Storytelling

Ten Justifications for Oppressed Mages and Why They Fail

Adam crouching behind cover in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

In Deus Ex, everyone is trying to oppress cyborgs for having machine guns in their arms.

The oppressed mages trope is a personal bugbear of mine, as longtime readers of this site can no doubt attest. The trope is incredibly popular, even though it makes no sense. As with most popular things that don’t make sense, people come up with all kinds of justifications. My original article already covered these in broad strokes, but today we’re examining them in more depth.

To review, any setting with oppressed mages needs to explain both why that oppression arose and how it’s succeeded. We start with justifications for why, since without an initial cause, any explanation of tactics is redundant. Then we move to justifications for how. Let’s get started!

1. Fear of Difference

A stop motion elf with a stop motion reindeer. Rudolph, ol’ buddy, please don’t take vengeance on us now that you’re part of the elite.

When authors first ask why mages might be oppressed, the default answer is that people fear anything different, because this fear underlies a lot of real-life bigotry. If one kid can get singled out and bullied because of their speech impediment, then surely another kid could get singled out and bullied because of their levitation powers, right?

Not so fast! The truth is that while some differences are singled out and punished, others are rewarded. Being taller and stronger than average is a difference, and it makes you the star of sportsball. Having gorgeous hair and unblemished skin is another difference, and it gets you admirers rather than bullies.

The general rule is that a person will be punished for their difference unless they can exploit their difference in some way, and magic is always exploitable. In my original post, I called this the Rudolph model, after the way a certain reindeer was mistreated until his special power gave him greater leverage within North Pole society. Of course, exploitable differences can also intersect with traits that are actually marginalized. Being tall and strong while Black, for example, is an easy way to get targeted by white authorities. But the exploitable traits themselves are not where the marginalization comes from.

Because magic is so important in most fantasy books, mages are likely to have a group identity much like an age, religious, or class group. But this won’t make them oppressed. Instead, it would mean concentrating all the mages’ power in one place, giving them even more ability to act in their own self-interest. We already have an example of this in real life: rich people. The upper class is a distinct group from everyone else, but that doesn’t lead to poor people oppressing them. Instead, the rich are dishearteningly good at advocating for their own class interests, even if the rest of us occasionally share memes about eating them.

2. Economic Interest

Cover art from the Fifth Season In the Broken Earth, mages have no choice but to labor for the mundane’s benefit. There’s no way they could use earthquake powers to rebel or anything.

It’s tempting to imagine that bigotry is entirely irrational, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, discrimination is driven by pure self-interest. It benefits men as a group* if women are forced into domestic servitude because that way the men don’t have to cook or clean for themselves. It benefits an imperialist power to view conquered peoples as subhuman because that makes it easier to extract resources.

Given that paradigm, it’s easy to imagine that mundane humans would enslave or otherwise oppress mages to get some discount magic labor. However, that’s extremely unlikely. Simply having valuable skills does not lead to marginalization. Lawyers have very valuable skills, and they are not systemically oppressed.

For a group to be marginalized for their labor, they have to be without power. This is why Amazon’s warehouse workers face horrible conditions on a systemic level. Their work generates incredible value, but without collective bargaining, they have no leverage against their employer. If individual workers stand up for themselves, they can be easily fired and replaced.

Mages would be in the opposite situation. They are inherently difficult to replace,* since only another mage can do their job. In most settings, their magic would also give them significant leverage, since bosses don’t typically enjoy being struck by lightning. And since they all have an immutable trait in common, magic, they’d likely see themselves as having a common interest, something modern workers struggle with.

Despite what Ayn Rand might have told you, capable individuals are not oppressed for the poor mass’s benefit, and neither would mages be oppressed for mundane people’s benefit. Oppression consistently flows from power, not toward it. If, on the other hand, mages are from a separate population, they might be oppressed due to good old-fashioned racism, but it won’t be due to their magic.

3. Anti-Mage Propaganda

Uther pointing angrily from BBC Merlin Uther somehow remains un-toadified despite his anti-mage rhetoric.

So it’s unlikely that anti-mage oppression would arise on its own, but what if someone were to help it along? Lots of stories have a villain who loves to make incendiary speeches and spread misleading information about how dangerous those darned mages are, and, for some reason, it’s usually a king.* I guess hereditary monarchs are an easy bad guy when you’re trying to make readers think superheroes are the underdogs.

This seems plausible on the surface, as we’ve all seen plenty of influential bigots whip up hate against marginalized groups. Sometimes it’s a politician who wants to secure transphobic votes; sometimes it’s a private prison CEO who wants to ensure a constant supply of Black and brown inmates. Could the same thing happen with mages, either because the bad guy has something to gain, or just because they hate magic missiles?

