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This article is devoted to the various forms of magic used in Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings series of fantasy books.
Most of the magics detailed here appear to be, under normal circumstances, hereditary (although the Skill, at least, can be acquired through exceptional circumstances). None of them are magic of the sort used in, for example, the Harry Potter series, which requires the waving of a wand, and which changes the physical world; all of these magics are largely mental, and affect only the mind of the practitioner or those subject to the magic.
The Skill is one of the Superior Magics in the Realm of the Elderlings. It is a gift generally inherent in one's bloodlines: thus, it is generally found only in the northern coastlands of the Six Duchies, where the blood of the Outislanders and the original inhabitants was mixed many hundreds of years before, and will often emerge spontaneously in children whose families are derived from the area. The magic is particularly inherent in the Royal Farseer line, leading it to be labelled as 'The Royal Magic'. However, the discovery by FitzChivalry Farseer and The Fool, that the Skill was a small part of the ingrained abilities of all dragons, led the Fool to suggest that Skilled Ones were descendants of 'Dragon Friends', those who had interacted and lived in close proximity to dragons (which appears to be borne out by Selden Vestrit, a dragon friend who has gained through his closeness to the dragon Tintaglia some measure of Skill himself, as well as undergoing physical alteration).
'Farseer', the name of the Six Duchies Royal Dynasty, is hinted as being derived from the Skill which winds through the dynasty bloodlines.
The Skill can also be found in highly concentrated physical forms, either as liquid deep within the ground, or as a solid substance lacing its way through memory stone. The memory stone is accordingly used by Skilled Ones (be they dragon, Elderling or Farseer servant), generally as a means of storing memories within the stone (although this process can be part of the creation of a physical creature from the stone). Skill pillars are also made of memory stone. The liquid form of the Skill is highly dangerous: only dragons can safely consume it, and any flesh touching it directly is scalded to the bone. When a person's flesh is coated in it, he or she will be capable of tracing the history of an object, or directly communing with another through means of touching their flesh with the Skill encrusted flesh; he can also carve memory stone with his fingers.
The Skill is a perilous and uncontrollable magic: it is addictive (the more a person Skills, and the more they absorb themselves in it, the more they desire to be Skilling even when not), and if a Skilled One is not sufficiently trained, he can lose himself in it, or even be persuaded to abandon himself to it. It also appears beautiful to the user: it is highly attractive, and to throw oneself into it is considered an act both of Supreme Foolishness and Supreme Ecstasy.
Uses of the SkillEdit
At its most basic level of use, the Skill can be used in two ways. Firstly, it allows two people to communicate directly using their minds, regardless of distance (according to the Skillmaster Galen, distance is irrelevant); secondly, it allows a Practitioner to sense what another person, Skilled or not, is thinking or feeling. The first, then, is derived from a common feature of fantasy and science fiction, namely telepathy, although the concept of distance being no issue is rather uncommon. The second derives from the equally staple fantasy and science fiction element of 'Mind Reading': it is hardly surprising then that this function of the Skill is similar to another contemporary example of Mind Reading, namely the art of Legilimency, which is practiced by a number of main characters in the Harry Potter series, for both are iterations of a very common feature of fantasy. Legilimency is cruder than the Skill, and there is no hint of a Legilimens being able to exercise the telepathic function of the Skill.
As a Skilled One (the general term used to describe a practitioner of the Skill) grows more trained and practiced in the Art, and as he or she gains more experience, then more abilities derived from the Skill become possible. A Skilled one can send a victim nightmares or comforting dreams, which are able to affect the mood and confidence of the unsuspecting victim; he can imprint a Skill command on a victim, that the victim cannot disobey, and which will not be ended until the victim is dead or the order completed; he or she can form a mental connection with a willing person, based on an initial physical touch, allowing the Skilled One to 'ride' with the volunteer as an audible but non-participating companion; she can seal a man or woman to the Skill, making it impossible for enemies to infiltrate the sealed one's mind; he or she can pull the vitality and resources of a body into their own, leaving the victim drained or dead; he can strike a man dead, or possess the body of a receptive person and act briefly through them; he or she can heal, hurt, cause pain or relief, and prolong the life indefinitely; the Skilled One can also take or remove memories. It is speculated that, for the most powerful of practitioners, the possibilities of the Skill are innumerable.
