When I first saw that Holdfast were having a talisman themed issue, I immediately imagined pentagrams, cauldrons, magic powders, shamans, priests, witches, golden medals, amulets, mysterious purses, alchemy. And abracadabras! But then I wondered if my imagination was getting carried away with itself and if I really knew what a talisman was. So, I looked it up…
A talisman is defined as an object believed to have magical or sacramental properties and which provides good luck or protection from harm and/or evil to the one who possesses the talisman. This sounds like quite a positive definition; but does the object truly contain such properties? Or is it actually the belief that it does that gives it these powers? Is a talisman a positive or a negative phylactery?
Talismans are often found in horror, fantasy and science fiction literature where the magical and supernatural are traditional and part of the worlds of the books. However, talismans also exist in classic literature where their properties – most commonly religious and sacramental - will serve as reflections, or may be the object of a quest.
For some authors, a talisman gets its powers from the material it is made of; for others, the amulet is powerful because of the image it holds.
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La peau de chagrin (The Magic Skin or The Wild Ass Skin), a 1831 novel by French novelist Honoré de Balzac, was subtitled Conte philosophique (Philosophical Tale) and is part of Balzac’s sequence of novels, La comédie humaine, his philosophical studies (Etudes philosophiques).
The novel is set in early nineteenth century Paris. Raphaël de Valentin is a young man who lost his money gambling and is so desperate that he considers suicide. He finds a magical piece of shagreen (a type of rawhide, traditionally made from a horse’s back) that can fulfill his desires but which, as a consequence, consumes his life. For each granted wish, the leather skin shrinks and consumes a portion of its owner’s physical energy.
In the fantasy novel The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, a young boy, Jack Sawyer embarks on a journey to a parallel universe where people are 'twins' of those from our world to find a powerful talisman. He needs it to save his mother, who is dying from cancer. Her 'twin' is the Queen of the parallel world, and so she will also be saved if Jack can find it. Jack is the chosen one, the only one who can see through good and evil in both worlds and bring back the talisman that could save his mother.
More than the object itself (in fact, we are mostly told about the powers that the talisman has, rather than what it actually is) – it is faith that gives it powers. I felt like the quest to find the talisman and the adventures the boy faced during this journey in the real and the parallel worlds are what gave powers to the talisman. No matter what monsters Jack Sawyer confronts to get the talisman, he has faith and is certain of its magical attributes. In fact, it is his last resort to save his mother. The belief that the talisman can save her is so much more acceptable than her death…
The piece of shagreen is Raphaël’s talisman, giving him success and acquired fortune. However, who really owns who? While material wealth is granted with each wish, his health declines accordingly. The piece of shagreen is possessed and possesses at the same time. Could success and fortune have been acquired through hard work and effort and without the magic skin? But Raphaël had lost hope. He did not have the energy to act upon anything , until he found this fetish. We do not know if the magic skin is powerful because of a real, true, force or because it was a symbol of hope for the hero? Was the skin a metaphor for its owner’s body? The talisman here is certainly used as a pretext to a philosophical reflection: nothing can be acquired without effort. “He who takes it slow and steady goes a long way.” And this is what Raphaël learns: fortune regardless of the means to make it is not the way to happiness. The moral of the tale still resonates centuries later.
The sacramental dimension of the talisman exists in King and Straub’s Talisman. The healing powers of the magical item are mythical and mystical. And while heroes are usually protected by a talisman when they go on a quest, in this novel, the magical orb that is the object of this book is the “reward” of the quest. The protective qualities of the amulet are not desired for the hero’s own personal use but are sought to heal a sick loved one. Jack had to prove his value to the talisman. By showing his inner strength he is rewarded when he finds the pink orb of energy that will save his mother.
In this case, magical powers are “paid for” by the hero’s courage and perseverance. Challenges and pain are rewarded when the talisman is found. It is the hero’s journey that gives the talisman so much more value and power because the challenge was accepted and met.
In The Talisman by Lynda La Plante, the second volume of a series of novels, the focus is on a golden necklace won in a boxing fight. Although it should have been buried with its owner as gypsy tradition dictates, it was kept by the family in case of a rainy day. Passed on to descendants as a family heirloom, the talisman became becomes both the key to the family fortune as well as its curse.
So from one literary genre to another, a talisman is either the symbol of what one could be or achieve; the retribution for what was overcome or the curse one has to overpower.
But are talismans actually positive or negative phylacteries? In fact, the perception of a talisman as a good/positive lucky charm or a bad/negative one is related to the powers the talisman holds as much as how one obtains it. Somehow, it feels like a talisman is timeless. The promise of future fortune and success can also be an ominous omen when beliefs and traditions are not abided by. In fact, talismans are a reflection of the saying about happiness being a journey and not a destination. They are what their owner or seeker will make out of them