The Magic of Word Sounds
“It’s not by chance that the word spell has this double meaning – to cast a spell, or to arrange the letters in the correct order to spell out a word. … to be able to arrange the letters in the right order, to actually conjure, as it were, that thing that you just spelled—it was experienced by oral peoples, who had not met the written word before, as magic, as a very powerful form of magic.” – David Abram
Writing is, by design, spellcasting, and the potency of those spells is carried by the sounds of the words. You hear the words when they are read aloud or inside your head when you read them “silently.”
Listen: when you hear the words of a quatrain such as the first stanza of Poe’s “To Helen,” you don’t need a poetry 101 instructor’s analysis of the allusions, rhyme schemes and alliteration to become enchanted:
“Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.”
The spellcasting power of words isn’t limited to poetry and songs. If a writer has a good ear, s/he hears the sounds of the words in prose as well, using their power to create ambiance, accentuate themes, support character types, and–like the musical score in a movie–accompany the action itself.
At its worst, and therefore its weakest, sound can be corrupted into overly purple prose. At their best, the sounds you hear when you listen or read are a powerful channel of meaning vibrating in harmony with the words’ literal and figurative meanings.
To read is to activate the spell. Good writers know this and orchestrate what readers will hear while they sit alone at night with a book. Your mind tells you you’re following narrative, dialogue and description. But there is more than that influencing you. There’s also the intonation of the spell of the words and that is where there true power for danger and beauty lies.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy and magical realism, including “The Seeker.”