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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Generously transcribed by Innes. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.

[Intro theme plays]

Chris: This is the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is-

Wes: Wes and-

Oren: Oren.

Chris: And today we’re here to announce how very very sad we are that we have magic powers.

Oren: It’s so sad!

Wes: What a burden.

Chris: In fact we’ve been hiding it this whole time, even though we had it just we worried that people would enslave us and then make us perform magic tricks for them.

Oren: [sarcastically] They would fear us for being different! We’re different and depressed because we have magic powers. I’m really worried that people are going to beat me up for having magic powers. My magic power specifically is to shoot lasers out of my eyes. I’m just really worried that someone might attack me in the street knowing that I can shoot lasers out of my eyes.

[Wes laughs]

Wes: They think that I’m gonna solve all of their problems, but whenever I exhale deeply the room freezes, what am I supposed to do?

Oren: [sarcastically] Oh, no!

Chris: We’re going to talk about stories with oppressed mages, which is a surprisingly common trope considering how now that I say it, it’s super niche.

Wes: Yeah.

Chris: I mean don’t get me wrong. There’s definitely a broader group of stories that just don’t understand how power and privilege works in culture, but in this specific one we have people who have magic abilities and them being systematically discriminated against, enslaved, depressed, whatever. It’s a thing that writers really like.

Oren: They do. They like it because they know I hate it and they want to hurt me personally.

[Chris and Wes laugh]

Chris: Yeah, maybe let’s go into why we think it’s popular. I think personally it’s definitely good to have sympathetic problems for your protagonist.

Wes: Yeah.

Chris: That helps build attachment to your protagonist, makes them an underdog everybody loves an underdog. Also people like wish fulfillment, they want their protagonist to have cool traits and they’re often reluctant to give them flaws or problems that are too realistic. Nobody wants a protagonist that has student debt, which is too bad because I think a protagonist with student debt would be nice.

Wes: Yeah, I’d read that.

Oren: It would be you know. What’s sad is that I always say that would be cool. But the one book I read where it was about a student having to deal with financial problems was really bad. I was like, ‘this is this is disappointing.’ It’s such a cool concept. Anyway-

Chris: Well stories do need novelty right? And so there’s a certain level of – if it’s too real, it reminds you about the terrible things in real life. It’s not a nice empowerment fantasy. At the same time we still need problems and a lot of times we don’t actually want to represent anybody who has a systemic oppression or is being marginalized, right?

Oren: Right and fiction does have a bit of a contradiction where the problem has to be severe enough to make us care about it, but also not so severe that it can’t be solved. It needs to be solved or addressed in some way within the confines of the story otherwise, it’s just a very unsatisfying story. Otherwise, I might as well not read it because I already know what it’s like to deal with problems I can’t solve.

Chris: I think it’s also worth mentioning that a lot of real life problems remain problems because people don’t recognize them as problems. It’s really hard to try to put that in your story. You really have to focus on not just displaying the problem but proving to readers who were not otherwise open to this that it is actually a problem. Even student loan debt, you can definitely have something burdened down by student loan debt, but not everybody realizes what a big problem it is and then you have to do that extra work.

Oren: Just have a chapter where the main character has to deal with the villain lecturing him on how ‘you should have just chosen a more lucrative major’ and then everyone drops the book and runs away because it’s too real.

[All laugh]

Oren: No, okay. So I think I think what Chris says is absolutely right. That it does often come down to wanting your character to have problems but also wanting your character to be cool and have cool empowerment powers, and that’s where the magic ends up. Why not do both at the same time? That’s one element. If I’m going to engage in a little bit of amateur psychoanalysis.

Wes: Here we go.

