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The magic in Outlander

Of course— It all begins with an unexplained phenomenon on which the entire story will rest: The passage through the stones and, therefore, through time.

However, can we be content to put Outlander in the fantastic category?

Attempts at explanations are almost non-existent, the coup de force being to establish that the legends are real.

So, should we finally classify Outlander in the Fantasy category?

No, of course, no more than we could limit it to romance or even a historical novel, and, for the record, this difficulty in classifying Outlander in a specific category almost prevented Diana Gabaldon from being published, so much so that booksellers have a compulsive need to store their works in very specific places in their shops.

So, what about the background of the story? What is the author’s bias? What should the reader and then the viewer expect?

* To simplify the analysis, I chose to stick mainly to the TV version. 

To be perfectly honest, this topic was born from a conversation I had with one of my sons, also a fan of the saga and who often spoke to me about «magic» in Outlander. I pointed out to him that I did not feel that there was really magic, but rather unexplained facts, the source of which we simply did not understand. 

After more than 3 hours of passionate debate, which allowed us to realize that on the whole we were in agreement, I thought it was interesting to invest this topic. 

 

So that’s how it all starts. 

Twentieth-century couple Frank and Claire Randall offer a second honeymoon trip to the wild Highlands after World War II. She’s beautiful, he’s a tad irritating, but we just want to like her because she seems in love. Of course, as we are in deep Scotland, the legends are evoked with simplicity: the blood on the doors, Halloween, ghosts, reading the lines of the hand by Mrs Graham. So far, nothing very surprising. Everyone knows that it is a people attached to its legends that many authors have inspired. 

 

Yet, very soon, we are confronted with an unexplained phenomenon, what we will name, the ghost of Inverness* and which, believe it or not, is most certainly the scene that has caused the most ink to flow on social networks! 

 

* I wrote a post about it here -> The Inverness Ghost 

Frank Randall returns one stormy evening to the inn where the couple is installed and, under the window of the room, where we guess that Claire is busy brushing their hair, a man is there, observing him attentively .
Frank approaches him asking if he needs help, but the man turns around and disappears as if by magic. We barely have time to notice his strong build, his Scottish outfit and a gray beret screwed on his head. 

Frank joins Claire and tries to explain what happened. It is obviously very shaken but it does not seem to be formalized. We move on and the subject is never mentioned again. 

 

This is typical of how Diana Gabaldon distills the inexplicable in her story. A fact, a reaction, and sometimes a questioning, but it stops there. The fantastic serves its history and not the other way around. 

 

We forget all the more quickly this phenomenon because, very soon after, the couple attend the dance of the druidesses around the standing stones of Craigh na Dun. It’s beautiful, it’s mesmerizing, all you want to do is get on board.... and then finally the sun rises and the druidesses become the women of the villages again, chatting joyfully as they leave the hill. 

Well, message received, no fantastic so, just an atmosphere charged with centuries-old beliefs and a propensity of the inhabitants to make them endure. 

But not in fact— The next day, when history had barely begun, and without any preparation for it, Claire Randall passed through the stones and was propelled into the 18th century of a Scotland under the yoke of the British army. And everything is accelerating. The encounter with the red tunics, including her husband’s grandfather, much less charming than the latter, then with Dougal’s men and finally, Jamie. 

Even though Claire’s thought keeps us in the search for a rational explanation, which will not last long... the main line of history is no longer the crossing of time, but: how to survive in this century without being able to explain where one comes from. 

So magically...we accept this new reality and everything in it. 

 

The author could have stuck to that. A woman crosses the centuries and finds love while trying to change the course of history. I’m sure we would have been satisfied with that. 

 

However, during an evening at Leoch Castle, the bard Gwillin sings the song of the woman of Balnain who speaks of a woman who crossed the stones, exactly like Claire. 

Surprisingly, there is no mention of the fact that this woman from the song, could be Claire. For who can come and tell his passage through time, if not a woman who came back a second time to say it? 

And above all, what a reversal of situation! Because here, from our point of view, it is no longer a legend become reality! But the reality, that of Claire, nourishing the legend 

Then comes the very confusing and yet charismatic Geillis Duncan. 

