205 – Oppressed Mages

The Mythcreant Podcast
Having magic is such a struggle! All the muggles are out to get you, and the church keeps trying to set you on fire. Clearly, mages are oppressed. Or are they? Wes returns after a short sabbatical, just in time for us to discuss this trope and why it doesn’t make any sense. We talk about how hard it is to oppress people who can shoot fire from their hands, how magical oppression compares to oppression in the real world, and what lessons we can learn from Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Ayn Rand

French Revolution

Russian Revolution

The Wheel of Time

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer 

Spanish conquest of the Mexica

Avatar The Last Airbender

Fire Logic

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  1. Deana

    Umberto Eco points out in his article “14 Marks of a Black Shirt,” (New York Review of Books, 6/22/1995) that: “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”

    The point he makes is valid and predates Mussolini and Hitler. It is possible to have a relatively powerful group subject to prejudice and from there it is only a short step to oppression, particularly if that group is marginalized in some way. In fact, such groups make the best targets for systemic hatred, throughout history.

    Oppression starts this way. There is a pre-existing fear, usually of moral decay. A group either from outside or dispersed within the dominant culture rises to public consciousness. Through a variety of rhetorical tools, and exaggerated dog whistle accounts, the group comes to represent either the source of the decay or is conspiring to bring about your ruin. This existential threat is invariably combined with a preceived economic threat (usually, “those people are going to steal you job, or ruin your land, or kill your workers, aka children”). The group (or at least an unassimilated portion of it) is distinguishable in some visible way–either by phenotype, or forms of dress. Martyrs are created among the dominant group, who have suffered at the hands of individuals within the targeted group. (And if you can find an actual martyr, make one up, a la “Birth of a Nation.”)

    You now have the trifecta: an existential threat, an economic threat, and a physical threat. Enough of the dominant group will now participate in opressing the targetted group.

    This doesn’t really work well if the group has sufficient numbers to fight back. So the guys with the army approximately the same size as yours two countries over won’t work.

    You want a group that has a low enough population density that they can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers, which can take down just about any force. It does not really matter that you call down a thunderstorm, if you can’t keep it up indefinitely or have moral qualms about killing deceived individuals. Eventually you will be overrun. Because not all members of the targetted group have equal abilities to defend themselves, it will be the weaker and more vulnerable members of the group that are picked off first.

    Wash, rinse and repeat for two generations or a few hundred and you produce entrenched and systemic racism, sexism, anti-semitism, making the targetted group all the more vulnerable to acts of oppression.

  2. Tifa

    It seems to me that the collective viewpoint of society [besides the fact that not everyone thinks the same way, obviously] is to tend to lash out or try to eliminate anything different, so if children were born with magical powers today, I have the suspicion that they would be shunned or taken away to be experimented on.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I talk about in more detail during the podcast, but the short version is that while differences are often punished, when that difference is exploitable, it is rewarded instead.

      Some kids, for example, just have bigger builds than others. They can more easily put on muscle and get strong. This is a difference, but it isn’t punished, it’s rewarded because it’s an exploitable difference. Kids who are bigger and stronger than others are often better at sports, or just more physically intimidating.

      Contrast that with someone who has a major birth mark. That birth mark isn’t exploitable in anyway, and so it’s likely to be mocked or otherwise made fun of.

      In almost all stories, magic falls into the first category.

      • Roger

        I entirely agree Oren.

        “Join our company today! We offer competitve wages to mages with college degrees. Having a business-level knowledge of English and 3+ years of experience in wyrd analysis is a must”

        If kids with magical owers (at least controllable magical powers so they won’t kill themselves and everyone around them during their first year of life) were born today, they would be trained and employed, not shunned.

  3. Michael

    Well done. This is an old and usually unjustified cliche which we see so often in fantasy. In regards to The Wheel of Time, however, there is at least some reason within the story universe for this attitude. There channelers (mages) caused the cataclysm at the heart of the story’s origin. Many also joined up with the Dark One. In general as well, channelers are meddlers and thus disliked. However, that only gets you so far. They aren’t really oppressed except in one country, which I grant you doesn’t seem likely. Why do the channelers tolerate it? Well, that isn’t explained really. Not to mention the fact they seem content with just meddling and “serving” rather than ruling. Unlikely for real people with such powers I think.

  4. Roger

    To follow up on the “Mages and the French revolution” element you mentioned, there is actually a Polish dark fantasy universum called “Monastyr” explores exactly the option you described (mage rule was so bad that at some point a revolt happened).

    In short: that universum has many states ran by very powerful mages and magic-wielding beings, while everyone else has no rights.

    It also has several states that undervent a revolt sparked by a religious figure. In these latter states magic is not allowed and mages are violently opressed. One argument is of course that “magic is a sin and comes from the Big Evil Demon”, but the other argument is: “If we allow mages here, they will turns us into slaves like they do on the other side of the border”.

  5. SunlessNick

    One setting that does this very well is Dragon Age. The main religion in the area is the Chantry, which holds that “Magic exists to serve man and never rule over him” – in large part because it was born in rebellion against a brutally oppressive mage-ruled empire – though that was nine hundred years ago, so it’s not like the mages today are responsible for that (it’s also worth noting that mages took part in the rebellion, because mage on non-mage was far from the only axis on which the previous empire oppressed people.

    After some fits and starts, the system ended up with mages living in (or affiliated with) insitutions called Circles – not that they can’t ever leave and travel around, but it does segregate them from society – if they try to live apart from the Circle system, they’re hunted down and either killed or forced into it. This is justified by the line that mages are more vulnerable to demonic possession than regular people (which seems to be true) and enforced by the templars (knights given a potion that makes them resistant to magic). Each Circle is supposed to be led by the highest ranking mage, advised by the highest ranking templar (that doesn’t always work).