Probably not. The targets of these real-life attacks rarely have the resources to fight back, which is why the propaganda is so successful. Despite what transphobes tell you, there is no Big Trans Lobby with the resources to effectively counter, say, the online screeds of a famous author. Unlike real marginalized groups, mages have magic. Unless that magic is unusually impotent, it would give mages the resources to launch their own public relations campaigns.

And it wouldn’t even come to that in all likelihood. The kind of person looking to scapegoat entire groups of people is almost always looking for an easy win, and there would simply be softer targets available. That’s why, for example, conspiracy theorists target largely Black and brown areas when pushing accusations of nonexistent voter fraud.

4. Religious Intolerance

A witch hunter tying Agnes to the stake in Good Omens. Good Omens at least has a realistic end for its witch-hunters.

If mere mortals cannot be counted on to properly oppress mages, perhaps the gods can? There’s obvious Christian influence here, as European history is filled to the brim with accusations of witchcraft being used to justify religious violence. Is this history a good guide for speculative fiction?

No, for a very simple reason: the people murdered in witch trials didn’t actually have magic. If they had, they’d have used it to avoid being murdered. Neither were they Satanists or even pagans in most cases. Usually, victims of witch trials were as Christian as their neighbors. There’s no single reason they were targeted, but it often had to do with being social outcasts and someone else wanting their stuff.

If a setting has magic, it will almost certainly be incorporated into the various religions. What better way to prove how great your religion is than a priest who can actually grant miracles? This is especially true if magic has been around for a long time, but it would probably happen even if magic just popped into the world yesterday. Churches, like most human organizations, know better than to throw away a useful tool.

Of course, if gods are real in your setting, then they can oppress mages no problem. That’s a case of one supernatural group being oppressed by another. But human religious figures won’t fill the same role.

5. Mages Are Dangerous

A mage using blood magic in Dragon Age 2. In Dragon Age, the Chantry oppresses mages because it thinks they might turn into demons at any moment. The Chantry is right.

Some authors are perfectly aware that all things being equal, mundane humans would never have the motivation to oppress mages. When these authors want to have oppressed mages anyway, they tip the scale by making those mages inherently dangerous. This often takes the form of young or inexperienced mages being a danger to those around them because they can’t yet control their powers.

Such a premise can certainly be used to justify all kinds of harsh treatment. If certain kids could level city blocks by burping too loud, horrible things might indeed be done to them in the name of public safety. There’s just one problem: this is no longer oppression as we know it.

In real life, bigots often claim that whichever group they hate is inherently dangerous. From blood libels of the Middle Ages to modern fearmongering over trans women in bathrooms, this tactic is incredibly common. The difference is that such claims are manufactured. There is no threat from trans women, Jews have never used Christian blood to bake our bread, Muslims are not terrorists, etc.

When you make such threats real, you at least partly justify the actions taken to stop them. The story no longer works as a parallel for bigotry in the real world. If you try to do that anyway, some readers will inevitably side with the “oppressors,” as it’s clear that some precautions are needed to keep non-mages safe. Worse, you can end up validating people who think that actual marginalized groups are out to get them.

6. Mages Are Former Oppressors

Technocrat agents with futuristic weapons from the cover of Technocracy Reloaded In Mage, the Technocracy overthrew rune magic and replaced it with tech magic.

Another way authors tip the scales is by casting mages as the oppressors of yesterday. Now the mundane masses have risen up and flipped the script on their wizardly overlords. This scenario at least acknowledges that mages would almost certainly be a privileged class, but it falls apart from there.

For a true mass uprising to take place, conditions on the ground have to be really bad. Violently rebelling against the elites is hard, and most people don’t take it up until they have nothing left to lose. If mundane humans were that desperate, then it means their mage leaders had likely been running things into the ground for decades, also known as France in 1789 and Russia in 1917.

Just like the previous entry, this justification also carries the implication that the “oppressors” have a point. The last time they let mages have free rein, everything went to hell. The only alternative is a world where the masses rose up without reason, which will mostly serve to make the story seem implausible.

A final problem with this option is that overthrown elites rarely remain overthrown for long. Many revolutions end by installing a similar group of rulers, so an anti-mage uprising is likely to end with a different set of mages in power. Even when revolutions try to empower the people, the elites are almost always back within a few decades in one form or another.

7. Mundane Numbers

A purple explosion over a forest. My GM always tries this but I have ways of dealing with crowds.

