Tuesday, October 12, 1993

Magic-Using Societies in Fantasy Fiction


This document is an attempt to classify systems of magic in modern fantasy fiction by examining the societies that develop as a result of the author's choice of the mechanics of magic. The goal is to identify opportunities for new stories in two areas: new twists on old designs, and concepts that are rare or untried. This will be accomplished by isolating the two most significant independent factors that determine the effect of the existance of magic on societal structure, and combining the two factors to produce four "formats" which can then be used to describe the vast majority of fantasy fiction in which magic and societies interact. An analysis of these four formats will reveal the strengths and weaknesses of each in terms of story-telling and world-building. It is expected that this will be of most use to the writer looking for an "idea" story, rather than the writer focusing on character or action.

It should be noted that fantasy stories which involve the use of magic but do not describe the societies resulting from the way magic works there will not seem to fit into any of the four formats. Also, the term "society" is used to refer to any long-term (at least several generations) organized human cultures or civilizations. All bets are off if magic-using aliens are involved -- it is doubtful that a hive-mind would have the same regard for private property that seems to drive all human cultures.


To begin, it would be useful to define what "magic" is. The term "magic" is used here to mean a method in which reality is controlled by non-physical means. It is distinct from science in that science relies on physical mechanisms to alter the environment; under this definition, magic is any other way of changing the world.

For example, modifying a person's behavior by talking to them is science: the vibrations of air molecules caused by the fluttering of the speaker's vocal cords are transmitted by physical means to the listener's eardrums. There they are processed by neurons operating on an electrochemical basis, assigned meaning by brain cells acting in concert, and provoke a physical response. Perfect understanding of the mechanisms involved at every step is not required to conclude that only physical processes are involved.

But modifying a person's behavior from a distance solely by an act of will would qualify as magic, as there is no physical method by which this result could be achieved.

It is reasonable at this point to note the principle first stated by Arthur C. Clarke: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. For example, if a few hundred years ago you had demonstrated the ability to turn night into day by a simple wave of your hand, you would have run the risk of being burnt at the stake. Today, of course, anyone can "Clap on! Clap off!"

So the difference between science and magic -- as far as a writer is concerned -- is one of presentation. If the author constructs a society in which the characters (and thus the reader) are aware of physical processes that can explain all observed behavior, then stories set in that world are scientific, no matter how baffled other groups or individuals in the story world may be. (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is one example of this.) And if the author creates a world in which those who have the power to alter reality do so in such a way that neither the characters nor the reader can attribute the results to physical processes, then those characters are doing magic.

If the author nudges the reader and says, "Psst -- it's really just a walkie-talkie," then it's not a magic spell for speaking at a distance, even if the point-of-view character and everyone else in the story thinks it is.


The two factors which relate magic use to societal structure are "locus of control" and "user base." By "locus of control" I mean the source of the ability to do magic, which is either internal to an individual from birth, or external and gained over time. To put it another way, the ability to do magic is either innate, or it is learned or acquired from some other source. "User base" means the number of individuals within a society who can do magic -- if anyone can do magic, then either everyone can or only some can.

These two factors were chosen as the most significant in affecting the structure of the societies in which the magic-using individuals function. There certainly are other ways we could look at magical ability; these two axes are chosen because they have obvious influences on any society to which they apply.

User base is obvious; any limit on who can and who cannot have power will force a society to deal with the political question of fairness, with consequences for story characters. Locus of control is important because it determines whether magical ability is a birthright (internal) or something that must be granted or earned (external). The key here is that external power is a form of capital.

Where fully functional magical ability is a birthright, it is not a form of capital since capital is only created, transferred or destroyed through individual labor. The result is that governments, which are expressions of civilized society, will tend to be more concerned with magic-using groups than individuals. This is because internal ability, unlike capital, cannot be transferred -- and you can't tax what you can't control. So since there is no way for government to accumulate power by taxing or otherwise regulating the transfer of magical ability between individuals, the entire group must be treated as a power bloc. It will thus tend to rise and fall in the esteem of society as a unit.

A society which evolves including groups of people who were born capable of magic will look very different from one which is created by people for whom magic is something that must be worked for -- and which may be taken away.

In addition, internal ability is what you are, while external ability is what you do. Societal restrictions on the former are considered unfair and will provoke resentment; restrictions on the latter will generally be in the form of customs and taboos in the case of cultures, and regulations and taxes in the case of civilizations with national governments.


