“The Witch’s Boy” by Kelly Barnhill: The Mystical Power of Words

WitchsBoy

This book was suggested by a close friend of mine who is a science fiction writer and someone whose taste in books I respect. I have to say that this is one of the best young-adult novels I have ever read. The writing and storyline are fairly basic and accessible to readers of all levels, and the tale itself is engaging, but the really amazing aspect of this book is the wealth of mystical, spiritual, and psychological symbolism that is woven into this rich tale. For the sake of brevity, I will focus this post on how words are presented as objects of mystical power.

Early in the book, Barnhill clearly states that words are objects of power that are the essence of creation.

A word, after all, is a kind of magic. It locks the substance of a thing in sound or symbol, and affixes it to the ear, or paper, or stone. Words call the world into being. That’s power indeed.

(p. 29)

One of the main characters in the book is Ned, who is the witch’s boy. Ned’s mother is tasked with protecting the last bit of magic that remains in the world. While attempting to protect the magic in his mother’s absence, the magic enters into Ned and becomes a part of him. At this point, the magic appears as words which flow across his skin, almost as if the boy has become a living book.

His sleeve hiked over his elbow and Ned stared at his skin in amazement. His hands were covered with words. And his arms. And his shoulders and belly and legs and chest. His back and face too, by the feel of it. Moving words. Words that scribbled and looped, crossed one another out, and scripted furiously forward. The words encircled each finger, blotched on his knuckles, tore across his wrists, and swirled over his arms.

(p. 94)

As I read this, I thought a lot about how the things we read and the stories we hear become a part of who we are. I have always believed that I am the culmination of my life’s experiences, and reading has been an integral part of my life and my personal development. So as I pictured the words swirling over Ned’s skin, I thought of all the stories and poems I have read, swirling through my own being and affecting who I am.

Something that has always fascinated me is the mystical power of words in the act of creation. That is why I have felt a connection to writers like Coleridge. I found definite allusions to this idea in this book, particularly regarding the importance of words for harnessing and directing the creative energy that surrounds us all.

Without words, the magic was uncontained. Without words, it was deadly.

(p. 149)

Finally, in one of my favorite passages in this book, Barnhill expresses what I consider a universal truth in a brilliantly clear and simple manner: the idea that words are mystical symbols that express the archetypal essence of everything that exists.

Ned stood and stepped away from the wolf. He removed his remaining glove and looked at the magic on his skin. Its strange letters. Its otherness. Each symbol was a word—though no more familiar to him than the words of his own language.

And yet.

A word is a magic thing. It holds the essence of an object or an idea and pins it to the world. A word can set a universe in motion. And Ned had.

(pp. 254 – 255)

There are many other symbols and ideas incorporated into this impressive book: the triple goddess; the sea as a symbol for the soul and consciousness; the forest representing the primal and dangerous aspect of the human psyche; the corrupting influence of power (in a Faustian manner); and myriad others. As I said, the sheer amount of allusion woven into the easy-to-read story is nothing short of amazing.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. Feel free to share your thoughts here after reading it. Cheers!

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8 Comments

Filed under Literature

8 responses to ““The Witch’s Boy” by Kelly Barnhill: The Mystical Power of Words

  1. I spotted this book somewhere and it was drawing me to read it, and now you reminded me of it, so I will definitely put it on my TRL and get it 🙂 Thank you!

    • Hi Oloriel! I hope you are doing well. You should definitely read this. It is excellent. I would love to hear your thoughts afterwards. I’ll keep an eye out for a blog post 😉

      Cheers!

      Jeff

      • Oh, I most certanly will! I have lost my own will for scouting new books to read, books I will actualy like, so I am relying completelly on these little magickal moments that tell me Hey, THIS is what you were eyeing to read, remember?
        It is just annoying that I cannot buy it bookstore in belgrade and will have to order it, which will make me wait 1 month or more for it, but I think it will be worth it. I am intruiged by the concepts and the writing style you showed in your excrepts.

      • Well, that sound’s like the universe giving you a month to read something else while you wait for this book. I believe all things happen for a reason, and any book worth reading is worth waiting for 🙂

  2. laurathelibrarian

    Yep, I definitely want to read this one. Thanks Jeff!

  3. Alex Hurst

    This looks really cool! And I love the cover! What a great composition. I may have to pick this one up some day.

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