Now that we’ve covered all the various justifications for why mages might be oppressed, it’s time to look at explanations for how they might be. If you were wondering, these don’t make any sense either. The most basic argument is that non-magical humans would simply overwhelm mages through superior numbers. Otherwise known as the “they’ll run out of spell slots eventually” strategy.

In some stories, magic is so powerful that this justification doesn’t work at all. If every mage is Superman, then it doesn’t matter how many humans attack them.* But in most stories, this argument is technically correct. If it came to a total fight to the death, mages would lose. The problem is that actual conflicts don’t work like that.

First, there’s the issue of no one wanting to be first. A large crowd can technically overwhelm a single gunman, but anyone in the initial charge faces certain death, which can give even trained soldiers pause. More importantly, it’s extremely unlikely that the entire mundane population would mobilize in an anti-magic war.

Unless the story is about evil mage overlords, the average person would have no reason to risk death in such a conflict. As the mage-haters try to convince everyone that marching into lightning bolts is cool, the mages would use their resources to acquire mundane allies of their own. Now there are mundane humans fighting on both sides, and the mage side also has magic.

8. Mundane Technology

A spacecraft blasting off from the moon in House of X. The X-Men literally have a guy whose power is to make better tech.

Another common refrain in defense of oppressed mages is that technology would level the playing field. Summoning spells and invisibility are very impressive, but can they match the power of a tactical airstrike? Maybe. In some stories, magic is so powerful that it renders even modern technology useless, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that’s not the case.

The critical flaw in this rationale is that mages can use technology too. In fact, mages can often employ technology to much greater effect than their mundane counterparts. For example: to deliver a bomb to the enemy, mundane humans require a delivery system, usually a plane or missile. Those in turn require launch facilities, fuel, spare parts, etc. A mage with teleportation can zap the bomb directly into enemy HQ and then flee the scene before anyone knows what’s happening.

Of course, not all mages will have teleportation spells, but this model holds no matter what powers are available. If mages have super strength, they can carry bigger guns and wear more armor. If they have enhanced senses, they can see where the enemy is and outmaneuver them. If a story has weather magic, mages can ruin the other side’s gear with rain and mud. The list goes on.

It’s also likely that mages would have more advanced tech than their mundane counterparts, since many magic powers have major applications in the fields of technological development. Metallurgical powers would lead to more advanced alloys and efficient production, while shrinking spells would let mages easily adjust and repair the tiniest of electronics. Authors can always declare by fiat that mages don’t use tech, but such a conceit will never hold up to scrutiny.

9. Weak Mage Powers

Mickey animating a broom from Fantasia. Look at this nerd using magic to clean up. No way that could go wrong.

Most writers give their mages fairly powerful abilities, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Some mages have modest powers indeed. Rather than fireballs and demon summoning, they can conjure a few gallons of water or enchant rooms to clean themselves. These practical witches would certainly be easier to overpower than the living gods found in other settings, but would that make oppression more likely?

Probably not, as even a little magic goes a long way. Water creation spells would be incredibly valuable in dry areas, even if the volume of water is moderate. Meanwhile, cleaning a house normally takes hours, so a mage who can do it in minutes would have a huge advantage over their custodial competition. These advantages would quickly translate into wealth, and with wealth comes the power to resist oppression.

It’s technically possible to make magic so weak that it provides no benefit whatsoever. Perhaps mages can temporarily change the color of a single marble or adjust a cat’s meow by one octave. However, I have never seen a published story use this justification. It turns out that most people don’t want to read or write about useless magic. Some stories will claim that technology has surpassed magic, but when you look closer, magic can always do things that technology can’t.

Ironically, making magic totally useless also reduces the chances of anyone being oppressed for it. At that point, magic is on the same level as having green eyes. It might be a little unusual, but it’s so unimportant that it would quickly fade into the background in favor of factors that actually get people oppressed.

10. Anti-Mage Abilities

A steam train from the video game Arcanum. In Arcanum, technology makes magic stop working. Why? Magic!

This final justification is probably the most popular of them all. Since oppressing magical beings presents obvious difficulties, authors will craft specialized anti-mage forces whose only goal is to take those rude wizards down. Surely with these elite witch-hunters on the payroll, mages will be quaking in their boots!

The immediate issue with this option is that it usually creates a catch-22: the mage-hunters are either not powerful enough to match their target, or they need to have magic of their own. Magic-canceling weapons and armor are rarely enough, as most mages can easily vanquish an opponent without targeting them directly. That’s assuming the mage even has to fight personally, since most serious mages have the funds to hire bodyguards.

