My favorite English word is magical

by Jeff

My recent comments about magic on this blog are part of my own creative process for my fantasy novel (or perhaps more properly my fantasy romance). I have always favored what are called in gaming terms “low-magic” worlds, because the scarcity makes it extra meaningful and dangerous. Since I have now concluded that magic is a relative concept, my next step is to consider my own treatment of magic in my imaginary world.

One thing is for certain: I am not calling it magic! That would be the easy and boring self-justifying choice. Everybody recognizes magic even when we don’t call it as such. This is therefore the perfect opportunity to make that feature more personal. From this point of view, I don’t even need to ask myself whether I want magic or not. That word is never the point. As an author, I’m exploring myths through wondrous events of my own choosing. And I got my favorite word for it: sigaldry.

I know Tolkien used this obscure word on at least two different occasions in his works. First, there is Errantry, poem n. 3 of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which you also hear on The Road Goes Ever On (it is in fact my favorite song of the cycle):

He sat and sang a melody,
his errantry a-tarrying;
he begged a pretty butterfly
that fluttered by to marry him.
She scorned him and she scoffed at him,
she laughed at him unpitying;
so long he studied wizardry
and sigaldry and smithying.

There is also the story of Beren and Lúthien in verses, called the Lay of Leithian or the Gest of Beren and Lúthien, which Tolkien started in 1925 but unfortunately abandoned in 1931 (with some tentative reworking after the publication of The Lord of the Rings). In Canto VII of the poem, the lines 2070-2079 describe as follows an early incarnation of Sauron, called Thû at the time and later renamed Gorthû. From p. 226 of The Lays of Beleriand, The History of Middle-Earth vol. 3:

Not yet by Men enthralled adored,
now was he Morgoth’s mightiest lord,
Master of Wolves, whose shivering howl
for echoed in the hills, and foul
enchantments and dark sigaldry
did weave and wield. In glamoury
that necromancer held his hosts
of phantoms and of wandering ghosts,
of misbegotten or spell-wronged
working his bidding dark and vile
the werewolves of the Wizard’s Isle.

Why would I choose this word, aside from the fact that I just plain like it for how it sounds and how it looks like? Because from it I can derive a particular sub-story that will give it its own significance. I’m thinking of a legendary character named Sigaldere, whose alleged powers earned him such distrust that any manner of strangeness or unexplainable phenomena came to be named after him: sigaldry. This in fact would accord well with the meaning of the word given by Christopher Tolkien (“sorcery”, p. 371 of the Lays). As the noun sigalder already exists according to the OED (it means “a charm or incantation”), what I would be doing is in effect simply re-etymologising the word.

At the outset, my invented world is an ancient but mundane one. The overarching plot, however, revolves around a kingdom mired in war and whose myths are actually found to be true, the particular story being about the problems that follow from that. I believe the tale of this legendary character, where I would like to pit Tolkien’s magia against his goetia in some dramatic fashion, shall be one of the keys to this discovery. Sigaldere would then be a myth, within a myth. Too classic, perhaps, but I have a soft spot for the mise en abyme!