The Warding Power of Language: Words as Protective Spells

James Walpole/ November 21, 2018


In fairy/fantasy stories and ancient myths the ideas of warding spells abound. In fact and fiction, magical men and women routinely spells cast upon people, places, and things to keep away evil. These spells can even grant new power to their objects.

Consider the protective spells cast around Hogwarts or the charms placed on magical objects in the Harry Potter books, or the wards placed to resist the dead in Sabriel. The idea goes further: growing up in an evangelical Christian context, I even was taught that knowing and reciting certain scripture could protect me when I was tempted to evil (less effective than advertised but still helpful from time to time).

As fantastic as all of these stories are, they carry a fundamental truth: words (and what are spells but words?) have power – power so great that it might be called “spiritual” and so profound it might be indistinguishable from magic.

Of course, the power of words expresses itself differently in our world. Words don’t *actually* ward away evil. They can’t *actually* control people, destroy enemy armies, or restore kingdoms. And yet the change minds, stop mobs, and transform countries all the time.

I’ve written about this before – but writers are just less exciting versions of sorcerers.

There is great power to new words. New words can change the world. Think of them as the “creative spells”, or the “offensive spells.” “All men are created equal” is one of these that is still at work in our culture.

But what our world can forget is the value of recitation and the memory of old words of the humanities. The literature (and movies, and plays, and poems, and history) we inherit contains the “warding spells,” or “protective spells.” That’s because the literature we inherit contains the memory of human experience. And the memory of human experience is the best defense against repeated evil.

Think of all the stories you have read, all the characters who were so like you and who still fell to evil and despair. Think about all the characters who were so like you and still chose truth, goodness, and beauty. Think about what they said, or what was said to them, or what was said about them. These are your protective spells.

When you are stressed and afraid and in the moment, these pieces of wisdom from the human past can keep you on the right path – if you remember them.

If I’m tempted to lie, I might think of these lines from Jean Valjean in the musical Les Miserables:

“Who am I? Can I conceal myself forever more
Pretend I’m not the man i was before? And must my name until I die, be no more than an alibi? 
Must I lie? How can I ever face my fellow man? How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God I know, I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone, He gave me strength to journey on. . .” 

If I’m tempted to fear, I might recall the words of Aragorn in the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: 

“The day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship – but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of men comes crashing down – but it is not this day. This day we fight!” 

If I’m tempted to dwell on negativity, I might remember the words of St. Paul:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”


These are just some of the powerful “warding spells” offered by the humanities. And through repeated use and memorization, you can remember these words – in all their clarity – when fear and stress have otherwise ruled you.

Find the words that make you a better man or woman. Keep those words close to you. Memorize them if you can. Paint them or write them onto things. Surround yourself with words that have power and meaning for you.

You would be completely rational for doing so, and yet you’d also be in the line of a primitive tradition tens of thousands of years old. Words are weird like that. Words don’t follow your rules. But they will protect you if you honor and use them well.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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