    The games also offer characters with a wide variety of perspectives on this. Most mages buy into the reasons for the Circles’ existence, and go along with it (it’s also the only place to learn magic).
    But you get some who chafe because it *is* a gilded cage, some who try to escape, and some who rebel – there’s one guy who does see it as a prison, but doesn’t care because it’s more luxurious than anywhere else he could live – there’s another guy who chafes at the luxury, who includes in his litany of problems with the place that he’s never cooked his own dinner. And there are mages who want to be in the rule and oppress position again.
    Most templars see their job as a necessary evil, but some see mages that way instead – some think they have a duty to mages, others that they have a duty to contain mages for the sake of the people outside, and others like to enjoy the power their position gives them.

    That’s not even all the nuance the setting offers, but it goes a long way past just the “religious people oppress mages” trope.

  6. Bubbles

    What I’m still wondering is, couldn’t an “exploitable” (the term Oren literally used in an above comment) still lead to bad treatment because of, well, exploitation? People with economically useful skills could be pressured into jobs they don’t want and treated poorly if business owners only care about profits. This has happened many, many times in real life. Of course, if the power is something that could be used to fight oppressors, that is less likely to happen, but not everybody wants to fight, and not every economically useful power is useful in a fight.

    Also, as I’ve stated before, if a power is rare, the numerical difference between non-powered and powered people gives the advantage to the former unless the power is insanely strong. Furthermore, dangerous powers such as mind-reading, mass destruction, or even invisibility could make people feel scared of powered people – and I’ve heard of people who are scared of muscular kids like those Oren mentioned.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Of course people can be scared of others with huge muscles, but as far as I know, there’s never been systematic oppression and persecution of muscular people.
      Also, the idea is usually that magical abilities are fairly rare, right? So if we’re looking for a clumsy real-world analogue, it could be someone who’s insanely strong, way stronger than regular people, or someone with perfect pitch and amazing musical talent, a super genius in some scientific field etc. And such people, it’s true, can be exploited and pressured hard by people around them who depend on their special talent for their own profit. But they’re usually highly paid and admired at the same time as they’re exploited and pressured.

      • Bubbles

        I get your point. I suppose that perhaps those whose most significant difference is a particularly useful ability (as opposed to differences, such as race and gender, that are mostly neutral) are unlikely to face bigotry as is commonly understood. However, there is still the possibility of mistreatment or bad feelings, such as through the fear or jealousy of others, or simply being treated as a tool rather than as a person. And I think that particularly harsh treatment and exploitation is more likely to happen in an authoritarian setting in which exploitation in general is considered normal – although you could then argue that isn’t magic-based bigotry specifically.

        There’s also the possibility of a useful trait being tied to something very disturbing in some way. Being able to grow and use many slimy tentacles would be quite useful in a lot of situations, but would probably disgust most people, perhaps even make some think of that person as a subhuman inferior. Powers like mind-reading and invisibility that I mentioned earlier have fairly obvious disturbing uses – even if most people with such powers are good, in some societies, there could be a lot of fear and severe restrictions placed on anybody with such powers.

        • Dvärghundspossen

          Yeah I’m not saying that people would never fear or be uncomfortable around those with superpowers, magical powers etc, and things like mind-reading in particular can be very disturbing. And you could craft a plausible setting where, say, the government rounds up all telepaths, keep them in a special facility with telepathy shields and try to force them (maybe by threatening their loved ones) to go on special missions for the government… but you’d have to work pretty hard to make this story consistent, without large plot holes. For instance, prima facie, the telepaths could find out all the secrets of their captors and use that for blackmail. Another government might try to get special agents to break the telepaths (and their loved ones) out, offer them luxurious treatment and now have LOYAL telepaths that would do THEIR bidding, etc.

          In any case, it’s pretty lazy writing to just go “this group has awesome powers but everyone just hates them and wants to see them dead because people hate what’s different” (and I say this as an old fan of the X-men… But when I became an X-man fan, I wasn’t yet tired of this trope and was willing to just roll with it.)

          • Bubbles

            Interesting observations. I am particularly interested in this because I read the book Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, a book of magical realism which arguably does feature the oppression of people with superpowers in a way. Spoiler alert:

            Near the end of the book, the midnight’s children (born in the hour of India’s independence and possessing various supernatural powers), are captured by the Widow (Indira Gandhi) and sterilized during the real-life Emergency, depriving them of their powers. This might actually make sense for several reasons.

            The Widow essentially considers herself to be the representative of India and is worried because the midnight’s children have different views from her and the power to control India. As the head of the Indian government, she is powerful enough to extract information from Saleem (the protagonist) about the children and then imprison them in ways that prevent them from using their powers to escape. There are also good reasons for why the midnight’s children haven’t taken over India yet, despite their powers; they have many conflicting views on what to do, so it is difficult for them to cooperate. Saleem could let them communicate using his telepathy at first, but he eventually lost it. Finally, there are only a few hundred children left alive eventually, and many of them have weak powers, so even the strong children wouldn’t be able to stand against an army.

            That said, there may still be some problems. One question is why no other government ever tried to use the midnight’s children (although this MIGHT be explained by the general chaos in India and outsider beliefs that any claims of magical powers are mere superstition). There’s also the question of why Saleem never tried to use his powers against the Widow herself (he did use his powers for blackmailing others before). This could be because he didn’t know the true danger while he had his telepathy, and once he lost it, the power he had instead (supernatural olfaction) had a shorter range. And there is the possibility that Saleem is very unreliable and (even in-story) is not telling the truth about the powers of the midnight’s children.

  7. Paul

    Whats this Fantasy Warrior website? Can you link to it?

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