but the ring (in its later incarnation as The One Ring) pretty clearly had some significant portion of Sauron’s being/power/spirit/whatever used in its making, and inherent in it, to be destroyed with it (I draw this from the later trilogy as well as some second-hand reception of more recently released notes). Folks are always going to overread this shit, with Tolkien as much as anyone else. The ‘Amber’ bit you paraphrase is a most amusing bit of absurdity, doubtless gotten from some garble and probably defended beyond the point of sanity in verbal discussion against people who got tired of talking about it.

          “Finally, I would say that the appeal to popularity is simply not a fallacy when it comes to judgments of esthetic value.”

          Fine: then first I have to say that I do not come here to read what ‘some folks’ have said, but what you’re opinions are, second, that I recognize your own opinion among these ‘people,’ so that dodge doesn’t work, third, that if you really want to defend that fallacy, I’ll refer you to ‘Titanic,’ ‘Transformers 2,’ Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ films, which you hate with most fibres of your being but which are phenomenally successful in terms of ticket and DvD sales as well as being widely liked, and to Elvis: “Fifty million people can’t be wrong.” Need I go on? Just let me know. I would also note that you, yourself, (referring back to two) do not seem to me to be necessarily beyond the scope of cultist attitudes as regards Tolkien’s fiction. In fact, certain clues would tend me toward the opposite opinion.

  3. Buzz Says:

    I think I should really stop linking to TVTropes. The “Artifact of Doom” page says that the One Ring was evil because it contained Sauron’s soul. (Maybe that’s a possible reading?) Much worse, I just came across another page where an editor pontificated about how Zelazny obviously had the first five Amber novels carefully plotted out from the beginning, but not the later ones. Sigh.


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