[Wes and Chris get hyped]

Oren: Yeah, I know. Just to be clear when I talk about oppressed mages, I mean basically anybody who is oppressed specifically for a supernatural ability that they have whether or not this is an actual wizard with a book or the X-Men. Their powers are flavored differently, but it’s the same basic dynamic. I think there are a lot of places this comes from. I think we still have this weird cultural heritage of witch trials and people imagine witches with magic being oppressed by the church and the church hating them because they had magic and the church didn’t like that. No, okay because those people didn’t actually have magic. They were just people the church didn’t like, mostly independent women and Jews and accusing them of witchcraft was a convenient way to get rid of them and then take their stuff. That’s the problem. People don’t really make that connection of with how actual witchcraft works. That’s a big part of it. I also think, based on my own observations and anecdotes and from my discussions with authors, it seems to me that there’s a very powerful need to imagine that other people hate you because you’re so cool.

Wes: Yeah, right.

Oren: It’s not because of some systemic issue or even a practical issue or heaven forbid anything you did wrong. It’s because they’re jealous.

Chris: I think it is worth distinguishing when that is relevant and when that comes into play. It’s not like jealousy doesn’t exist period, butI think it’s important to distinguish the difference between people resenting you within your interpersonal reactions and society-wide oppression.

Oren: This is basically the motivation behind most of what Ayn Rand writes. The whole concept of the super rich person that built society and is so great but everyone resents and hates them so they are the real victims and they have to go off and found their own rich people city that only rich people are allowed to live in.

Wes: [sarcatically] Woe betide them. They’re just so strong and tall and smart. Yeugh!

Oren: I know right. I don’t know exactly where this comes from, but it is not an uncommon fantasy that I have seen people engage in. Of ‘this is why people don’t like me.’ Go no further than right wing YouTube if you want to see all the people who think that. I mean don’t do that it’s bad for you.

Wes: Don’t contribute clicks to that nonsense.

[All laugh]

Chris: I’d like to return back to Ayn Rand later, but I want to go back to this whole jealousy thing because I want people to be able to distinguish how jealousy and resentment of success realistically plays out in various situations right as opposed to what we’re seeing in so many stories. I think the difference is that jealousy and resentment can play [out] in interpersonal reactions. If you have a person who is a mage and a family member who’s not a mage, there might be a little bit of bad blood there because a family member resents you [the mage] for being more successful. In the classroom setting or settings where there is naturally a smaller group of people and those people feel like they have to compete against each other in some way, sometimes teachers for instance feel threatened by their students because they’re supposed to be the super knowledgeable one and so if a student excels there’s a little bit of resentment that happens in those interpersonal reactions, The difference is that oppression happens at a very huge society-wide level and there’s no interpersonal jealousy there. There’s really just looking at which group has the most power and that power doesn’t only translate to bullying other people, that power also translates to social and cultural power which means that they are the most glorified in that society. In order for them to be hated – a lot of people don’t like billionaires today – they really do have to do something that could reasonably piss people off. Not just have magic.

Oren: The other thing is that whenever I bring this up someone will always be like, ‘But the French Revolution!’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, okay in the French Revolution the French lower classes rose up and cut the heads off a bunch of aristocrats and also off of a bunch of not-aristocrats because the French Revolution was a terrible time.’ That ignores everything that happened before the French Revolution, and how bad things had to get before the lower classes of France were motivated to take the extreme risk of rising up against the powerful elites. The elites basically had to run France into the ground for decades before this could be a thing, before anyone would even think of doing that. The same thing happened in Russia, the Russian Revolution of 1917 didn’t happen out of nowhere. It didn’t just happen because one day all the Russian commoners were like, ‘The Czar’s a bad guy and I hate him.’ It was because the Czar and the whole Russian elite had been running Russia into the ground for 50 years and things had just gotten so bad that there was no choice.

That’s the sort of thing where it’s like, yeah, if you wanted to do that you could craft a setting where the mages were in charge, which is almost certainly what would actually happen, but they’re just so oppressive and so bad at their jobs that they create a scenario bad enough to motivate commoners to rise up against them. But if you do that, you’re not really talking about oppressed mages anymore. The dynamic has completely changed.