Once an author gives their mage-hunters the power necessary to overcome a mage’s mundane allies, then the hunter is also a mage in every way that matters. This raises the question of why the hunters aren’t also oppressed. This is a world where people are targeted for having special powers, so they would suffer the same fate as their targets, right?

Assuming the author can explain that conundrum without the story turning into wizard versus wizard, there’s a good chance that they’ve created a scenario in which it is feasible to oppress mages. But they shouldn’t celebrate, because they still have to explain why mages would be oppressed in the first place, and that will take them all the way to the beginning of this list. There’s no avoiding it: even if you can solve the practical problems, the sociopolitical ones will get you every time.

Mixing and Matching

Most stories with oppressed mages use a mix of the above options when trying to seem credible. The king spreads propaganda over how dangerous mages are, which inspires angry mobs to assail kindly old witches. Or an evil government creates an anti-mage task force so they can force all wizards to cast Reduce National Debt over and over again.

None of that ever works. It’s just combining multiple wrong arguments and hoping that creates something correct, like a double negative of oppressed mages. In our first example, any remotely rational king would make use of magical abilities to further his power, so those kindly witches would already be in the ruling elite. If a single king were so incompetent as to reject magic, his neighbors would happily use magic against him. In the second example, the money-wizards would have the same arrangement with their government that modern-day billionaires do with theirs.

No matter how the specifics are arranged, it is the powerful who oppress the powerless, not the other way around. Portraying mages as the victim of mundane oppression is not only unrealistic, but it also reinforces some very ugly ideas in real life. While powerful people aren’t actually oppressed, they often want us to think they are. The ultra wealthy cry about oppression any time they get taxed even a little. White reactionaries claim they are censored whenever they face the slightest consequences for their actions. This is where the logic of oppressed mages gets us, and the sooner we change course, the better.

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Comments

  1. AlgaeNymph

    All I know is that I only found out about Technocracy Reloaded just now, too late for the Kickstarter. : (

  2. Cay Reet

    I’ve never really seen why mages would be oppressed. They’re powerful and their powers are useful – that combination usually makes someone a privileged and not an underprivileged group.

    As far as magic and technology not working together, I used the idea that magic and electricity can interact in some way in Isadora Goode, but that’s mostly ‘magic and electricity can cancel each other, so no big technology like computers in a magically charged environment, because that could cause trouble.’ Mages can own and use technology – it’s only big collections of magical power or spells that can cause trouble.

    • GeniusLemur

      Mages would be oppressed so authors can load them down with SEW KEWL powers and SEW KEWL membership in an exclusive group while still making them the SEW KEWL underdogs who are SEW ANGSTY because they’re different. It’s a way to have your cake, eat it too, and then sell it for $100,000 while retaining possession.

  3. Jeppsson

    Oh no, Oren, how DARE you? AGAIN?

    Seriously, though, the one thing I kind of take issue with is comparing mages to the upperclass. The latter’s power is ultimately social in nature. Suppose that all of the working class and middle class somehow managed to agree that they’d do a revolution and seize all the assetts the upperclass currently holds – including working- and middle class people who are directly employed by the upperclass as bodyguards and security staff. Of course this level of agreement is hard to achieve, but IF everyone is in on it, rebelling becomes perfectly safe.
    With mages, on the other hand, rebelling could be dangerous even if every single muggle joined in.

    Pretty timely article though, since I JUST had a person in my writer’s group on Facebook advertize their own self-published book like this: “The book takes place in a world where magic is real, and people hate mages because they are different. It’s just like in the real world, where people who have [marginalized trait] X, like I do, get a lot of hate simply for being different.”

    • Cay Reet

      When it comes to revolution against the upperclass, you can easily look at the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution to see what happens next: The old elites are removed (ofter very finally) and a new elite rises. Within a certain time, you have a similar upperclass again, even if it’s made up of different people.

      • Jeppsson

        Right, Cay, and that’s also because this is ultimately a social power. If, somehow, the muggles in the X-men universe did manage to get rid of mutants, a group of humans couldn’t just become mutants in turn, because being a mutant is an inherent, biological trait, not a social one.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, but there would still be new mutants being born, since a lot of mutants have non-mutant parents. Killing those who are around isn’t going to lead to no other mutants ever again.

          • Grey

            And we all know what happens when they try to get rid of all potential mutants: Sentinels wipe out humanity.

      • Passerby

        But that’s the point of this objection, no? The new elites will have nothing to do with the old. They can have a different religion, philosophy, race and so on. They aren’t the previous elite’s continuation, they are their own new thing. Just becaus all hierarchies have an elite, doesn’t make them one and the same. The people who ruled previously are still dead, likely together with their families, friends, and a bunch of “I don’t like my neighbor so I’ll claim he’s anti-revolution” victims.