Who is she really? What are her secrets? Her powers? 

She could be only a healer a little eccentric of course, but very quickly we feel a paradoxical posture that gives the character a special aura. Scholar and yet attached to beliefs (the envoutement of Thomas Baxter), cautious and yet dancing naked at night around a fire, healer but just as poisonous. 

And then we learn that she is also a time traveler and everything could make sense! Except that Diana Gabaldon lets doubt about her. Because, of course, she comes from the future, but that is not enough to explain the nature of her powers, whether it be the fact of causing the death of Dougal’s wife (did she do it?) or forcing Young Ian to tell the truth (If it is tea, I want to know the mark!). Unless his knowledge comes from another time, whether it is future or past and that then poses a reality: There is no magic, just a knowledge that escapes us. 

In any case, without us even realizing it, the author announces that the passage of time will not only be an introductory data, but an integral part of history. 

It is subtly evoked, without ever imposing a posture on us. Everyone is free to translate, to get an idea, or even a reason. Everyone is free to rationalize or not. 

 

We then remain for a long time without evoking the fantastic, the story being entirely devoted to the horror that Jamie suffers in the shadow of the Wentworth prison then to his escape orchestrated by Claire and finally to their exile in France. 

It is there that we meet the wonderful master Raymond, apothecary of his state, but much more than that in truth, it does not take us long to understand him. 

Yet again, everything is suggested. How do you tell the difference between sleight of hand, illusionist talent or real magic powers? Especially as the character uses each other at his convenience to advance in a century where his head could very quickly land on the log. 

What about the sheep bones that appear in the cup? Of the stone that announces the presence of a poison? Her ability to heal Claire and bring her back to life? What about her ability to perceive the aura of others? Who is she? A time traveler? But what time exactly? 

What if the key is there! In the elasticity of a time that offers the traveler an unlimited knowledge? 

We won’t know, but the question is still hanging, and our gaze on Claire becomes different. 

Master Raymond disappears from history, but it is absolutely obvious that his story continues. 

As for Claire and Jamie, they finally leave Paris and return to Scotland to support the Jacobite cause. Once again, History takes the lead in the narrative and the fantastic returns to the background. 

 

We cross the road of Maisri, the seer of the infamous Simon of Lovat, who asks about the reality of the gifts of vision. Does she really have that power? Has she really, as she tells Claire, been able to change the future? Does she really see the executioner’s axe hovering over her master’s head? Or is it just an appropriation of what was to happen and what is likely to happen? 

The fact that Claire endorses the title of the White Lady and takes advantage of Maisri’s prophecy to announce it around, shows how much power belief can have as reality. Moreover, at that moment, no one finally knows whether or not Claire believes in the prophecies of the diviner. 

And to tell the truth, we do not have the time to ask ourselves this question because History in progress is palpable and cannot escape the inexorable advance of time. 

Culloden is inevitable, Claire has no choice but to leave this century of desolation to put her child to safety. She doesn’t know yet that it is necessary to have a gem to cross the stones, but fortunately, Jamie entrusted her with her father’s ring. 

Diana does not yet explain to us what she has already built, yet everything is intertwined and, in the inexplicable, everything is explained. 

During their 20 years of separation, magic seems to disappear from their lives, if not perhaps the appearance of Claire on the moor of Culloden as Jamie agonizes in the midst of the countless bodies of the Scots sacrificed. He sees the rabbit first, which could be the incarnation of a Bandruidh then Claire finally, as the White Lady who brings him back to life. (see topic legend) 

One can then wonder if magic can only subsist at a time when not everything has to be validated by science! Does magic have to be tolerated to exist? 

Unless, of course, it’s just the feverish delirium of a wounded and desperate man. 

 

Yet, in the 20th century, Claire finds herself autopsying the skeleton of a woman who died in a Jamaican cave 200 years ago. A woman we now know to be Geillis, whom Claire will kill in the future, but in the past, which explains her intuition about the age of the dead and how she was killed. This intuition seems magical, almost divinatory finally, while it takes its source in the distortion of time whose existence we now know. 