Chris: Even combining that with an idea of oppression could become problematic because we don’t want to suggest that people are oppressed because the deserve it.

Oren: Yeah,  if you try to combine French Revolution dynamics with American racism. Those two are not the same thing. They don’t work together.

Chris: Yeah. Do you want to go back to Ayn Rand?

Wes: Might as well. We should get it over with.

Chris: I do, now that you mention it, I do remember the end- Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand) was such a weird book because it started with a bunch of really weird philosophy and cartoonish characters and then it became science fiction by the end. Because of this idea that we’ve got these the hard workers that are super oppressed and if we could just get rid of everybody else and stick to the superior people and put them in their own isolated community, they could do wondrous things.

Oren: Yep. Just do it. It’d be great because everyone else is really holding them back. I’ve seen magic stories that kind of work like that. The new Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling) stuff is trending in that direction.

Chris: [chagrined] Oh, no.

Oren: Not exactly, but the new Harry Potter stuff is just great because everything is wrong with it. So you can just pick things and be like, ‘what do I want a critique today?’ and just throw a dart at a map of all the things in the new Harry Potter stuff. Originally, in the original books the reasons for the Wizard World being separate from the Muggle World were vague which is probably for the best and they establish that Muggles are no threat to wizards. They went out of their way to explain that witch trials didn’t catch any actual witches which makes sense because the idea of 13th century priests trying to burn a Harry Potter witch is absurd. They established all that and that’s fine. And then they even went a little further and implied that the reason for the separation was to prevent wizards from taking advantage of muggles. Because that seems to be Voldemort’s main thing, he wants to end the separation so that he can rule all the muggles by virtue of being the best mage. You could argue whether or not the complete segregation of the two societies is actually a good way to achieve that goal, but that’s at least the implication. Then Fantastic Beasts (J.K. Rowling) rolls around. [Sarcastically] Thanks Fantastic Beasts! We find out that’s all a lie and actually the muggles were oppressing the bejesus out of the wizards and witch hunting them for no good reason and hated them and are the worst and are a giant threat and if the muggles ever find out about the wizards we’ll all die.

Wes: [Sarcastically] Sure, we will.

Oren: It turns out all those people who were just like, ‘why didn’t they just go ask the muggle prime minister to airstrike Voldemort?’ It turned out that they were all right. We thought it was a joke, but that was actually the solution the whole time. That’s the impression now is that muggles could actually defeat wizards in a fight. That’s the thing and it’s like, ‘No guys that was a joke before we didn’t actually want you to make that canon. I’m very sorry that we ever said that.’ It has that whole ring of, we need to be separate from those gosh darn muggles cuz they’re just bad and we are superior because we have magic and we need to not be where they are. You can’t trust them. It’s got that whole dynamic going on.

I really doubt that it happened because J.K. Rowling is a fan of Ayn Rand. I just think that that’s a weird surprisingly common attitude that I’ve seen people exhibit.

Chris: It’s really too bad because the Harry Potter books do a pretty good job of getting that power balance right. Well, yes, muggle-borns would definitely be discriminated against in that situation. That is 100% believable. Yes, the people who have magic, but also have a long history of having magic thereby accumulating more wealth and more power would definitely be at the top of the hierarchy. There’s no doubt. It’s too bad to see all of that thrown away.

Wes: That’s super believable because it’s grounded in real world stuff. I mean I think of the old rich and the new rich from The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) and stuff like that. It’s really just a way of preserving status over someone else. It’s power at the end of the day. ;’Well, we don’t have the same thing because I’m better.’

Oren: It’s also the whole- even if you take someone and give them an education if they come from a disadvantaged background, they’re not suddenly on the same plane as all the super privileged people. Even if they had access to the same education, that helps but it doesn’t make up for all of the accumulated wealth that all these other privileged people have that their families have built up over centuries.