        • Cay Reet

          They will form new elites, which will lead to new underprivileged groups, which will then lead to new revolutions. No revolution, no matter how necessary, is the last one.

          • Passersby

            Sure, if you say so. Still beside the point. The complaint is that the upper billionaire class can be beaten by the revolution and the upcoming elites won’t necessarily be capitalists. They might be oppressing people for diferent reasons, for instance for being pro-capitalist, which in turn means the oppressed group will be diferent too. Or a tsar can be replaced with a a communist dictator. And so on.

            Meanwhile, in case of mages, it is likely that the next elites will still be mages with the same philosophy.

            So the comparison isn’t accurate.

          • Cay Reet

            That doesn’t make it invalid.

            As long as people still produce and trade goods (as they most likely will), those with more money can buy more goods and live a better life – so they’ll become an elite. That will very much lead to another elite of rich people. If you look at countries who tried and failed to implement capitalism (such as the members of the former Sovjet Union or China, which is communist in name only by now), you will see that rich people are a more powerful elite there than before.

            It is likely that in case of a magic-based elite being killed, the next one with be magical again, just as it is likely that every society which relies on buying and selling goods will, sooner or later, have a money-based elite again.

          • Cay Reet

            ‘implement communism,’ not ‘implement capitalism.’

    • GeniusLemur

      And with mages, if you get rid of them, then you have to figure out how to do whatever the mages did without them. If mages mostly throw fireballs on the battlefield and you got rid of them all, how do you compensate when the enemy army has fireballs and you don’t?
      For the rich, on the other hand… well, they don’t do much of anything unless we buy into ayn rand’s laughable idea that business moguls who inherited all their money come up with technological innovations personally (and all by themselves).

      • Jeppsson

        Like Galt, who invented a freaking perpetuum mobile… (Also, I can’t get over that his surname means “male pig” in Swedish, so I always picture him as an anthropomorphic cartoon pig.)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah, the comparison between mages and rich people isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got for now since in real life, there’s really nothing that directly compares to inborn magic.

      • Jeppsson

        True that!

      • Justin Wou

        Well, speaking from a futurist/transhumanist perspective that would depend on whether in the future, technology to augment the human body and mind (I.e. Gene-mods, cybernetics, etc.) become a reality. But no doubt, the rich and the powerful would be the first to have access to them. Then perhaps, we might see something closer to the mages/muggles dynamics. I.e. Rich people get to live forever in superhuman bodies, while the poor live comparatively short lives as normal, unaugmented humans, etc.

        • Cay Reet

          It’s still not the same – magic is usually in inborn talent whereas augmentation is open to everyone who can afford it. It might be likely that in such a society, people would save up money for augmentations if they’re not born into the elite, to get closer to the elite, make more money, and insure that they and their offspring can afford augmentations to keep up. A muggle can’t save up money to gain magic.

  4. Kit

    It’s so enduring because it’s an appealing trope – plenty of conflict, and the protagonists get to have novelty and be the underdogs at the same time. Just a shame it tends to crumble under the slightest scrutiny!

    While I can’t see witchhunt-style oppression as we see in Merlin ever being feasible with real witches, I don’t think oppressed mages are wholly impossible – but it’s a very specific set of circumstances that make it plausible, which most stories aren’t aiming for. The mages can’t be oppressed for being mages, or at least that can’t have been the primary reason for their oppression, and the mages and non-mages can’t have been integrated into one society from the start. But if the mages are being oppressed because the non-mages want their land, or other natural resources, that would make sense. As for logistics – you’d pretty much never be able to oppress people who can shoot fireballs or fly, no matter how outnumbered they were, but people with entirely noncombative powers, such as, say, talking with the dead, or sensing others’ emotions? You could get away with that if you had sufficient numbers of trained soldiers, whereas they were a smaller society and unprepared for a fight. With those few survivors now encompassed into non-mage society, it’d be fairly easy to keep up the propaganda machine, though their talents would always mean they’d have a niche in which to work, so they could very well just end up becoming elites given enough time if people valued those skills enough. Still, that’d at least allow a period in which mages were oppressed, as long as I’ve not missed anything..?

    • eddddd the mad genius

      agree, that is a good way if making it plausible! also possible- if their powers are useful, but basically worthless for self defense. for example- green witches make gardens and fields grow much better just by being in them. but this power is entirely involuntary- in fact, it drains them of energy and makes them physically vulnerable. it would be pretty reasonable for the upper class in a feudal society to make all green witches serfs, forbidden from moving away from the fields, and they’d not have much inherent defense.