It should be noted that this temporal observation, at this moment in history, does not seem to us as incongruous as it would have been at the very beginning. This is an essential data, both for the reader (or spectator) and for the protagonists: The acceptance of the incomprehensible must be built on the path of experiences, only then, everything takes meaning. 

 

Diana Gabaldon weaves her story like no other would do with a tapestry… point after point, link after link… each holding the other, each bringing the other. 

So, Claire goes back to the 18th century with the man she loves. 

Crossing the stones then becomes a decided act of which she knows the constraints: the date, the possession of a gem, having in mind the person we want to join. 

Accepting the inexplicable is no longer enough, it requires a knowledge associated with it so that it can be achieved. All of a sudden, the fantastic acquires a pseudo scientific knowledge and comes out of the simple legend. 

 

Just arrived, here Claire is again confronted with a person holding a magical power, the guesser Margareth Campbell. After all, since we have reached a time when scientism is not predominant, magic can be expressed again. 

If the divinatory gifts of Margareth Campbell can leave doubtful during their first meeting, they are no doubt as they find her in Jamaica. 

Abandawe exists, Brianna is in danger. 

But then, does this mean that the prophecy she proclaims when she is in possession of the three sapphires of Geillis’s treasure is also real? And if so, how could Brianna’s death affect the coronation of a Scottish king? 

Now Diana takes not only the time she tells us the story, but also a future we imagine the articulation of, when it comes from an invented reality. Hats off to the artist. 

As always, whatever the century, time continues its inexorable course and here we are in 1767 in the British colonies of the nascent America, in North Carolina more exactly. 

Claire and Jamie are looking in the backcountry forests for a place where they can finally build their home. A storm breaks out, Claire gets lost and meets the ghost of Otter’s Tooth. 

Even if this does not give us much more explanation, we cannot overlook the fact that the ghost of Inverness also showed himself on a stormy evening. 

 

Having said that, Dent de Loutre is a stacker, if I may say so. Ghost certainly, but before that, time traveler as evidenced by the fillings of the dentition of his skull and as confirmed by the history of the Mohawk Indians. Even if the ghost of Otter’s Tooth says nothing. He is the repository of a story, his skull and his opal can testify to it. 

 

In a certain way time does not care about the death of the travellers and it carries in it to the soul, or at least the memory of their existence. Isn’t that finally what Jamie suggests to Claire when he tells her that his love has nothing to do with death? That he’ll like it after his body’s gone? 

It is here, it seems to me, that we must ask ourselves to reflect on what differs the magic of enchantment, illusion, belief, or even religion. 

 

For Dougal’s men, Claire was immediately considered a druid. In a white shirt in the heart of the forest, not fearing men and possessing a healer’s knowledge, it cannot be anything else! What she proposes does not exist for them, however, is it magic? 

Geillis, her potions and her incantations can pass as a witch and it is not her many husbands to whom she took her life that will contradict us! Yet when one looks at it more closely, when one observes the richness of the research which it has carried out on the passages through the stones and which it has gathered very precisely in its notebooks, we can easily imagine that it has nourished itself with a knowledge beyond our reach and whose implementation can, even in our eyes, pass as witchcraft! 

As for Master Raymond, what does he finally do if not put to work the extent of his knowledge that we imagine almost infinite! Sleight of hand, knowledge of remedies and poisons, and most certainly of the human body, with, why not, a magnetizer talent. Are we treating 21st century magnetizers as sorcerers? 

Of course, the central question of time remains. 

 

During our conversation, my son suggested to me that world history might have been thrown at once, like a finished picture that would not depend on time. A flat story where we could draw lines from one place to another, from one moment to another, from one reality to another. From start to finish, everything would already be registered. 

 

Maybe that’s all the world is about. A painting with dimensions that escape us, what some call fate and which would explain that despite their will, neither Claire, nor Geillis, nor Dent de loutre could change the story, except for a few scattered touches, some small brushstrokes to the right and left that do not change the nature of the painting. 

 

Perhaps this is the vision, a step back enough to have access to other parts of the picture. 

And what we call time travel, would then be only an extension of his vision of the world 

Valérie Gay-Corajoud