Chris: Yeah. I also think it’s worth when we’re thinking about the timeline, when it comes to power, again any kind of power will ultimately translate to social and cultural power. When you think about throughout history, the longer a group is in power the more they have the opportunity to change culture to glorify them and present them as the good guys. In all sorts of ways, just by funding the right plays for instance. The ways are numerous. It just happens. It would be really unlikely, if there is a long history of a group having power even if they lose it. It’s going to take quite a while before culture turns against them because that’s going to remain for a really long time.

Oren: We’re getting into what I think of as the second barrier to why oppressed mage stories don’t work, which is that people don’t hate you for being able to do cool things. They just don’t. That’s just not a thing. The people who hate Barack Obama didn’t hate him because we hate presidents.

Wes: Well, we used to not.

Oren: There was another reason that they hated him. It was different and I’ll let you figure out what it was. We don’t hate professional athletes for being really good at sports. We elevate them. We think they’re so cool because they’re really good at sports. Now, sometimes when that extreme ability intersects with an actual marginalized identity, they can intermix in weird ways. Celebrities of color are very often held to a much higher standard than white celebrities; female celebrities are held to a much higher standard than male celebrities, etc, etc. Again, it’s not because we hate people who are really good at acting or at least make a lot of money off of it or whatever. That’s the social barrier to this idea that magic would inspire hatred. You’re different, but you’re different in a way that is clearly superior. And that kind of thing doesn’t have a super great parallel in real life because magic is not real. But the closest one you’re ever going to get is people who are really good at something, who are extremely skilled either by nature of their dedication or because they were born with some genetic quirk that made them really good at it. Usually both.

Someone will always point out that people hate the Jews and the Jews are rich, but see that’s a myth. Some Jews especially during the Middle Ages would get wealthy because they could lend money when Christians couldn’t but most Jews weren’t. Most Jews were about as wealthy as anybody else. But they were also Jewish so they would be targeted and then people would use the myth of the wealthy Jew to attack them. But if the Jews were all billionaires, you wouldn’t see antisemitism. It wouldn’t be the same. It would not exist. We sort of skipped over what I think is the first barrier, which is even the practicality of it. Most stories fail even this test, which is even if you could convince people to oppress mages most of the time it would simply be unfeasible. If you watch most X-Men stories, the idea that you’re going to beat these X-Men with a SWAT team is absurd and the only way it ever works is that we just explained that the X-Men are such nice guys that they would never use their powers to their full extent.

Chris: Or use their powers to get lots of money and then hire their own SWAT team.

[All laugh]

Oren: This is before we even get into how much money an agricultural corporation would pay for Storm to work for them. ‘Oh you could you can control the weather. How would you like all of the money?’ It just wouldn’t work that way. ‘Oh well, maybe if they had giant robots, I guess.’ All right. Sure. I guess if you work really really hard you could engineer a scenario where all of the world governments have turned all of their resources to fighting the X-Men and have built giant robots. But then you run into the second problem, which is that they would never do that.

Wes: In that kind of situation, the oppression levels of the mutants are different. I’m thinking about motivations from X-Men throughout a lot of the stories and even Old Man Logan and stuff like that. There tends to be a prime operator who resents the mutants for having what they don’t. So they’re the ones convincing others and fabricating reasons. That story of oppressing mages or special people with special powers often seems like it’s rooted in a particular villain who somehow has convinced everybody else that this group is wrong. Maybe that’s why they’re popular because there can be a figurehead who has hoodwinked everybody.

Oren: I’ve seen that used as an explanation a lot. I even saw that in The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan) which isn’t really about oppressed mages. It’s more about sexism. But it’s the same thing where this group of people that should by all rights be incredibly popular have all been turned into pariahs by this one really clever mastermind who just doesn’t like them. I can’t say a hundred percent that’s impossible. But it just seems so incredibly unlikely. If you look at modern-day demagogues who whip up hatred, they don’t go after hard targets because those are hard. They go after easy targets that people already don’t like.

