Materiality and Magic: The role of physical materials in the magic of R F Kuang's Babel

Materiality and Magic: The role of physical materials in the magic of R F Kuang's Babel
Photo by Michael Dziedzic / Unsplash
Note: This is a blog post, not an extensive piece of academic research. Some areas are looser than others, but I hope you enjoy it as a way to think about magic and materiality in fiction.


I wish to start with a statement of positionality. I'm a white person and I have spent the last several years studying the magical systems of cultures that are not my own. I'm also British. I grew up in a society that doesn't teach its children the truth about the legacy of the country in which they live. This legacy is alive and well and felt all over the globe.

You know why I'm writing this? I'm writing this because objects fascinate me, especially ancient ones. Even if the object wasn't originally magical, it feels magical when I encounter it now.

This isn't a review of Babel. Plenty of people have already written and spoken very capably about it, so I didn't feel the need to add more words to that. However, as I was reading, I was very intrigued by Kuang's magical system, especially the silver bars. Effectively, what I'd like to do here is explore the book and its magical system from the perspective of my specialism, which is the materiality of magic.

This is what I'm doing with my PhD, y'all.

Some of what I'm writing here is a deep appreciation for Kuang's work, especially the subtleties of how she uses the materiality of magic to explore issues of colonialism. I know, I know. Babel is meant to be all about language, isn't it? Well, yeah, but also... No, I don't think it is. I think, in fact, one thing Babel does particularly well is use the materiality of magic to explore colonialism.

Even if Kuang didn't intend the book to be read that way, this is a great place to start when considering the importance of materiality in considering the impact of colonialism on individuals, cultures, and countries. This is something I will have to come back to at a later point, in another post. I will touch on it here, but the main focus of this post is going to be about exploring the idea that physical materials are far more important to understanding Babel than it might at first seem.

Do materials matter?

Let's start by confronting a statement made by Professor Playfair at the moment when Robin and the rest of the cohort during their first tour of the eighth floor of the tower:

"Not at all," said Professor Playfair. "You're in the place where magic is made. It's got all the trappings of a modern university, but at its heart, Babel isn't all that different from the alchemists' lairs of old. But unlike the alchemists, we've actually figured out the key to the transformation of a thing. It's not in the material substance. It's in the name."

When I first read this line, I was obviously deeply offended as an academic of materiality. I took Playfair at his word, that this was what he meant. I hate to admit how long it took me to twig that it's entirely likely that this was deliberate. After all, if the students, three of whom are from Britain's then-colonies and well-versed in the damage the empire was doing to their cultures, people, and countries, are more focused on words than they are on substances, they might be less likely to immediately question the pressure Britain applies in order to ensure it is able to control his vital material resource.

I do love it when an academic says something like that. My curiosity was immediately piqued. There's a lot to unpack here, not least that the whole book is, on the surface, all about language. Indeed, the magical system is, on the surface at least, set up around translation and the tension between words in different languages never quite having the same meaning.

If you love etymology (and I do), then Babel is the book for you. In Babel, magical things happen if you can combine two words from different languages that have a relationship to each other, but not a precise translation. These are called "match-pairs". If you've spent any time translating between languages (and I have), you'll know how difficult it can be to find the right word to convey all the meaning and sense of a word from one to another.

Sidebar: Any Classicists in the room who were there for Intensive Latin 1 and 2 will especially appreciate some of the jokes about Ciceronian Latin translation.

The physical material supporting the words themselves clearly has some significant, perhaps amplificatory effect on the tension between the match-pairs. As Playfair then goes on to explain:

He lowered the bars. "Many of the cheaper bars you see around London don't last quite as long. Very few of them are actually silver all the way through. More often, they're just a thin sheen of silver coating over wood or some other cheap metal. they run out of charge in a matter of weeks, after which they need to be touched up, as we put it."