By matrixing the two factors of user base and locus of control, four possible formats result. These are described below by way of a brief description of the typical features of the format, a discussion of the societal implications of that format, and a short list of representative examples of fantasy milieus. The list is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to offer a few illustrative models of each format.




This format is characterized by a society in which some members, but not all, have an ability to control magic (possibly in a latent form) at birth. Since this control ability is inherent in the individual, it cannot be externalized in objects or transferred to others. In other words, magicians are born, not made.


This is the format found most often in recent fantasy, as it provides a way for the author to comment on class warfare and the politics of victimization. Since the members of these societies will know that magical ability is conferred genetically and thus is restricted to racial and family groups, worlds constructed using this format almost always view magic-users as a race apart from "normal" humans. The natural result of this is a long-term power struggle between the "haves" and the "have-nots." There will tend to be a cycle over time: normals will fear those with ability and persecute them, then resentment will build in some with ability. These then take control of government and install a magic-using dynasty which is later itself overthrown. Repeat until the reader gets the point.

Virtually every example of this format features royalty and aristocracy, operating perhaps on the assumption that the possession of power guarantees its use.

Note: this description also applies to the "psi" found in novels of what otherwise would be straight science fiction, such as Anne McCaffrey's Pern and Julian May's Galactic Milieu.


Marion Zimmer Bradley, et al.: Darkover
Katherine Kurtz: Deryni
Jennifer Roberson: Cheysuli
Melanie Rawn: Sunrunner



In this format, magical ability is conferred by external means to some but not all members of society. It may be created or granted, transferred, augmented, diminished, or destroyed, subject to restrictions based on the author's mechanics of how magic actually works.


This is what I call the "magic dingus" format. Power is almost always supplied in the form of magic objects: magic swords, magic carpets, magic spellbooks, etc. This format differs from the Inherited type in that, while gods or magic-using races may exist (hey, someone had to create these items!), they are not part of the society the author is interested in describing. Instead, power comes from magic-controlling tools external to the user, not from within; those who supply the tools affect the main group only indirectly by empowering a few otherwise "normal" people.

The beauty of this format is that it lets the author confer extraordinary abilities on ordinary people. The downside is that a simplistic use of the "magic dingus" can seem like a cheap gimmick; the interesting stories are those which show the disadvantages and dangers of suddenly having the power to get what you want.

In most stories using this format, control over magical powers resides in physical objects. But sometimes power is controlled by magic words. Either way, this is the format used in virtually every fairy tale, from "Jack and the Beanstalk" to "Rumplestiltskin," because it lets the reader identify strongly with the normally non-magical protagonist.


J. R. R. Tolkien: Lord of the Rings
Dave Duncan: A Man of his Word



The Instinctive format of magical ability is characterized by power being available to all members of society and usable without any need for instruction or external enabler, although kinds and levels of ability may vary with age or other factors.


This format is rare. When everyone in society has some kind of personal power, the author (in the form of societal government) is deprived of a tool with which to change a character's life, so some other motivational plot device has to be imagined. Also, the leveling effect tends to make these societies function just like non-magical cultures -- to the people in them, magic is just another ability, like charisma or intelligence. This can work against the feeling of wonder most fantasy aspires to create in the reader.

What is usually done is to vary the abilities from person to person. This lets the author create the class distinctions that make such good character-directing plot devices, and can also be a great exercise in social engineering if the author has aspirations along those lines.


Piers Anthony: Xanth
Sheri S. Tepper: True Game



Magical ability in this format is a skill available to anyone willing and able to study it.


The key to doing magic in worlds based on this format is persistence. In some ways, this is the most mundane of the formats, because it treats magic as just another skilled trade -- like carpentry or law. Young characters in these stories are always either the apprentice of a gray-haired wizard, or else enrolled in a college or university which includes magic in its curriculum. Ability in this format is externalized as knowledge.

This format often resembles the Owned format because even though everyone could be a wizard if he or she so desired, in practice not many people will have the resources or willpower to do so. The level of resentment against magic-users is usually much lower in the Learned format, since normal types can always tell themselves, "Hey, I could do that if I really wanted to."

This is the format in which "Laws of Magic" are codified and explained to the reader. Typical examples are the Laws of Sympathy and Contagion, and the "true names" concept.


L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt: Compleat Enchanter
Ursula Le Guin: Earthsea
Patricia McKillip: Riddle-Master of Hed
Terry Pratchett: Discworld