Magic and Society in Fantasy Fiction
Magic is easily one of the most important elements of fantasy as a genre. To be sure, not every fantasy will have — or need — magic, but it’s broadly true that fantasy is the ‘magic genre’, if you will, much as science fiction is the ‘futuristic tech’ genre.
The presence of magic in fantasy fiction leads to some interesting considerations for world-building fictional societies, depending on the nature of the magic and who has access to it. While there are many variations within the genre, I will argue that most fantasy “socio-magical systems” (if you will) fit within at least one of three main scenarios: Magical Elite, Magical World, and Witch Hunt. I’ll note up front that some will fit into more than one category, and some may blur the boundaries.
Let’s examine these three basic scenarios, and look at some examples of each in fantasy literature:
In this scenario, access to magic is more or less monopolized by an elite group, who use some combination of magic and social, political, and religious processes to ensure they retain control.
A great example of this paradigm is Allomancy, in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Allomantic powers, which entail “burning” metals in the stomach to unleash a variety of powers, are inherited through bloodlines.
In the first novel, it’s general knowledge that these powers were originally bestowed on a select few by a tyrannical demigod-like figure, the Lord Ruler. They and their descendants became the nobility.
The powers Allomantically-gifted nobles wield are impressive, and can come in handy during the cloak-and-dagger wars that sometimes break out between the great Houses. However, they’re also important as marks of prestige — and I’ll note that over the centuries, some noble lines have apparently lost their Allomantic inheritance.
In my own world, some of the most important societies work on a variant of this principle. My protagonist is a member of a semi-immortal magical caste which is widespread around the world, and which includes the ruling elites and a part of the non-elites in his society. However, there is also a substantial mortal peasant class.
In societies with magical elites, the prestige of magic is likely to reinforce the hierarchy. If you add magic to barriers of class, wealth, and social standing, there’s one more thing that can increase the social distance between elites and non-elites — or at the very least make it harder for those class structures to allow mobility or become less rigid. What would the French Revolution have been like if the elites had magic, and no one else in the society did?
I’m using the term “magical world” to refer to a scenario in which most people in the magical world have magic, and it is in no sense the preserve of the elites. There’s a more democratic aspect to it, in that sense, but that doesn’t mean such a society will be a democracy.
The Harry Potter series provides a good example of this kind of scenario. There’s a substantial population of witches and wizards, and they form their own secret wizarding world, complete with its own government, the Ministry of Magic.
Granted, the Ministry of Magic liaises with “Muggle” governments on magical matters, but as a rule wizards and witches don’t try to rule over the Muggle world (rare exceptions like Voldemort notwithstanding).
While some magic users are stronger and/or more capable than others, and there are even some elite “pureblood” wizarding families, in the Harry Potter wizarding world magic-users and magical artifacts are common.
While I mentioned above that my own work-in-progress is a better fit for the Magical Elite scenario, I also have some smaller tribal societies who are composed more or less entirely of semi-immortal magic-users. These societies are a better fit for the Magical World paradigm, because magic is commonplace and they do not have large non-magical subject populations.
In my experience, this scenario is much rarer in fantasy fiction. A lot of fantasy world-building makes use of the idea that magic is rare and exceptional, which helps to set up the role of the magically-endowed protagonist as particularly special and unique. However, there’s no reason magic couldn’t be commonplace in a fantasy mythos. If everyone in society has powerful magical gifts, what are some of the likely ramifications for the development of socio-political orders?
I’m using the term “Witch Hunt” to describe socio-magical scenarios in which magic is stigmatized and even persecuted. For example, in the world of Brian Stavely’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne series, so-called “leaches” are feared and persecuted for their seemingly “unnatural” ability to alter circumstances around them, provided they have access to a source of power called a “well”.
Similarly, in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, the notorious Imperial Order seek to undo magic. Their leader, the Emperor Jagang, is a “dreamwalker”, someone who can take control of (most) magic-users, called Gifted, through mental possession. In essence, Jagang and the Imperial Order are trying to use magic to get rid of magic — and this turns out to be something of a historical trend in Goodkind’s world.
If everyone in society fears magic, that creates an instant conflict for a magically-endowed protagonist: they need to either stay hidden, or live on the run, staying a step ahead of authorities and mobs at all times. It’s likely that in such a society, many people will view magic-users as the embodiments of evil in their religious belief systems. They may also believe magic-users to be capable of many things they are not.
Thinking about how magic affects society, and vice-versa, is an important aspect of fantasy world-building. A key aspect of this is the idea of who has magic, but as seen, it’s also important to consider how this is regarded by society.
I’d really love to hear more from others about this. What are some good examples of the socio-magical types I’ve presented here? Are there other examples of socio-magical systems that don’t really fit in my proposed categories?