The combination of physical material (silver) and the culture (language, people, history) is critical to both the magic of Babel and the survival of the empire. This applies both in the book and in the real world. As Griffin explains to Robin early on:

"You've noticed by now that London sits at the centre of a vast empire that won't stop growing. The single most important enabler of that growth is Babel. Babel collects foreign languages and foreign talent the same way it hoards silver and uses them to produce translation magic that benefits England and England only."

On reading this, I suspected that Kuang wanted to point out that cultures and languages are as much stolen as physical materials, resources, from the colonised. I find it especially effective that both purity of physical materials and dynamism of language are required for this magic to work. The hunt for words to make effective match-pairs consumes in the same way that, in the real and imagined world of Babel, physical resources like silver are stolen from colonised countries.

The British Empire in Babel is especially concerned with collecting languages that will enable them to maintain their magical dominance. They do this through both the acquisition of both material and human-linguistic resources as possible.

In Babel, cultural artefacts, expressed in terms of words from the languages of the colonised, are deemed as vital as what we usually consider to be "physical matter"—raw resources like gold, diamonds, oil, gas, and now lithium and rare earth elements.

I agree entirely with her point that we should not forget the role of cultural appropriation in the process of colonisation and oppression. What I'm really emphasising here is how bound together the physical and what we often think of as "non-physical" resources. This is why, after all, there have been so many calls for European and Western countries more generally to return the physical cultural resources of countries they once colonised.

Anyway, back to Professor Playfair. Everything I've described so far suggests that Babel's magic system is all about words, Playfair was right, we can all go home. Except no, there's more to this than meets the eye. In order to be effective, these "match-pairs" must be written on silver bars.

Not gold, not lead, but silver. In the period I study, gold and lead are the most common choice of support* for words and phrases intended to have a magical effect. I do have a couple of procedures that feature protective amulets for use during rituals to Selene** which, possibly predictably, use silver.

The role of silver

Silver makes for an excellent non-magical choice, of course, because of its importance as a material at the time (Hills 2021). In a recent study, Helen Hills has used the silver trade to explicitly examine the materiality of colonialism in the case of the Spanish Empire (Ibid 6). As she says,

Baroque silver held peculiar significance as material of sacred and liturgical objects, marker of social niceties and refinement, as engine of the commodity frontier of the Spanish empire, and as justification for calculated exploitation and cruelty. (Hills 2021, 6).

In Babel, Kuang applies the same theoretical approach to the (fictional) case of silver in the British Empire. The objects created in Babel are magical in a practical sense rather than a material with explicit religious connotations, but by doing this, Kuang strips silver and empire of their mystique. Magic can and is be a subject of and weapon of imperialism and its capitalist underpinnings.

Silver matters. We know from elsewhere in the book that the words don't work unless they're written on these silver bars. The silver must be as pure as possible. Obviously, then, Playfair is wrong. He can chatter on about the unimportance of material substance all he likes, but throughout the book, it's reiterated that silver is critical to making this magic effective.

During a session learning about the process of making a magical silver bar, Professor Playfair undermines his earlier statement by commenting on the importance of the quality of the silver itself:

"How do the bars work if a fluent speaker must be present?" Victoire asked. "Shouldn't they lose their effect as soon as the translator leaves the room?"
"Very good question." Professor Playfair held up the first and second bars. Placed side by side, the second bar was clearly slightly longer than the first. "Now you've raised the issue of endurance. Several things affect the endurance of a bar's effect. First is the concentration and amount of silver. Both these bars are over ninety per cent silver—the rest is a copper alloy, which is used often in coins—but the triacle bar is about twenty per cent larger, which means it'll last a few months longer, depending on the frequency and intensity of use."

In a further section of the book, we see that the quality of the silver plays a strong role in how effectively the magic between the words will work, and how long the activated magic can be expected to work. During his individual project (the equivalent of an undergraduate dissertation), Robin must shadow Professor Chavravarti as he visits various private residences to re-activate or repair their various silver bars.

