Monday, August 13, 2012


In another minute there was no letter; but, as with every other relationship in my life, an eschar of ashes. The word is rare, but exact.

This sentence comes fairly near the end of John Fowles' The Magus, which  my reading group recently set me to reading. I won't spoil it for you by giving you the context--this is more by way of saying that I don't typically just pull random words from the linguistic universe, but do actually come across them, however unusually. I like this sentence too, because it says better than I would why I think we should seek out these rare words and pin them down for ourselves. It is because sometimes they are singularly apt. They say the thing better than we would have said them without them.

That said, though, I really have no idea what an eschar is, and context here doesn't especially help me. Obviously, there is a burnt letter and what remains is ash. But I have no idea what that ash looks like afterwards. Is it a little mound? Or something flatter? Does eschar have anything to do with charring, or is the fact of it being ash in this case irrelevant?

What? You can't wait to find out either?

Then here we go.


Ah--not char but scar is the key relation here. An eschar is dead tissue that the body casts off, like a scab, but one particularly related to burning. It's also used in the context of gangrene and things like necrotic spider bites. So in Fowles' sentence, the eschar is the dead tissue of the letter. It doesn't matter what shape it takes.

In Ancient Greek, eschara  or ἐσχάρα meant scab, but it also meant hearth or brazier. So Fowles' use is not only apt, but rather brilliant. There is the burnt letter, the eschar of ashes, but the letter has also created a scar or scab on our protagonist. It is burnt in the fireplace. And the story also happens to be set in Greece. You could say "too clever by half", but this is a throwaway, and the story suffers not one whit if you don't happen to notice it. Which I have to admit, I didn't.

Caine, Bergen and Quinn in the movie


  1. I had never heard even the rumor of this word.

  2. Me neither. I'm not sure how I'd rate The Magus as a whole, but I appreciate Fowles throwing eschar in in any case.

  3. Hmm, so in a novel of 60,000 or 80,000 or 100,00 words, at least one is good?

  4. He's a very able writer and this wasn't the only word I didn't know, but it was the only one I thought to take note of. Fowles obviously had many gifts, I just wish I understood what he was driving at a little better than I do.