Chris: I will also say certainly if you had people who didn’t like mages and they already had a lot of power and at least in X-Men mutants are relatively new. A lot of stories with mages have a long history of having magic which gives them more time to get even more cultural influence. But at least in X-Men mutants are relatively recent so you could say, maybe there’s somebody in power who feels threatened by them, etc, etc. They’re just gaining power. The antagonist has a head start. Even though then though it would be really hard because what about the other like billionaires out there who realized that there’s a lot of money to be made by working with mutants? The idea that one person could then go against everybody else and they probably just wouldn’t have enough power compared to a system and all the other people who would be rewarded by working with mutants would make money from them or our off of them. That’s what it comes down to is that if you have power, other people get power by doing things for you because you have something to offer them. One person, even one super powerful person- If we have a really extreme situation where it’s the emperor who feels like these mages that have just appeared might be getting like a divine mandate which then threatens the idea that they were mandated by the divine to rule. We could have a very niche situation where if we set it up just right we could perhaps make that believable, but I think in most of these situations, in particular X-Men, I’m not seeing it.

Oren: I think in this situation it helps to consider what I call the Rudolph model. Which is based off of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer because as you all know, he had a very shiny nose and the other reindeer are bigots and hated him for having a shiny nose-

[Chris and Wes laugh]

Oren: Which is reasonable and makes sense. That’s the thing that would definitely happen. If you came into school and your nose was all weird and shiny people would probably bully you for that because people can be small-minded so that would definitely happen. But then the moment his difference becomes exploitable, now suddenly it is a source of prestige because Santa needs it to guide his sleigh tonight. I didn’t realize that your weird facial deformity was actually valuable. Now you get rewarded and so that’s basically how it works is difference does tend to be punished but not if it’s exploitable, then it is rewarded. You can argue whether or not that’s a quirk of capitalism or if that’s just the way human society works. That’s a question for philosophers. I just know that in the societies that we live in that’s definitely how it works.

Chris: We have a few minutes left. Maybe let’s talk more about what you can do instead because there are a lot of writers that are really trying to figure out what to do with our characters in the world and they had this idea and once they realize okay, there’s some issues with it, what direction can they take? We already talked about  a very niche situation a single antagonist. What else? I think we can have mage versus mage oppression. I think is a really good option for this where maybe instead of being mages is versus non-mages there’s different types of mages. You’ve got a minority of mages. They’re not more powerful than the majority, but they’re unique and then they’re considered a lower class of mage. Avatar: The Last Airbender I think is actually a good example of different populations and each population has their mages right. But then when one population decides to invade and oppress the other they go straight for the mages in the oppressed population because those are the ones that can fight back and of course they want to keep the population from fighting back.

Wes: That’s a good example.

Oren: Yeah, and that works because that models the way a lot of conquests happen in real life. Like when the Spanish conquered the Mexica – or the Aztecs as we often call them – they specifically engineered situations where they could massacre the Mexica elite first and they didn’t do that because the Spanish hate aristocrats. They did that because the Mexica aristocrats were the ones with the greatest capacity to fight back because they had all the power. This was not a case of the poor oppressed billionaires, this is a case of conquest and one group eliminating the most powerful members of another group so that conquest will be easier. That dynamic works really well in real life and frankly, that’s the reason why the whole concept of oppressed mages bothers me so much is because I think that it is really important for people to understand the way that power works and the dynamics of oppression, especially now. No person is going to read a single book about oppressed mages and get the idea that really it’s the billionaires who have it badly, but just that level of cultural noise where we have this incorrect dynamic in our heads. I do think that can cause problems in the long run.

