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led astray

January 2013

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Xanth and Hamlet


The Xanthian Method

Presented by Magdalen Blankenship

Most stories that last and are told and retold are not written about ordinary people. They are written about larger-than-life heroes, kings, and princesses. Because many of these characters are crystallized essences of human traits, be they flaws or perfections, they have special qualities that set them apart from the rest of humanity.

The special qualities of a character are not always readily apparent in a work. When characters behave in ways that defy accepted theories, it is important to remember the nature of characters, chiefly, that they are not real people. They are extracts of people. Therefore, the only reasonable way to analyze them is through the distillation of character essence via other fictional sources.

In the fictional world of Xanth, created by Piers Anthony, everyone has a magical power. The stories followed in the series are those of the people with the most powerful magical abilities. The most powerful of a generation are given the title of “Magician.” These people are equivalent to the key players in any other story. The main difference is that their worth as characters is laid bare by the nature of their magical abilities, or the essences within them.

Events in a work of fiction which cannot be explained away by the same methods used to explain away events in real life must never the less have some origin. The world of Xanth provides an easily accessible setting in which the unusual can be explained through pattern recognition as manifestations of magic.

What's Your Magic Power?: Making Sense of the Senseless in Hamlet

There are many questions raised by the events and characters in “Hamlet” that defy logic as applied to real people. The characters are believable, yet highly suspect in their behavior. For centuries scholars have tried to explain what goes on inside the minds of the people in the play by trying to squeeze the world of the play into a particular world-view held neither by Shakespeare nor by the Kingdom of Elsinor. Inexplicable though it is, the play remains highly regarded, well loved, and extensively critiqued.

When critiquing a work of fiction, especially one presenting strong archetypes of powerful characters, it is vitally important to keep in mind the fictionality of the play. It is not possible to make sense of a work of fiction through the use of theories of reality.

Historically speaking, there is no reason young Hamlet should not be the King when his father passes away. The society as set up is a patriarchy. The next male heir should have ascended the throne, not the man who marries the queen, because she would lose the title when the king died. Gertrude should have been the Queen Mother, the mother of King Hamlet II. Claudius would indeed have been in line for the throne as blood brother to King Hamlet, but only as a second to Prince Hamlet, male fruit of the king's loins. So what is it in this kingdom that keeps Prince Hamlet from his rightful place?

In Xanth, every citizen, including the animals, plants, and even rocks, has a magical ability. This ability is different for each person. Some abilities are pretty small in scale, such as a magical ability to sweeten the taste of fruit, or make dishes wash themselves after use. And the strength of power varies from person to person with no regard for blood relations. People with highly regarded powers are given the title of Magician. These are people with powers such as creating powerful, large-scale illusions, conjuring extra-planar creatures, or talking to inanimate objects (which in Xanth have awareness of what is going on around them). Every generation, one person is born with an ability that is esteemed the most powerful in the kingdom. This person, regardless of lineage, becomes heir to the throne, and King of Xanth when the King before him or her dies. The main test of the King's magical usefulness is the extent to which he or she can defend the seat of power, the Castle.

Using the Xanthian model as a guide, Claudius must be the most powerful person in the kingdom. His power is not flashy or directly damaging, but something much more sinister. All his interactions with people other than Hamlet go very smoothly for Claudius. I propose that his magic power is that of persuasion. This is not solely a matter of mundane charisma or rhetoric. This is a magical talent that defies even the intelligent and the strong of will.

The largest and most prominent use of this power is when he convinces the court to accept, as though it were normal, the mixed funeral and wedding celebration. On the heels of the death of the King who had, without war, adopted the lands from King Fortinbras, to marry immediately the Queen, who was also his own brother's wife, should have been scandalous. Even though they were not related by blood, Gertrude would have been considered his actual sister, and therefore the union would have been deemed incestuous and forbidden by the church. As Hamlet points out to Gertrude later, Claudius is such a different and lesser person than her dead husband, that it seems the power of persuasion was used on her, too.

