Alvin Maker

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Orson Scott Card is a very accomplished and prolific writer specializing in science fiction and fantasy, but also producing writing guides, reviews, and political opinion. He’s written several science fiction and fantasy series, most notably the Ender series, but the series about Alvin Maker is also distinguished.
It’s a fantasy about America beginning not long after the Revolution and surveying a number of aspects of the country. This is an alternate America, though. The United States is much smaller than the colonies that rebelled in our history, consisting mainly of the middle Atlantic states. Apalachee is separate, so are New England and the Crown Colonies, where King Arthur Stuart reigns. The Lord Protector, successor to Oliver Cromwell, still rules England. Canada is controlled by the French. At the beginning of the novel both the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon are there. Lafayette wants a revolution for France and Napoleon wants power. Both eventually get what they want.
The action in the novel begins with a family going west in a covered wagon. They cross a river near the eastern border of what would be Ohio in our world, and there’s a flash flood. A whole tree hurtles down the river at the wagon, in which a pregnant woman is almost ready to give birth. One of her older sons jumps onto the tree to push it away from the wagon. The tree catches him and tears his arm off. People from the nearby town come to help pull the wagon from the river and get the woman to an inn to give birth. The child is the seventh son of a seventh son, and thus the recipient of magical powers, called “knacks” by Americans. Americans mostly, but not entirely, accept these as fairly natural, even when they’re pretty startling, as in Alvin’s case. He becomes a quasi-messiah figure, though in an understated way. He is well brought up, and realizes how he needs to handle his powers, but Card doesn’t suggest he’s going to save the world. His vision eventually is to build what he calls a crystal city, and attract good people to it who can “make” in the sense that he does. Fulfilling this vision may be an evolutionary step for the human race.
His powers are characterized as constructive, but can be misused, like any other powers. In one scene he promises cockroaches that there’s food in the room of his sisters (he and his siblings tease each other). The cockroaches feel a sense of injustice because there wasn’t food where he told them, and an Indian who has crept into the house asks him why he did that. Alvin realizes that the only legitimate way to use his powers is for the good of others. Later on he has to be persuaded that it’s all right to figure out how to heal himself after a bad accident with a millstone.
The accident comes about because of what Alvin comes to call the Unmaker. He feels he’s been given his powers to make things better for people in general. The Unmaker, though tries to tear things down, and wants to destroy Alvin. He, she, or it tries to do it with water, as when Alvin was born, and has tried through other media since. A young girl, a “torch”, who can see what people feel (as well as their possible futures), and was present when Alvin was born, watches over him, and uses the caul which was over his face at birth to protect him. The Unmaker tries again with a millstone Alvin has cut, rolling it over onto him, and abrading his leg to the bone. William Blake, brought to this country by Benjamin Franklin, travels around the country swapping tales, and chances to be there when Alvin is hurt. He persuades Alvin that it isn’t wrong to heal himself, because he’ll benefit others if he does.
The Indian mentioned above, Lolla-Wossiky, is an important character in the second book of the series. His destiny was to be a shaman, but it was interrupted by witnessing William Henry Harrison (whom Card says was somewhat better in our world than in this novel) murder his father while Lolla-Wossiky looked on. The trauma caused “black noise” in his head, intensely painful, which whiskey helps him tolerate. When they meet Alvin tries to restore an eye that he’s lost, and is unable to do that, but does rid him of the black noise. Lolla-Wossiky is then able to resume his destiny as a shaman, and offer an alternative to his brother Ta-Kumska’s vision.
Ta-Kumsaw wants to drive whites out of the country. He sees the country east of the Mississippi as dying because the white settlers are starting farms and breaking up the ancient forest. The Indians are in tune with the forest land, able to run barefoot through it far faster than whites can move because the forest supports them, opening ways for them and making the ground soft. Alvin and one of his brothers are captured by Indians sent by Harrison, who wants (in his turn) to destroy the Indians. Those Indians plan to murder the boys and leave evidence suggesting Ta-Kumsaw did it. Instead, Ta-Kumsaw rescues the boys.