Oren: I would recommend if you want- we recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender all the time as we should because it’s great. If you want this in novel form, I would recommend the book Fire Logic (Laurie J. Marks) which I’ll put in the show notes and it does essentially the same thing. In this case it’s a con. It’s a situation where an outside invader comes to a place that has magic and wants to invade them and so makes a priority to kill the mages because the mages could fight back more effectively.

Chris: I think it’s worth noting that you make sure that the invaders have more power over all than the invaded, even if the invaded have mages. The invaders could have mages. I feel like it’s also plausible if the invaders are at a much higher tech level. The invaded might have mages but the tech level actually more than makes up for the lack of mages. In that case you could have mages be a special thing within the people who are invaded, but again, make sure that the invaders should always be more powerful.

Oren: You still have to deal with the practical issues. It’s still not going to work if your mages can teleport and make nuclear explosions by snapping their hands. and your invaders have muskets. You still have to balance that, but at least that dynamic is a real one and will be helping your story instead of forcing you to go through all kinds of mental gymnastics to try to justify it.

Wes: One other thing, a smaller thing that you might consider is don’t just take the easy route and say, ‘these are an oppressed group.’ It’s okay to bring nuance into things and say that these populations know that magic exists, that there are magic users, but either it’s not a big part of their life, or they just don’t know what to think about it. That uncertainty that somebody might get a positive or a negative reaction could carry a good character into some more interesting situations instead of constantly being worried about being found out. It’s okay to bring a little nuance into the story.

Chris: I think it’s also worth talking about the costs, because another way to reduce the influence that mages have as make it so that magic is not as good. The thing to keep in mind here is that you would have to personally not want to have the magic. If the magic has such huge costs that it’s worse to have magic the not have magic, and it has to be more than a cost that is only incurred if you choose to use magic because no matter how bad that cost is the fact is that magic gives you another option you wouldn’t have otherwise. It really has to have such terrible cost that it’s bad to have it. If people who have magic are constantly causing explosions that they can’t help, and magic doesn’t actually do that much stuff that’s useful…

Oren: The other thing is if you set up a scenario – and I see a lot of other stories try for this – if you set up a scenario where magic is actually dangerous and mages actually kill people without meaning to fairly regularly.At that point, you could have a society that targets mages but it would be very different from oppression that exists for the most part in the real world. In the real world, at least if you live in the United States, the vast majority of discrimination and hatred is not targeted because of any actual risk. Whereas if you have a world where a baby mage can sneeze and burn down the town that is an actual risk. I’m not saying that that would justify murder but it is a very different dynamic than what exists in the real world, so I recommend being very cautious with that kind of thing. It’s like what happened in Wheel of Time when Robert Jordan was like, ‘oh the poor oppressed men. Everyone hates them.’ Why does everyone hate male magic users? Because they destroy cities by accident. Hey, that sounds like a problem and the solution that the female magic uses come up with is to cut them off from their magic without killing them. That actually sounds like the best possible solution. They’re like, [in a whiny voice] ‘no it’s inhumane and it makes them want to die.’ Well, I’m sorry that’s the best solution that we have. That doesn’t equal hating male magic users. No- Okay, the story is going to keep going with that.

[Wes and Chris laugh]

Oren: We are actually very much out of time, but thank you to both of you for engaging with me on this pet peeve that I have. You may have been able to tell that I feel a little bit strongly about this.

Wes: Just a little.

Chris: Just a little.

Oren: Before we go, I want to thank two of our sponsors: Kathy Ferguson, who teaches Political Theory in Star Trek, and Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. Other than that if anything that we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com and we will talk to you next week.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

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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.

        • Sedivak

          They would be trained, employed, paid handsomely and at the same time shunned, hated and targeted – the latter especially by those who are not so gifted. Envy is an extremely potent basis for hatred and even more so if people can cultivate it against a stereotype instead of a particular person.

  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?

  8. Sedivak

    It depends on the details of the story but this trope can be very justified.

    If a group can be stereotypized as different and having an exploitable/enviable trait it can be oppressed pretty hard. Sadly there is a very good historical comparison.