  5. Leo

    Strange that what pushes the mages to become dangerous in DA is, more than 90% of the time, the persecutions initiated by the Chantry. For a religion worshipping a non-existent god, they are quite good at making self-fulfilling prophecies.

    • Innocent Bystander

      It doesn’t change the fact that they’re right about magic being inherently dangerous. And while they do provide plenty of motivation for mages to use blood magic and demons, they’re not the sole cause of it. Otherwise the Tevinter Imperium would have zero blood magic and using demons.

      This is all coming from a pro-mage player, BTW.

  6. Ekaant

    I remembered watching an Anime called Inou battle were Protagonist’s powers were useless.

    Here is the link:
    https://myanimelist.net/anime/25159/Inou-Battle_wa_Nichijou-kei_no_Naka_de

  7. GeniusLemur

    Actually, European history isn’t filled to the brim with witchcraft accusations. The idea of witches was actually codified quite late in history; the most influential book in witch hunting, Malleus Maleficarum, wasn’t published until 1486. Also, the Catholic Church considered Malleus Maleficarum a collection of stupid superstitions and refused to approve its publication. The total executions for witchcraft in Europe are estimated from 40-60 thousand, most of them during the peak between ~1560 and ~1630. That, of course, is 40-60 thousand too many, but it’s hardly a history “filled to the brim.”

    Fun fact: 2/3 of accused witches in England were acquitted.

    • Cay Reet

      From what I’ve read, one town in England sent the witch hunter packing, claiming they’d rather have their witches than him. Pitchforks might have been involved, too.

  8. Grey

    You’d be much better off having the mages oppressed by other mages who want to hold onto their power. You still get that conflict and spectacle without the obvious pitfall.

    • Passerby

      Yeah, and even then you can still have distinct groups based on inborn traits. Fire mages might oppress water mages, or shadow mages might oppress light mages. Enter cool fights.

      It’s a win-win.

  9. P

    I think Witch Hunts against mages that are members of marginalized groups are fine actually, as long as there are other mages that are part of the oppressive group leading the witch hunts. Marginalized mages are often activists that help their group/oppressed people in general and stand up to oppression, so they would be enemies that the dominant group in that society would want to get rid of, and spread all manner of propaganda about how they are dangerous, sinful, and need to be exterminated(contrasting against the dominant group, which is the opposite of those things, but is Under Attack by them and needs Your Support to exterminate this horrid “threat”). The victims of Witch Hunts were historically marginalized people of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, so it’s easy to translate how that would happen in a fantasy setting where magic is actually real.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yep I covered that exact scenario in my original article!

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        It’s like how the Spanish began their conquest of the Mexica by slaughtering the local elites. It’s not that the Spanish had a specific hatred of aristocrats, it’s that those people were the ones most capable of resisting.

  10. Esq

    “Weak” magic powers like being able to clean a room is going to be a lot more popular with the masses than powerful magic like fireballs. Not only does it make life easier for them, especially in the time before electricity and domestic appliances like washing machines, but the mages aren’t going to be strong enough to be scary the way a fireball thrower would be. People will hire a cleaning mage to do the work. Wealthy nobility won’t have to spend money on having lots of domestic servants to do all that cleaning of their palaces. So mages skilled in “weak” domestic magic are going to be an honored profession like lawyers or engineers. At worst, people will grumble about the prices.

    • Bellis

      Yup, and if you can cast Clean House, you can also do all kinds of other work for money, make your career as a game developer or sports commentator or whatever, but be able to put in more hours than your muggle competition without suffering burnout because you don’t have to also spend hours on cleaning. So, you’d be valued higher if you did other work as well, because you could put more time into it. (Or you’d have more leasure time if you can afford that.)

      • Esq

        Or casting civil magic would be your career. Go to house to house and magically cleaning it or using magic to repair pot holes in roads, etc.

    • Innocent Bystander

      Man, I remember taking the Pottermore sorting quiz and getting Slytherin where they mocked a witch for creating self-cleaning dishes. And all I could think was “but that’s awesome! I wouldn’t have to spend time washing my dishes! I could do so many other things instead!”

      • Cay Reet

        A lot of people would buy them … including me. That witch would make a killing with those dishes and could retire comfortably to do whatever she wanted – while the dishes at her home cleaned themselves, too. Bliss…

      • Esq

        When Harry Potter first became big twenty years ago, a person on usenet noted that it’s strange that kids from muggle backgrounds become so detached from muggle culture. There is going to have to be a kid that likes their video game system enough to create a magical improvement.