Now, because I've also been working on the repairing of magical objects as part of my thesis, I'm actually going to come back to that section of the book separately. However, it is important to note here that there is a continuing relationship between Babel and the wider imperial world. Objects are not merely pushed out into the world; they must be maintained (at a cost), ensuring that everyone remains entirely dependent on these objects to work.

These silver bars are made with the finest, purest silver and can be expected to last much longer than cheaply-made bars available at markets in London. In other moments, we see Robin and his friends visiting a market selling cheap bars that can't be expected to work with the same level of effectiveness or for the same length of time. Kuang is, of course, making a point about the real-world fixation on the purity of materials, but it does reveal the lie in Playfair's words. Again, I'll come back to this in another post, because I love looking at how repairing a magical object is actually important.

There is something powerfully magical in silver that amplifies and holds the words in place. The bars are positioned in places where they can most effectively exert power over the other objects they control. Silver bars intended to make a taxi cab run smoothly must be placed in the body of the taxi itself. When Robin commits murder, he not only speaks the word required to kill, but also ensures the bar touches the body upon whom the words must work. Once again, I've actually written a separate piece on the role of words in Babel, because there's more to add here. However, for now, we have to acknowledge that the words and the materials on which they are written cannot be separated.


Throughout reading Babel, I haven't been able to decide whether I think Professor Playfair is being deliberately and consciously obfuscatory by claiming that the materials don't matter. I read the first quote here over and over again, trying to work out whether he was blind to the influence of the silver in the power of Babel. I don't think we'll ever know (unless Kuang calls me, and I'm totally up for that, I'd love to talk with her about her work here).

However, what I love about Babel is that Kuang does an excellent job demonstrating how both physical and cultural materials are an essential feature of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. One approach to reading Playfair is that he doesn't realise that the material matters, because he's the kind of academic obsessed with words.

Another way to view it is that he's being disingenuous; Playfair knows how critical silver is to the maintenance of Babel and the British Empire's power, and its necessity as part of the magical system that maintains both. He is trying to maintain the illusion that the only thing that matters is the language. A surface read of the general atmosphere in the tower suggests that culture is ephemeral and because it cannot be held or touched as an object, it can be used without being damaging to the originators of that culture.

This is another way to view Playfair. Words can be spoken or written as much as a person wants. Languages can be learnt by anyone, regardless of background—although, as someone who's tried to learn Xhosa, it can be physically difficult to learn unfamiliar sound forms. Therefore, the words only become materially significant and magically powerful when they are written on the silver bars.

But that's a circular problem, and brings us back to the significance of physical materials to the magic system in Babel. However, we read Playfair (or anyone else who makes similar statements in the real world), is that the non-physical aspects of culture (language, thought, etc.) cannot be separated from material culture (the objects and materials that make them).

On whatever level we read Playfair, we have to acknowledge that he's wrong. If you ever wanted a demonstration of the inseparability of magic from the materials and objects carrying that power, then Babel has it. The silver is vital. The book's crisis and climax is about the silver; the book itself underlines the lie in Playfair's words. Silver enables the magic the British Empire uses to control the rest of the world and ensure its dominance.

OK. I've offered a lot of foreshadowing to future posts. I've written a lot on the materiality of speech and how magical objects are repaired in Babel, which is another of my special interests. I'll come back to these subjects in future weeks.

*"Support" is the technical term we use to describe the material we put words on, whether magical or not. Paper, parchment, papyrus, gold, lead, or silver. It's all a "support".

**Selene being the goddess of the moon, silver having a similar colour; in the same way, gold and Helios are often linked.


Kuang, R F (2022) Babel: An Arcane History. Harper Voyager.

Hills, H. (2021) "Colonial Materiality: Silver’s Alchemy of Trauma and Salvation." Medium Study. MAVCOR Journal 5, no. 1. doi: 10.22332/mav.ess.2021.6.