Lolla-Wossiky meanwhile has preached to many Indians that they ought not to resist whites violently, and has built a city with his followers. Whites, of course, don’t believe the Indians are actually nonviolent, and when the boys are kidnapped their father and others in the town believe it’s the peaceful Indians who did it. They confront them and begin massacring them. The Indians don’t resist. The whites stop only when one of the boys appears to tell them the real story. Ta-Kumsa tries to defeat the whites militarily, and fails. Many Indians follow Lolla-Wossiky across the Mississippi to the western lands, which are then closed to whites.
Relations between Indians and whites aren’t the only issues surveyed in the series. Alvin lands in trouble because he’s apprenticed to a blacksmith, and becomes a better smith. For the project he chooses to prove his ability and become a journeyman, he makes a plow, but then turns it to gold, and makes it live. His master convinces himself that Alvin found the gold on his property, and it therefore belongs to him. The case is settled in court.
Even more serious is when a black girl reaches the Hio river with her baby, borne after she was impregnated by her white master. She is rescued, but dies from the rigors of her trip, and her baby is adopted by the couple who run the inn in which Alvin was born. Slavehunters come looking for the boy, and break down the door of the inn looking for him. The innkeeper’s wife kills one, and is killed by the other. Alvin kills the second hunter, then changes the boy’s DNA so he can’t be found again. He has to go to court once more.
Another look at slavery takes place in the Deep South Crown Colonies where slaves are quiescent because they have given up their real names to someone who can keep them magically safe, and with their names their anger. When the safe place gets destroyed the slaves feel their anger again, greatly alarming the whites, one of whom suggests killing one of every three–even before the slaves have actually done anything.
In New England the look is at witchfinders, who operate very similarly to the Inquisition in Europe. People are encouraged to inform on their neighbors, and do so to get rewards. The witchfinders meanwhile twist everything to make it sound perverted, and it becomes clear that the people accused are NEVER guilty of misusing any powers they may have. John Adams, the judge who tries the case, orders that the witchfinders come under the authority of the state and be licensed before they can accuse anyone, and that if they accuse they must bring evidence that would stand in any secular court. This essentially shuts the pastime down.
At the end of the sixth novel of the series Alvin has married, and his wife has given birth to a son. He has prevented southern blacks from being massacred by their panicky owners, and restored his brother, who has powers himself, but is envious of Alvin, turned against him partly through temperament (he’s lazier, less systematic in using his powers, and less generous), and partly because of the Unmaker. He has also rescued a lot of the poor blacks, whites, and French people in Nueva Barcelona (our New Orleans), whom he manages to move north and settle in an unoccupied area. He wonders if any of his efforts have been worthwhile, or if the things he’s labored to build we be destroyed. That is always possible, but his wife tells him that many of the things he’s built will endure. The view is similar to that of George Gurdjieff, who says that the negative or denying force is a basic part of reality, which means that it takes real effort to accomplish anything worthwhile, and that none of it counts unless it’s almost impossible.
I greatly enjoy Card’s fiction, much of which resonates strongly with me. The Alvin series is not the least of his efforts. It’s not just the cleverness of the historical differences and the differing roles various historical figures play in this series, but a sense of rightness about what he says and portrays. One of these portrayals is the way the Indians see the forest land as living and the farms by white settlers as dead. This isn’t far from seeing the horror of the pollution of land, air, and water, which I persist in thinking one of our worst problems.
But Card’s political opinions are jarring to my liberal sensibilities. He sees liberals (the Left) as dictating to the rest of the country, as if industrialists idolized by the Right wing weren’t dictating to everyone by polluting air, water, and land, as well as shipping American jobs overseas to produce huge disparities in incomes, so that fewer and fewer Americans can adequately support themselves. They also use their abundant resources to tailor laws to their benefit, rather than to the benefit of the nation as a whole. The dictatorial impulse comes, in my opinion, from both sides of the aisle.
After his sensitive portrayal of the Native American way of seeing the land, he also sees the idea of anthropogenic climate change as another dictatorial ploy. He is able to understand the despair minorities feel when mistreated, including the minority with unusual talents considered satanic, but came out in one essay in favor of the recent law passed in North Carolina (where he lives) that enjoins transgender people to only use the restroom appropriate to their gender at birth, and also prevents localities from passing tolerant laws.