  11. Esq

    IMO the entire oppressed mage thing is so you can have a protagonist or sympathetic character this is both cool and marginalized at the same time, which really isn’t that easy too pull off. Dealing with real oppressed groups are going to be not that fun for a lot of readers, and a lot of people read speculative fiction because they find it fun and interesting, so you get oppressed mages.

  12. Esq

    The best and really only defense of the oppressed mage trope is that it is what TVTropes call a necessary weasel to preserve the romance and sense of wonder in a fantasy setting. This is especially important in otherworld fantasy based on a mythologized version of an earth culture, usually but not always Medieval Europe with some hints of other places.

    If magic exists, you are eventually going to have to deal with the fact that why do living conditions remain so primitive though. Magic can solve a lot of problems that it took until the Industrial Revolution to solve on our world. Like food preservation. People were dealing with ways to preserve food since we settled down in agricultural communities, especially in places that had a winter. After thousands of years of work, we eventually learned to master cold and create freezing and refrigeration. If you have a setting with elemental magic, then some enterprising mage is going to create a magical refrigerator sooner rather than later. Same with other problems. You will have trains and trams powered by fire or lightening magic, depending on whether you want to imitate steam or electricity, rather than coal, diesel, or electric power.

    This means rather than having your low Medieval Dark Age kingdom or your wondrous High Medieval Ages kingdom or feudal Japan; you get the late 19th century at earliest. Maybe even the mid-20th century at earliest. Think of the later Discworld novels, especially those centered in Ankh-Morpork, for what this was like when Terry Pratchett started dealign with things like newspapers, movies, etc. It worked for Discworld because Discworld was primary about commentary and satire. In something going more for adventure and wonder, it won’t work.

    Besides creating a rather recognizable setting, the issue becomes the adventurers themselves. Once magic gets used to basically recreate something like late 19th to mid-20th century standard of living, you are going to get more functioning states. These states are going to look down on adventurers no matter what form of government exists. Rather than plunky explorers, ruins are going to be explored and excavated by academic archeologists protected by soldiers and mages employed by the state. Any plunky explorer would be treated as a bandit and a thief, stealing the national heritage or something.

    So if you really want to write a high adventure fantasy, you need a reason why magic doesn’t make life better in real ways for the population. Magical societies should be prosperous and affluent ones if we treat magic like technology and science. This means that you need to come up with an excuse why people aren’t using magic like we use technology.

    • Kenneth Mackay

      One thing that might slow down the pace of magic-aided technological development would be the existence of slaves.

      Why employ an expensive mage to accomplish a task, when there are unpaid slaves to do it? And if mages come up with some spell or device to replace slave labour, what becomes of the slaves? Are they simply going to be clothed and fed for doing nothing, or are they going to be turned away to become beggars or criminals?

      Arguments such as these could prevent the widespread use of magic technology, at least for a while, by those wealthy enough to own slaves or employ mages.

      Another possible argument against rapid development might come from the mages themselves, who would rather maintain the status quo in which they are an exclusive and well-paid elite, rather than having to compete with technology that anyone could use.

      Of course neither of these arguments would prevent development forever, but they could slow it down for long enough to allow for a world to set stories in where magic exists, but hasn’t been efficiently exploited.

      It might even lead to interesting conflicts between developers of technology and Luddite mages, or between neighbouring countries that are following different paths!

      • Esq

        Readily available and wide spread use of slave labor is one reason why some historians believe that the Romans never managed an industrial/scientific revolution despite knowing about steam power. One reason why authors might not want this is that you can’t really write a light hearted or medium serious work with widespread slavery. Most readers, even if they aren’t especially political or liberal, will feel queasy about reading works where slavery is an accepted part of society. So if you want a fun fantasy novel, slavery is going to be on the outs as a world feature.

        Plus the real world shows that slavery and industrialization can go hand in hand quite easily. There is no reason why the same can’t be true of magic land.

        I think the technocratic vs. Luddite mage struggle is called Mage: The Ascension.

  13. Kasplach

    This was a good read. I agree with all of these points, and that 95% of oppressed mages settings don’t make any sense. But I do think it’s possible to make such a setting believable if you really want to, although it requires a very specific set of conditions.

    The scenario that I’m thinking of involves a ruthless dictator with a vendetta against magic, whether that comes from a thirst for revenge or some twisted philosophy. Most people aren’t opposed to magic, but this guy will do anything to root it out. This dictator commands armies of killer robots, brainwashed soldiers, or some other force that the mages can’t bring to their side (or maybe they do eventually, but that would be a turning point in the story). Mages are fairly rare and aren’t super-powerful, so it’s credible that they can’t easily fight back against such an enemy.