Wanting to gage the extent of Hamlet's sanity and discover the nature of the prince's magic, Claudius uses his power again on Rozencrantz and Gildenstern. These men are two of Hamlet's best friends from Wittenberg. Claudius convinces them to spy on Hamlet and take him to England to be killed. It is clear in their conversation with Hamlet that they are not comfortable with this course. They could easily ally themselves with Hamlet in a coup, yet they follow the suggestions given them by the magic of Claudius.

The strength of this magic over a person's mind is illustrated when Laertes returns from France and confronts Claudius enraged and ready for violence over the death of Polonius. Claudius is quickly able to calm the youth and redirect his anger towards Hamlet. That is not the hard part. Laertes has to this point been presented as virtuous, honorable, and good. The magical persuasion of Claudius is used to convince this paragon of virtue to perform a dishonorable act, to poison his blade to kill Hamlet under the guise of friendly competition. To do so is completely outside of the scope of the moral fiber of Laertes as presented.

So Claudius has a wonderful magical power which makes him King. What then is Hamlet's magic ability? The play is set up in such a way as to present that Hamlet should be the King through the mundane world practices of family heirs. Therefore, he should have a powerful ability to rival that of Claudius in order for the conflict of his conscience to have any merit. For Hamlet to be the central character, he must have the greatest power.

To answer this, I offer that Hamlet is a mirror character to Bink in Xanth. Bink's power is that he cannot be harmed by magic. And since all of Xanth is magical, most attempts at his life are magical in nature. He narrowly escapes time after time, looking just very lucky, if clumsy.

In Xanth, everyone has magic. Anyone not manifesting magic, no matter how small, by the age of 25, is banished to the mundane world. Bink does not apear to have any magic, and so he embarks on a quest to the Good Magician Humphery, who is reknowned for be able to answer any question. He serves the purpose of an Oracle, library, or other place of gaining knowledge, such as a school like Whittenberg. Bink's family and friends are glad to see him go because he often pesters them with questions and musings of a deeper nature than most are comfortable with. Although assured by Humphery that he does have magic, Bink's talent prevents Humphery from discerning its nature. Through adventure and circumstance, Humphery is eventually able to figure out Bink's power and how powerful it really is.

Bink has the most powerful defensive ability, and therefore should be King of Xanth. However, the nature of Bink's power is such that knowledge of it renders it useless. Without public declaration of his power, he cannot be King, even though it is technically his right. He must return home knowing that he has a secret that would make him King, but also get him killed. It is only the word of Humphery, or in Hamlet's case, his royal blood, that makes people tolerate his presence. Bink is still viewed as lacking what is an essential quality. Hamlet is seen similarly, though the essential quality he is thought to lack is mental capacity, sanity. This burden of mind and conflict of self interest would drive anyone to mope and brood in ways that seem unhealthy to the uninformed.

Now, it may appear that Hamlet has the greater magical ability and therefore should be king, and this would be true. To be immune to the most used offense and defense is to be nearly immune to all harm. However, once this power is public knowledge, it can be thwarted and gotten around. The nature of Hamlet's power is not known to many people out of necessity. If people knew he was immune to the magic abilities of others, he could be swayed or affected by mundane means, such as the poisoned sword he is eventually killed with. I offer that the reason Claudius felt the need to kill Hamlet in the end was that he discovered Hamlet's ability and feared for the crown. There was no way for Claudius to sway Hamlet's mind as he had everyone else's.

Claudius is the King when he is not the rightful heir, yet there was no fight with young Hamlet for the position. He must have the more powerful magic of the two, at least as can be shown. He has the magic of persuasion. The only one immune is Hamlet. He convinces people he didn't kill the king, Gertrude to marry him, Laertes to dishonorably kill Hamlet, Hamlet's friends to betray him, and the kingdom to ignore what's going on.

 I am turning this in today for my midterm paper.  :-P on Hamlet!