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Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Moon's Malady

I've just finished reading Stephen Donaldson's First Chronicle of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. It's taken me about 29 years to finish it, which is approximately a tenth of a page a day. OK, I'm being silly. I started reading it age 12, when I was looking for a book as 'cool' as LOTR and I got through about two chapters of leper-laden woe and thought 'feck this' and went out and bought a Conan book instead.

It can't be described as an easy read. The main character is very difficult to warm to, not least because of a rape scene in the middle of book one. Moreover the prose is very dense in places with adjectives that would keep the grammar goblin happy well into the night, unlike me who tends to fall asleep reading in bed with big words (until the book hits my head and wakes me up).

But one theme I found interesting is the idea that Covenant, the main character, is in a world that he denies. Throughout the book you ponder whether it is his delusion that you are reading about, although we find it easier to believe in the Land than Covenant does. The doubt is fuelled by him flipping back to our world at the end of each book, usually with an injury that correlates with whatever hurt him in the Land. This idea has sort of been done to death now, although to my mind the perfect version of it was Life On Mars/ Ashes to Ashes.

I digress. What fascinated me was the concept of delusion in a world of fantasy. It fascinates me because it is a key theme in my own fantasy series. When I was devising the plot for the trilogy I wanted some spin on the fantasy setting that would feel fresh, perhaps a little different. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to have the main character suffer with a psychiatric condition, and from there it sort of grew to include a few other characters. I couldn't recall many fantasy books I'd read where there was mental illness as a theme beyond the odd psychopathic persona (and you'd argue whether psychopathic traits are psychiatric illnesses or severe personality disorders). A quick web-search didn't pull up many, so I thought 'let's go with this.'
The idea that evolved was that the type of magic that the heroine Emelia utilises, Wild-magic, is a kind of psychic phenomenon. the magic involves telekinesis, pyrokinesis, some telepathy etc. So I thought, 'What if the magic of the mind also produces a disorder of it?' In Emelia's case she develops a bipolar type condition--manic-depression--with some degree of delusional thought processes. Like 'real' bipolar disorder it fluctuates, not only between hypomania and depression, but in its intensity and how much it compromises her life. In Volume One it is mainly the depression and the delusions we see (especially in the finale); in volume two (out perhaps later in year) we get a far more florid appearance of her condition, with hypomania and quite marked depression. The impact this has on her and her friends is key to the plot and I hope that I have written it well enough to reflect the distress of the condition.

This left me with consideration of how i would portray the other Wild-mages in the book. The biggest difficulty was Jem, who is a major character and Emelia's mentor. I needed him to have a degree of stability and order in his make-up as Jem is all about rigidity and control in his life. Clearly a fervent mania wasn't right for him, nor a florid schizophrenia.

In the end I settled on obsessive-compulsive disorder for Jem. OCD is something that is often made light of-- after all, most of us have little 'obsessive' traits that infiltrate our lives. For my part I am a bit of a checker--I can't leave the house (especially on holiday) without checking all the doors are locked, to the point I have turned around on my way to work to come back. But this is mild, insignificant compared to 'real' OCD.

OCD is remarkably common--about 2% of the population suffer with it to some degree, and the profile has been raised by celebrity sufferers like David Beckham (and Samuel Johnson and Howard Hughes in the past). I saw a number of cases when I worked in Psychiatry, mainly co-existent with depressive illness, but one sticks in my mind beyond all others. It was a patient whom I met in Canada. He had a huge number of obsessions and compulsions, and some times the individual ones would compete within him and he would become 'frozen' , like when your computer is given too much to do at once. I recall finding him stood before a doorway once, unable to pass through yet unable to step back. For him medication was only a beginning, it was cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) that helped to unravel his condition.

Would OCD fit into a fantasy world? Well it was probably around in the olden days anyway--I imagine, along with other conditions such as schizophrenia, it was regarded as possession. You can visualise the effect admitting to compulsive thoughts to expose oneself in church would go down in Purtian times. Quick trip to the Exorcist. (As an aside Jean Foucault proposed, in Madness and Civilisation, that in the olden days we were far more acceptant of mental illness and it was the development of rationalists (and Victorians) that created the stigmatisation of mental illness). In my fantasy world, Jem copes with his OCD via discipline and meditation, which was taught him by a Galvorian monk. He practises his own CBT and calming techniques, although his traits emerge at stressful times (such as the checking and need for cleanliness). In volume II (book 3) we get to see how he reacts to a trip into the swamp and by book 5 we can see him cleaning his environment utilising his magical abilities.

Mental illness and psychiatric conditions are far more prevalent in the modern world than we give credit for. Most of us have either experienced or had close friends who have suffered from one or more such problems and have insight into the impact they can have on lives for many years. I hope that by writing about them, even within fantastical settings, they can become a topic that become easier to discuss and think about.

As a last note, the title, the Moon's Malady, is a reference for how the girls that Emelia knows in her workplace think of mental illness: namely that it is linked to the lunar cycles. This was taken straight from our own world's history of understanding mental illness--for many years it was considered 'madness' was related to the moon, hence 'lunacy' as an archaic term. And the world I've just created has four moons--so if that hold any weight, the inhabitants of Nurolia will have to become far more relaxed about discussing it than we are as a society!


  1. Hi, this is Kate from

    I love the link here between magic and mental illness. I once played a similar character concept in an RPG whose magic and mental health were linked to the cycles if the moon so one increased as the other decreased.

    I really admire the fact you know what you're writing about to: if anything I think it's more important to get your science/psychology right in fantasy because you're creating a whole world that has to make logical sense, as opposed to just writing about the one we live in and accept as real.

    1. Thanks, Kate. You make a very valid point about fantasy writing. Getting 'rules' and 'realism' is paramount if fantasy is to be taken seriously as a work of literature. It has to withstand scrutiny.
      your DnD campaign sounds great! We had a magic-user in our campaign when we were younger who was a dipsomaniac, it was his 'price' for psionics. I think that acted as an inspiration for much of what i write.

  2. I think there's a natural fit here, too. Very interesting post--and thoughts about your writing.

    1. thanks, Jenny. I think it's a subject that touches a lot of nerves and I hope i manage OK with it in my work.