Magic can stand in for a lot of things. It can symbolize trickery and deceit. It can represent art, healing, spectacle; it can be about loss, sacrifice, family and love. In epic fantasy, nearly always, the question about who has magic is nearly always a question of who wields power.
In the US, for the past sixty years most epic fantasies have been what my fellow reviewer Bill Capposere calls Restoration fantasies. Restoration in this case is a concept, not a time period in British history. In these stories, the political status quo is to be maintained or restored. There may be a usurper who needs to be overthrown, but the plucky young rebel with his rogue wizard mentor is not going to introduce a parliamentary system with democratic representation. No, he is going to be revealed as the True Heir. The system is just fine, thank you… we just need the right person at the top. Magic supports and enforces that system. It’s Maintenance mode.
Recently, fantasy writers have started exploring what Disruption fantasies might look like, They really do want to lose the monarchy and try a new system. Still the vast amount of stuff that’s out there is Maintenance mode fantasy and magic is complicit in maintaining the existing system.
Magic is often the weapon of the Good Kingdom, which is fighting an Evil Empire. Story tropes and language clue in-clue us quickly; the Good Kingdom’s practitioners are probably called “wizards,” not “sorcerers,” and they answer to the royal family. The Evil Empire has practitioners who probably sacrifice prisoners or hapless villagers as the source of their power. The power of the Good Kingdon wizards will probably not come from human sacrifice even though it is often exactly the same magic. The causes of the war are rarely addressed, or if they are, the Evil Empire has aggressed for no reason. The purpose of this plot is to allow the writer to engage in lots of battle magic.
Writers like N.K. Jemisin and Robert Jackson Bennett write great magical fantasies that put these old unquestioned assumptions under a bright light. Both question the aftermath of the “triumphant” final battle. How do you rebuild? How do you reassure a demoralized civilian population whose crops you’ve burned by mistake in your magical duel, whose businesses you’ve destroyed and whose families you’ve fractured? And make no mistake, that’s not the enemy’s population we’re talking about. Each of these writers in different ways uses magic to discuss exploitation, colonialism and trauma; trauma not only on a personal level but on a societal level as well.
These are some of the things magic is used for, but it’s nearly a universal that only certain people wield magic.
The Royal Wizard and the Hedge Witch
Wizards often represent a power elite and an educational elite; sometimes even a religious ruling class. There certainly are rogue wizards; “sorcerers” who decide to use their magic for selfish reasons, or who go over the evil for some reasons, and the more sympathetic rogue wizards who have a falling-out with the power elite and strike out on their own. A pretty common example is when the power structure is taken over by a usurper, (usually one with a quasi-legitimate claim, like a regent). The rogue wizard gets a bad feeling about this and heads out to the forest, a top of the mountain or a garret in the city, where he (almost always he) waits to find and assist the True Heir, or the True Heir comes to him for aid. This is still in service to the Maintenance model. Once again, we don’t see a lot of university-trained wizards becoming community organizers who help the dock-workers unionize for safety features and better wages.
If you’re self-taught or nearly self-taught, you are probably a hedge magician. Hedge witches and wizards are local practitioners, often attached to a village or some community. They do healing spells, protect the crops and generally help out. A hedge witch may (usually does in fantasy) choose a servant who really is the person they are initiating. Just like wizards, hedge-witches can go bad; cursing people and extorting benefits from the townsfolk.
A variation on the hedge witch, nearly always female, is the old woman who lives in the woods. Often this character can wield as much power as a wizard, but she keeps to herself. She often doesn’t choose sides in a dispute, or it might be more accurate to say she’s on her own side.
One of these is homespun and somewhat egalitarian; the other is hierarchical, but they share many elements. One is simply the idea that not everyone is magical.
The idea that magic is rare, limited and only available to the elite smells a little bit like capitalism to me. Or maybe marketing. I’m going to digress a minute. Diamonds are expensive gemstones. For years, diamond sellers have told us they are rare. In fact, they’re just not that rare. The diamond cartel decided in the 1940s to limit the diamond supply so they could drive the price up. Diamonds are so common in fact that millions of them a year are used industrially; no one frets about an industrial diamond shortage.
What if magic isn’t rare? What if you didn’t have to be a Chosen One to use it? What if, in your society, everyone had access to to some of it? It could be like music. You’ d have the rare genuine virtuoso. You’d have the passionate magician who has talent, maybe not a lot of it, but works and trains until by sheer strength of will they succeed; you’d have the charismatic, attractive, slightly talented practitioner who relies on a magic version of Autotune to advance. And you’d have millions of people who do karaoke, hum while they’re folding laundry and sing in the shower. People would get together and create magical experiences communally to commemorate weddings, births, milestones, or just for fun. Old people would shake their head and say, “I can’t understand a thing they’re doing. I remember when magic was good.” Well, why not? Why wouldn’t that work?
The view of magic for a chosen few dovetails nicely with capitalism and colonialism, and it’s nice to see writers and readers starting to question that.
Lately I’ve come across several books that treat magic in yet a different way; as a dangerous intoxicant.
Just Say No
Since the 1990s, addiction and recovery have been huge themes in fiction, especially genre fiction. Magic is a natural drug. Think about it. It (theoretically) makes you powerful, or at least feel that way. Good magical systems in fiction require some kind of consequence; our general narrative about power is that people can’t handle it. What better metaphor than a practice that you become addicted to, that weakens you as it grows stronger? This has the side benefit of being a great plot device because you can create all kinds of suspense for your magical character.
The addiction theme addresses three things, I think; addiction itself and the ruin it wreaks on the mind and spirit; exploitation; prohibitions against using your own power. If your magic comes from within, there’s a warning not to use too much of it. Whose need is being met by that? If magic comes from an external object of substance, they become ripe for exploitation, just as the practitioner becomes vulnerable to a person who controls a substance. Now we’re back to toxic capitalism. The magician is powerful, gifted, but forced to work for someone who uses their power and talent for their own wealth, while they dole out the magic juice of powder.
What if magic was just one more thing in the world, like persimmons, oxygen or magnetic fields? What if it weren’t carved out? How would that fantasy world look? If we think that you couldn’t write fantasy stories in that world because there is no conflict, I would say we aren’t stretching our imaginations enough. What would those stories be?