A person's ability to skill can be stunted and even obliterated by overindulgence in elfbark, a painkilling drug produced from the bark of the elf tree. In Assassin's Quest, Kettle, the ancient member of the small party which sets out to find Verity, alerts Fitz to this fact and considers it as a plausible explanation for the undeveloped and erratic skilling abilities of both Fitz and Verity. In Fool's End, the Pale Woman succeeds in blunting Fitz's ability to skill for some time when Fitz eats a cake which unbeknownst to Fitz and Prince Dutiful's party, was prepared by the Pale Woman with a large dosage of the drug mixed in.
It is expected that the training of a Skilled One must begin whilst the candidate is still young; however, the Skill appears learnable at any age (Serene, one of the members of Galen's Coterie, was in her twenties when she began training, yet was a powerful practitioner; Chade Fallstar began learning the art in his old age, yet eventually managed to become reasonably adept). Ideally, the Skillmaster and a coterie will arrange a 'Calling', in which the coterie will, together, call out to all those receptive to the Skill, and summon them to Buckkeep for training. The Skillmaster will have taken care to warn all towns and settlements in advance that a Calling will be made (to prevent those receptive being terrified or thinking themselves mad), but will not specify the exact date and time (to prevent hoaxers from easily claiming to have been Called). Those too weak or unreceptive to the Skill, for whatever reason, will be unlikely to hear the call, and thus will not go to Buckkeep.
Alternatively, a Skillmaster can take students he thinks may have Skill ability, either through blood or indications of it being so, and then attempt to train them regardless. It was a proud boast of Skillmaster Galen, who favoured this latter method (and who initially had no coterie with which to Call), that his students came to him as untalented and of poor ability, and that those he trained came to be able practitioners of the Skill (although FitzChivalry, who had suffered the man's training at first hand, suspected that most of the successfully trained pupils came to Galen as potentially gifted, and were ground down into competent tools). This allows the Skill master to expend training on those who may have potential, yet who haven't answered the Call (e.g. the candidate may have mental scarring due to a mental accident or bad experience, may have deliberately put up strong mental barriers against the Skill, or may be too closed minded and emotionally closed to be receptive), since he may in this way train a strong Skilled One. The method also allows the Skillmaster to justify the training of those who have not answered any Calling (generally those of the Royal Blood), and also allows the restriction of the Skill to those deemed worthy of training.
To Skill requires the mind to be open and receptive to the Skill: the practitioner must be willing to venture out of his mind, and to let others into his. Some Skilled Ones are naturally open (or at any rate have from early on naturally kept themselves open), and in such cases require immediate training on boundaries and control rather than on being open. Others, through exposure and contact with other Skilled Ones from an early age, are instinctively open because of this. Those who are neither, however, must be taught to be open.
There were two accepted methods of training a potential Skilled One. The first, favoured by Skillmaster Galen, largely involved brutalisation of the body, thereby making the mind desire to be elsewhere, and nullifying physical resistance. Under this method, the subjects would be expected to stand still in a cold place, with as few layers of clothing as possible (thereby reducing distractions), and to think of nothing for hours on end. When this has continued for a long period, and the Skillmaster believes he has found those most capable of Skilling, he begins to test the students for Skill ability, reaching out to their minds (which, due to the long period of grinding and brutalisation, are particularly receptive) and attempting to communicate with them.
The Wit is a magic used to bond with one animal, and communicate with others. Bonding in itself conveys numerous advantages: the senses of the bond beast can be used as one's own. The Wit also creates an 'awareness of life' which can be used to sense the location of nearby living things. It can also be used to repel people, halting them or forcing them backwards. It can also be used to soothe minds, as seen by Witmaster Web in Fool's Fate. Several more powerful applications are hinted at: healing mental disorders is one, and the Wit seems to be instrumental in raising the dead (though only when the soul has been preserved). When combined with the Skill, it can be used to create other effects, such as using the Wit to travel up a Skill line and physically injure the target, as seen in Royal Assassin. The stigma attached both to the Wit, and to its use in conjunction with the Skill, means that there is very little evidence as to the potential applications of using the two magics together.