I highly recommend heading over to The Book Smugglers as they host daily guest bloggers throughout this December–including Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. A scholar of folklore as well, Wein chose to talk about the sympathetic magic of reading. In academic terms, she defines it as “objects exerting action ‘on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy.’” For example, a Hershey Bar wrapper and her Pennsylvania childhood.
Wein goes on to theorize that when we give objects and places from works of fiction special significance to bring a fictional world to life, that’s a form of sympathetic magic. I was surprised when she referenced as an example The Code Name Verity Effect, because while I do think we experienced the sympathetic magic of CNV, it wasn’t exactly in the way Wein describes.
In what we coined the “Code Name Verity Effect”, objects, phrases, and places associated with the book gained a certain “cool” status they did not previously possess. At the very basic level, we developed a “secret sympathy” for ordinary items like egg cups and combat boots because they reminded us of Code Name Verity. It was like being in on a secret, delightful. But those vintage egg cups and RAF issue boots didn’t make us feel any closer to Julie and Maddie, or make these characters any more real. Instead, reading about egg cups and combat boots in CNV made us want to geek out over egg cups and combat boots as they exist in our world. Simply put, if Maddie enjoyed eating an egg served in an egg cup, maybe I would, too.
Same idea with flying over the Pennines and visiting the Holy Island Seals. Before reading CNV, we didn’t even know they existed. But once we learned about them from Maddie and Julie, the strength of their (or Wein’s) narrative made these places seem special in and of themselves. It’s Wein’s writing that makes us feel an affinity for the seals, not the seals that increase our affinity for Maddie or Julie. Sympathetic magic, the other way around.
I’m trying to think of a case in my reading experience where Wein’s application of sympathetic magic–ordinary objects, made special from a treasured book, brought me closer to the world of the book–and I keep drawing a blank. I was too old to hope for a Hogwarts letter on my eleventh birthday when I read Harry Potter for the first time. And no amount of Bertie Botts Every Flavor merchandising will make me less of a Muggle. But a real world experience that allows me to relate better to a fictional character–I suppose that connects me to a fictional world more effectively than any object.