Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip

How do you pronounce the first word of the title? I asked a couple of friends who had read Od Magic before me, and their first response was a pause, and then, “Hm.”

Online Scrabble has since taught me that “od” is an actual English word, somewhat archaic, meaning “a hypothetical power once thought to pervade nature and account for various scientific phenomena.” Which in a way is too bad, because before stumbling across the definition (fortunately, with a double-word score), I had thought about different ways to parse the word as part of the title, and to tie it together with the considerations of magic that form one of the book’s key themes.

An early chapter points in that direction, too:

“… the king, astounded by her power and craving it for himself, was the first student to pass under the cobbler’s shoe to learn magic.”
The students glanced at one another. The detail never failed to prod a question out of someone.
“What’s the cobbler’s shoe?” asked a young man with golden hair and a supercilious expression very like his father’s. “We came in through the main gate. I don’t remember passing under a shoe.”
“Then you didn’t,” Yar answered briskly, and cocked a brow at the others. “Anyone? No one? You’d remember if you did.”
“But what does it mean, Master Yar?”
“In those early days, Od began her school in an old shop a cobbler had abandoned when he fled the city out of fear of war. Isham [the king at the time], though he had no talent for magic, left his pride at the cobbler’s door out of gratitude and a keen desire to try to learn what Od knew. … ‘To pass under the cobbler’s shoe’ for most students is simply an expression, meaning that because of your talents or your potential you have been accepted into Od’s school”
A girl with the shining black hair and pale skin of a northerly realm was gazing at him out of narrowed green eyes. “You passed under the shoe,” she said abruptly.
Yar’s mouth crooked wryly. “I was too poor to get in through the gates. That’s another meaning.”
“And there’s still another meaning,” she insisted. She did not say what; she waited for him to explain himself. But he did not care to.

So. Multiple meanings, the role of magic in the kingdom, and students at a magical school. Here, from a few pages earlier, is Od herself:

She was a rough-hewn, rumpled giant, by all accounts, who never wore shoes or cut her hair. She had a habit of rescuing animals in trouble, so she traveled in strange company. That day she purportedly had with her a great black bull whose eyes had been burned out, a crippled raven, a dove mourning its mate, mice in her pockets, any number of abandoned dogs as well as a cat and her litter of kittens on the back of the bull.

This unlikely cavalcade indicates some very odd magic, at least by the standards that fantasy readers have come to expect. Od is rumpled, unruly, concerned with things that most people overlook, and unconcerned with what preoccupies the majority. She proceed directly to speak with the king, and says she wants to start a school of magic, apparently quite unaware that the city is about to be besieged and in all likelihood overrun.

“I have an urge,” she told Isham, “to settle for a while. My feet are tired. This city has a good heart.”
“It’s about to die,” Isham protested bitterly.
“I’m good with things about to die,” Od said. “If I rescue your city, will you let me start my school?”
Isham gazed in wonder at the calm, ox-boned giant…

The king agrees, and Od has a word with the river, which sinks the invading ships, and another word with the winds, who blow the invading armies into such confusion that “they were lost for three seasons and only found, barefoot and starving, in the middle of winter.”

Awed magic. These great workings seem something of an afterthought for Od, a distant second to her care for her animals, becoming even more distant once the school started up and she had students as well as animals under her care. But the kings of the city never forgot the great power that she could call down on a whim, and they kept close watch on the lesser wizards she taught, binding them to the kingdom with ties that would never have worked on Od. And so it was for generations, for at the beginning of the story proper, Od’s magic is also very old magic. She seems to be immortal, because even after she left the city, she was sighted at odd intervals, sometimes in clusters, sometimes with decades between reports of her actions.

Readers also know something that the students do not, because Od has led another person with magical talents to the gate under the cobbler’s shoe. Brendan Vetch comes from the settled edge of the book’s known world, and has a talent for connecting with plants and other growing things. Od visits him when the death of his parents has left him in extremis, more wild than human, and invites him down to the magical school to be a gardener. Brendan’s magical abilities are vast, but untamed, and perhaps untameable, though his alienation from people means that he often does not realize he is doing anything out of the ordinary. Odd and awed, and close to Od without knowing it.

Complications ensue, and exploring them is the business of the book, continuing in the fairy-tale register that the quotations above show, but working out questions of love, power, and responsibility. The kings—incarnations of law—want to harness magic, make it predictable and harness it to service of the kingdom. To a large extent they succeed, as the kingdom’s prosperity and the school’s stability both attest. But they are not content with a large extent, and want to keep all magic under their purview, or else banish it from the kingdom as a threat. The city even has a Twilight Quarter, an area of licensed anarchy where the releases that people need are kept within limits. But a traveling magician alights in the Quarter, and will not reveal himself to the king’s officers. He insists that his tricks are harmless, and that bringing his charms under royal power would render them useless. Law cannot circumscribe everything, but neither can the wild power of magic manage without structure.

This poses questions of what is owed magic, and what, if anything, magic owes to its practitioners or the society surrounding it. These stories bend and refract through Brendan’s discovery of himself, of the teacher Yar’s rediscovery of what he once was, of other characters’ discoveries and revelations of what they owe to magic, one way or another.

There are many more layers to the book, but the meditations in this ode to magic are what have remained with me in the two months since I read it.

Odd. Ode. Awed. Old. Owed. Od. How do you pronounce it again?

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2015/07/02/od-magic-by-patricia-a-mckillip/

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