    Consider this: Being a talented businessman is enviable and exploitable just as being a mage is. Being rich pretty much equates to being powerfull just as throwing fire could be.

    Now imagine being a rich talented Jewish businessman in certain times and places – those were sometimes hated and oppressed very hard. What is worse, even Jewish people who were neither rich nor talented were hated just as much because of stereotypes and labeling.

    The same thing could just as well happen to mages unless every single one of them is whole-army-level powerfull so as to be able to defend themselves against surprise mob attacks.

    Another example: Even the Shaolin temple was sacked and/or destroyed multiple times.

    • Cay Reet

      The different between Jews and mages is that mages have powers, even if they’re not army-destroying, which other people don’t have. It’s one thing to treat a person badly you might never have to borrow money from (as a wealthy Jew who is lending at interest – a bit business area, because Christians weren’t allowed to do it). It’s another thing to tread a person badly who might set you on fire, turn you into a newt or make sure you’ll never have children. The risk is much higher with a mage. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but it’s unrealistic to see it top the rank of discrimination and go into outright oppression. Instead, those who are ruling would keep the mages close, so they have an option for all those cases where regular humans don’t cut it.

      The Shaolin monks, despite being great warriors, are still human. They can retaliate short-term, but not long-term. A mage could curse your family for twenty generations until your many-great-grandchildren are living in the gutter and begging for food.

      • Sedivak

        I’m still not entirely convinced but these are valid points.

        • Cay Reet

          I’m also not saying that other people won’t hate mages or be distrustful of them or envy them. That’s definitely going to happen. The problem with the idea of outright oppression is that oppression means keeping a portion of the populace under constant control and denying them rights other people have. It’s always possible to control people who have, more or less, the same powers as you. Mages would have powers a regular human can’t match and that means they’ll be hard to oppress. They can still be bullied in certain cases and discriminated (especially if the latter is rather discreet and not too overt) by parts of society.

          For the authorities, it makes more sense to be on good terms with a majority of the mages, so they can be used in situations when a regular human is not very useful. Not just in war (depending on the general percentage of mages in society, that might be wasteful), but also in other situations. Think about building, farming, healing, and a couple of other everyday things. Being on good terms with mages means they’ll be more likely to work for you without being forced – and you usually get better results if you don’t force someone to work for you. It also means the good mages will help you against the bad mages (no need to pretend that mages won’t be like other humans in that aspect – there will be magical criminals).

          To a certain degree, the whole ‘they’re different, let’s oppress them’ works with X-Men, because mutations on that level (power as well as numbers) are a relatively new phenomenon. There’s not much experience with living together with mutants and with which uses they might have. However, humans are exceedingly good at seeing uses in something new, so at least the first people would by now have come up with positive ways to use mutation and the government would, most likely, go along, because it’s much cheaper than the technology and manpower needed to keep such a powerful group under control.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m chiming in because this is an important point that gets lost a lot: It is absolutely possible for powerful people with a marginalized identity to face oppression, but when that happens, it is because of their marginalized identity.

      For example: A Jewish businessman can absolutely face antisemitism. Their money might give them some protection, but it wouldn’t make antisemitism go away. Some people might even hate them more for being both Jewish and wealthy. But there is no oppression targeted against businessmen specifically. It’s the same with mages. A Jewish mage could still experience antisemitism, but they would not be oppressed simply for being a mage.

      I talk about this more in my post The Problem With Oppressed Mages.

      • Sedivak

        I’m sorry, Oren, but in this comment you are not right.

        Firstly: There absolutely can be (and was) oppression targeted against businessmen specifically. In the hardest times of communist oppression in the 1950s in my country just the plain fact of being a businessman or a self-sustaining farmer (the term used in the time was “kulak”) could in some cases get you sent to the Jáchymov uranium mines (hundreds died there) and get your family harshly disadvanteged in many areas of life. Just the plain fact of being wealthy could get you sent in prison (and again get your close ones disadvantaged), and in some cases even having university education could get you sent to undesirable labor as a punishment.