Evidently Mr. Card felt a need to revisit the subject, so in a more recent essay he noted legislation passed in Utah, which he says is the most Republican state in the union, but is also a state in which the legislators have more loyalty to the LDS church than the Republican party. The church persuaded a mostly Republican legislature to talk to gay rights activists to find a way to provide a law that would serve everyone, and they were able to do so. Mr. Card says the North Carolina law will inevitably be struck down (I’m not so sure), and suggests the North Carolina legislature consult with the various churches in the area with the idea of amending the law before it’s rescinded and a lot of feelings get hurt. I can only applaud that suggestion.
Mr. Card seems to feel that only Leftists are dictatorial, which I would argue with. While his political views disturb me to some extent, he’s such an insightful and powerful writer that it doesn’t surprise me that he can see the other side of at least some of his arguments (while not necessarily agreeing with them). What does surprise me is his conservative political outlook, which I find surprising in a writer so empathetic. Maybe that’s a measure of my liberal political bias.
I do recall him defending the Iraq war, which I doubt he would do now. I was still somewhat surprised he did it then. He says that the extreme Left tries to make sure anyone who disagrees with them can’t make a living anymore. I’m not so sure of that, but do remember how the last Bush administration told the military to go ahead and pollute, a similarly childish manifestation of resentment. Similarly, they allowed coal producers who blew the tops off mountains to get coal to also leave the trash behind anywhere they pleased, including in the mountain streams which feed into rivers that supply much of the drinking water of the eastern part of the USA. Another ideological thing to do.
I wish I didn’t believe this, but I find this period of our history closely paralleling the decade before the Civil War, when Northerners thought Southerners were dictating to them, Southerners returned the feeling, and nobody could please anyone else. That led eventually to war. I’ve been thinking for some time that we’re building up to something similar, only now, with the far more advanced technology we now have, something even more destructive. That’s not the only problem I foresee, but it’s one of the serious ones. Mr. Card’s suggestion to have religious leaders mediate between politicians may not be enough to avert catastrophe, but I don’t see that it could hurt. As my meditation teacher told us, some thirty years ago, no progress will be made on environmental problems (like a lot of others) until people are willing to stop playing the blame game and calling other people names.

Balance

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Magic (not sleight of hand) is a nice subject for fantasy novels. Is it anything more than fantasy? Humans have believed in it for a very long time, and it might be argued that magic was the beginning of science: a way to look at the world and make use of its energies.
Magic and religion are closely related. One of my high school teachers said that magic was a way to compel spiritual powers to do what you wanted, rather than just asking. This was certainly true of the pagan religions of the Middle East, Greece, and Rome, all of which had started out as fertility religions. Ancient people were very concerned with fertility so their crops would grow and and they would have plenty of children.
Dion Fortune was a member of a magic organization, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was founded in England in the second half of the 19th century, and included a couple of well-known writers, Algernon Blackwood and W.B. Yeats. Fortune’s membership was later, but she was a pretty good writer herself. She wrote several novels about various situations in which the characters practice magic. Should we take her depiction of it literally? Anyone interested will have to decide for themselves, but I think that may just have been what she intended.
Fertility religion is magic on a fairly crude, though organized level. It includes sacrifice, often of humans to begin with, subsequently of animals, to please the gods, who were seen as being capricious and not caring about humans. Pleasing them was a survival technique. Natural disasters were nothing to laugh about.
Fertility religions also included sex, which was closely associated with crops growing well. In Greece (as well as other places) the Sacred King impregnated the Goddess (impersonated by her priestess) to ensure the land’s fertility. Sometimes all adults in the community joined in too.
The magic portrayed in Fortune’s novels is on a more sophisticated level. They too speak of sexuality, but more as one of the fundamental principles of life. In Moon Magic the narrator claims to be much older than she appears, and to have been the veteran of many lives. She is a priestess of Isis, and sees her mission as to bring new and positive things to human life, and she does so through ceremonial magic performed with a man who, though an outstanding doctor, has had a stunted emotional life. Their activities are healing for him, and leave him ready to seek a deeper marriage than he’d had with his dead wife.
Another novel has a character with great vitality and magical ability, but little conscience, who hires a “secretary” whom he actually uses as a medium so he can observe magical techniques which others in the magical organization refuse to teach him. Fortune characterizes this as black magic, as he’s using his abilities strictly for his own benefit.
