25 September 2007

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Wand?

The first Maguffin in Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard is a pen. To be fair, it's the heroine Nita's favorite pen: "Her space pen, a present from her uncle Joel, the pen that could write on butter or glass or upside down, her pen with which she had never failed a test, even in math. . . . Silver barrel, grooved all around the lower half to keep the user's fingers from slipping. Her initials engraved on it. Hers, her pen."

Around the time Nita learns she can be a wizard, the leader of a gang of girls who regularly beats up on her steals this pen. So naturally Nita's first thought of how to use her magic is to get her pen back.

That brings her in contact with Kit, another young wizard, who agrees to help. They conjure up Fred, a small portion of a white hole from another dimension, who also wants nothing more than to help retrieve the pen. It is, after all, a space pen.

Fred sucks the pen away from the bully, but it goes down the wrong way, causing him to belch up bits of inexplicable matter, such as a fighter plane and gold bricks. The only way Nita and Kit can help their new extradimensional friend--and retrieve her pen--is to go into the neighborhood's requisite spooky house.

That house turns out to be the home of a nice same-sex couple who tell the kids they have to go into Manhattan with Fred and, at precisely the right time and place, read another spell. Then and only then will Nita have her pen. (There may well be stationery stores in Manhattan or on the way that stock the same pen, but that possibility doesn't arise.)

In Manhattan, unscheduled construction has changed the only location where Nita can get her pen out of Fred. That spot is now hovering in the air above Grand Central station, higher than the Pan Am Building. So Nita, who's only been a wizard for about a week, decides to create a staircase out of air up to the sweet spot, heights or no heights. Then when she and Kit are halfway up, some werewolves roar after them and they have to choose whether to duck through their portal into another reality.

Meanwhile, I'm yelling at the book, "It's a PEN! It's JUST a PEN!"

To Duane's credit, near the end of the adventure Nita uses her pen to do a crucial bit of magic. She's not writing on butter or glass or upside down, but the pen doesn't simply disappear from the plot when it's back in her pocket.

Thematically, the pen also fits into the book's overarching theme of the power of books and reading. In the very first scene, Nita takes refuge in a library. Copies of a book titled So You Want to Be a Wizard snag the two kids into magic, and contain the spells they must read. The older wizards also consult books. The two Maguffins that follow the pen are The Book of Night with Moon and The Book Which Is Not Named (But Is At Least More Grammatical). So a writing implement has extra importance in this universe.

Still, it's just a pen.


Monica Edinger said...

Or maybe just a cigar?

pussreboots said...

I agree with you about the pen but I do remember being overly attached to things at that age. Plus I so loved the alternate New York that I was able to ignore the annoying pen plot device. :D

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I, too, remember feeling irrationally attached to my fountain pen at around Nita's age since in my mind it represented something vital about myself.

Still, it was just a pen.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Maybe the pen provided an excuse for adventure for the characters as well as the author.