As an instructor for writing and rhetoric for some fifteen years now, you might say I believe in the power of language. I’ve seen students transformed by being able to tell their stories, by learning how to weave persuasion and intrigue into their writing, and split apart subtle messages that keep us hating the marginalized. I’ve also see the darker side of language—how we judge others based on their spelling, their diction, their grammar, or horrible use of commas. Labels like lazy, stupid, slow, idiot—or even educational categorizations such developmental, for instance—can chip away at an author’s intelligence and creativity, her/his curiosity that would lead a person to the deep magic of language. As a teacher, I’m constantly seeing this battleground, this war of texts. Sometimes, I’m on the good side; sometimes my own biases rear their ugly multi-headed self and I am the dragon.
It’s therefore especially wondrous when you find a fantasy novel such as Blake Charlton’s Spellwright (2010), which tackles these issues (while getting a few lovely digs in at the academic world).
Nicodemus Weal is a cacographer—someone who “has a tendency to misspell a complex text when touching it” (11). This can be quite dangerous, even deadly when dealing with magical language. Even worse, he was thought to be the Halycon, the prophesied spellwright who would stop the War of Disjunction, where language itself would be annihilated. When series of grisly murders at the Starhaven wizardry school looks to be the work of a cacographer, Nicodemus is suspected. He must work together with his old teacher Shannon to escape punishment but also find out who the real monster is.
Now, Flannery O’Connor once said that “fiction doesn’t lie, but it can’t tell the whole truth.” In some ways Spellwright chronicles Charlton’s own journey with dyslexia. His recent Op-ed article in the New York Times challenges those who would diagnosis this particular relationship with language only in terms of disability—to see weakness as opposed to set of weaknesses and unique strengths. This fantasy holds the same kind of challenge for the reader—it can indict us all on ways we have judged others on their writing or speaking skills. It can jar those painful memories where we were the ones at the receiving end of such cruelty. But the most lovely image I’ll take away from this novel is how the magical texts emanate from a spellwright’s muscles, from the very sinews that hold the body together. Through the character of Nicodemus, Charlton reminds us that language, identity, and the very fabric of this thing called “reality” are in a delicate symbiotic dance. To begin seeing these invisible lines of power and creation, that is the true gift of magic.
By Nancy Hightower