        Secondly: Beside the aforesaid, my point was, that being supernaturaly gifted itself could evolve to be a marginalized identity just as it happened to being Jewish. After all, antisemitism did happen, and there also was no rational reason for it. Frankly witch hunts and witch trials also happened. (Having studied history I am of course aware of the myriad various aspects that led to both of them).

        That of course is a lot of theorycrafting by both of us.

        Lastly, just for the fun of it, and I’m sorry for the nitpicking, the statement “It’s the same with mages” in your second paragraph is somewhat bold, since there are, to my knowledge, no real world mages that we could base such observation upon.

        • Cay Reet

          The problem with the businessmen and free farmers in your example is that they were actually not oppressed for being farmers or businessmen, they were forced into joining the collective, into handing over their farms or businesses to state-controlled units. A businessman who insisted on keeping their own business was, therefore, bullied into either giving in or facing consequences which the state dealt out (up to the Uranium mines, not saying the action wasn’t harsh) and losing the business, anyway. We call that robbery when a civilian does it. And since his belongings would go to the family, they, too were put under pressure (plus fear for the family can be a more powerful pressure point than fear for oneself). The same goes for the free farmer.
          Dictatorships always love to deal with all which could be trouble by making them disappear, it’s nothing new.

          It was not against someone for being someone specific, it was a criminal action by the state to get something they wanted. Of course, in the Sovjet Union, it was perfectly legal, but we have a lot of examples in history where the state made illegal actions (like robbery, blackmail, or theft) legal as long as the state does it. Death sentences today are still such an example: the state makes murder legal, as long as it’s done by the state’s servants and only to specific people.

          • SunlessNick

            Or to put it a different way, the Soviet Union constructed a society where being a rich business owner was not a way to power – therefore it was possible to oppress them unless they also had the Party connections that did represent power.

  9. Sedivak

    Also valid points.

    The way I see it, the likelihood of the mages in a given setting being oppressed would depend on the details of the setting. Mostly on the reliability and power of their “gift” and on their number as compared to the population. Presence of tensions in the society (war, famine, unrest) would also play a role. On the other hand if the people need the mages, for example to fend off frequent demonic invasions, they would want the mages to feel welcome.

    If the mages’ “gift” is too weak, unpredictable or impractical as to be reliably exploited, they as a whole would probably lack support from the higher places (either rulers or powerfull businesses) and the power to defend themselves efficiently (as one author wrote, you can’t perform magical incantations with a knife through your throat). If the gift is too powerfull, they would be seen as a menace to both the authority of the ruling power and the safety of the people. Religious or populist leaders could rally the masses against mages with propaganda demanding purity or security from a threat. Many more things could happen.

    Works centered on the masquerade between the magical world and the mundane often cite the necessity thereof due to the sheer numerical advantage “normals” would have over mages, and in more modern settings the thrat of advanced weaponry (especially nuclear). That seems believable.

    Or the mages can be so consistently powerfull and well integrated in the society, especially its higher strata, as for any kind of rebellion or oppression against them to be unthinkable. That too can happen.

    I gues it all boils down to what kind of story the author wants to tell and the effort they put in explaining the reasons for the setting. It’s true that cheap explanations of oppressed mages make the work feel illogical and unsatisfactory.

    Examples where supernaturals are oppressed (believable depictions):
    The Witcher books (A. Sapakowski) – especially the ending.
    The Powerless of this world (B. Strugacki) – hard oppression in the Soviet Union and new Russia.
    This story on the Wanderers’ Library (I don’t own any rights to it and I dont know the author):

    Examples where it is mixed and ambiguous:
    The Laundry Files (Charles Stross) – especially the Annihilation Score.

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