But he begins to care for the girl he’s been using, and it seems that they have had many previous lives in which they’ve formed a bond. He has always been inclined to black magic. She has never. He has intellect but not heart. She has heart but little intellect. Each needs the other for balance.
Balance is always tricky. The ancient Greeks said, Nothing too much, as well as, Know thyself. Neither is easy.
Part of balance, I think, is to be aware there is a limit to what any of us know. This point seems obscure to ideologues. Materialists seem to believe there is nothing but what our sense perceive, which means no God and no magic. A wider and deeper perspective suggests there may be materials we’re not aware of, and forces too.
One tenet of organized Christianity (other religions too, but Christianity is the one I’m familiar with) is that there’s a correct way to believe. But there are many flavors of Christianity, often with conflicting beliefs. Bart D. Ehrman, a scholar who writes about Christianity and the Bible, points out that we now know there were many flavors of Christianity in ancient times too, with even more wildly different beliefs. So what the Fundamentalists are actually saying is that you and I are supposed to believe what they tell us to believe, and that they will impose their beliefs on the rest of us if they can.
For many of us this is an unsatisfactory sort of religion. One aspect of paganism in the Greek and Roman part of the ancient world was that it was tolerant, for the most part. Some didn’t like Jews. Greeks slaughtered Jewish citizens of Alexandria at one point, but usually accommodation was made. Since the early Christians, like the Jews, refused to worship the Greek or Roman gods, they were considered atheists, and sometimes persecuted. Not nearly as much as the pagans were later persecuted by Christians, though, once Christianity became the official religion of Rome.
Pagan religions in the region around the Mediterranean sea were pretty similar, which was noted by the Greeks and Romans, who saw correspondences between the gods and goddesses of various areas conquered. That made it easy for the conquered people to worship Greek and Roman gods because they were really the same as the locals, just with different names. Jews and Christians were stiff-necked about that, earning them the reputation of being unpatriotic.
But, as with any religion, popular beliefs were not the same as for those who really understood the religion. A religion with any validity must reflect the structure of reality, and the Greek and Roman pantheons embodied male and female, a very fundamental basis of this world.
Fortune’s fiction is based on the interaction between male and female, and she has different situations in the novels. As noted above, one has the male as intellectually dominant, but needing the emotions of the female to balance him and to keep him from being entirely self-serving.
Another novel features an ex-soldier down on his luck who is called on to help a young woman being preyed on by a black magician. The woman is more sophisticated than the man, but less stable. The two again balance each other.
Two other novels concern a woman who considers herself a priestess of Isis, having long ago been such a priestess in Egypt. Moon Magic, mentioned above, has her on a mission to bring more balance into human life in general, in terms of marriage and sexuality. For this, she needs a man to cooperate with her, and finds one in the doctor. They don’t actually have sex themselves; what they’re trying to accomplish is more subtle and difficult to understand than that, more to do with the difference but equality between the two genders, and the actual roles each can play, which are only superficially stereotypical. The Sea Priestess is very similar in aim and structure, the main difference being that it’s told from the male point of view, while Moon Magic has a female narrator.
Such books won’t be interesting to everyone. You would have to be open to the idea of real magic existing, and that the Christian view of things, while not untrue, doesn’t contain all truth. One can believe in a variety of spiritual powers as various manifestations of one god, rather than limiting God and considering any other spiritual power as being demonic. Fortune calls Isis Veiled the manifestation of nature. Isis Unveiled is thus the spiritual version of nature. Isis needs Osiris, just as he needs her. Reality depends on the cooperation of the two basic forces, rather than one trying to take power over the other.
But power is so important to us that men try to take women captive, and are intimidated by strong ones. Women also try to captivate men, so they will be physically protected. When there is nothing more to relationship than this, the two sexes live in poverty. Sexuality is a tremendously powerful force, and it’s hard to understand to what extent and in what way it is involved in love. Because it is so powerful we fear and try to control it. Discipline is certainly needed to protect men, women, and especially children, but suppression and over-indulgence are two sides of a very nasty coin. Sex must not be overemphasized, but at the same time given room to be free in.
Balance is Dion Fortune’s primary message, as is true of all wisdom.