    Now, that example isn’t a very good parallel for marginalization in real life, because the oppression of mages isn’t systemic: get rid of that one dictator, and mages will probably get nothing but respect. I just wanted to do a little thought experiment to prove that it is at least possible to craft a setting where your protagonists can have cool powers while still remaining underdogs. Any story in this setting would be pure escapism and probably shouldn’t attempt real social commentary, but I don’t think it violates any of the points in this article. Anyone, feel free to let me know if something seems unbelievable here.

  14. Sam

    Point 2 actually made me think about this show I was watching a while back. The MC was really good at chess, very intelligent and gifted, so she got separated from other characters and sort of put into doing chess regardless of her own personal agenda I think. So I guess that could be “exploitation”? It got her a higher quality of life, but it also didn’t really help her as a person, it actually kinda isolated her from others.

    Maybe mages could have something like that… when they’re noticed for being magical, they’re automatically taken away from their normal lives to, idk, do fancy magic competitions, protect the realm, do construction contests or whatever else mages do, and it seems like a plus but it has some downsides for their personal developing.

    • Jeppsson

      This makes a lot of sense.

      When I was young and lived in a student dorm, there was this guy from Bulgaria. He told us how in his youth, kids who were particularly gifted at some sport would get picked early on to train and train in order to become professional athletes who could, in a best case scenario, end up winning olympic medals for the country, etc. He was picked himself to be a cross country skier, but was later dropped since he never ended up reaching the absolute elite.
      We also know now that a lot of gifted people in Eastern Europe a number of decades back were given steroids and stuff, sometimes without their knowledge or consent. They just noticed themselves getting REALLY strong and fast, but thought it was all down to training, good food and “vitamins”.

      You could make up something along these lines with mages. They’re admired and seen as heroes, but also exploited by the state in various ways, perhaps without them fully realizing.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah that’s certainly a possibility, depending on how magic works and what kind of society exists in your setting. It’s not oppression the way I talk about it in this post, but it’s not a bad plot device.

    • Esq

      It’s basically how the Communist Bloc nations treated athletes in order to win Olympic glory.

  15. Tony

    “Good Omens at least has a realistic end for its witch-hunters.” Yep. A similar example that I’ve mentioned before (though not involving witch-hunters in the classic sense) is Carrie.

  16. Gwen

    The only time oppressed mages seemed to work in any story I read was one where magic disappeared and it was a popular belief that the former mages “Did something horrible” to trigger the event and they were secretly hoarding the magic.

    They weren’t, but the oppression works due to their powerlessness and the propaganda leveled at them by people looking for a scapegoat.

  17. Star of Hope

    Regarding the Witch hunts:

    They were conducted during a time in European/American history, where a large plague just wiped out most of the life in there. The people couldn’t comprehend this event and sought an easy explaination for it: The Jews, other marginalized people like the Romani and Witches. The people came to be convinced that there was an evil power behind it and thus the idea of witch trials were born due to people seeking answers for a problem beyond their understanding. Later they were done to kill dissidents, people no one liked as well as people using natural magic, which the Church treated mostly as harmless superstition. However they were done during the 16th century and not during the Middle Ages because the Catholic Church hated witches so much, they didn’t believe in the existence of witches and even declared the very idea of their exist to be sinful. The protestant church on the other hand did believe in witches and they killed a lot of them during their ascention. When even the Catholic doesn’t believe in oppressed mages, something as gone horribly wrong.

    • Tony

      You’re right that the medieval Catholic Church didn’t believe in witchcraft. When they punished people for claiming to have magical powers, the punishment was less for causing actual supernatural harm and more for the heretical claim that humans had that kind of power in the first place.

      I think the Church changed their tune around the end of the Middle Ages, claiming that humans could cause supernatural harm by consorting with demons. I don’t think they officially accepted the Malleus Maleficarum (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malleus_Maleficarum), an infamous witch-hunting manual, as legitimate—but that didn’t stop local secular and religious authorities, both Catholic and Protestant, from using that book.

      More information on this doctrinal shift: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch-hunt#Middle_Ages

      • Esq

        Outside of France, the witch hunts were mainly a Protestant thing rather than a Catholic thing. The Counter-Reformation Catholic Church was not that big on hunting for witchcraft either.

        • Tony

          Didn’t the Catholic-dominated Habsburg Empire and Italy have a lot of witch trials, though?

    • Star of Hope

      Dammit I wanted to say in my sentence that not even the Catholic Church believed in oppressed mages. I wish there is some way in this site to edit the comments, that would prevent a lot of blunders when writing a response.

  18. J

    ‘Simply having valuable skills does not lead to marginalization. Lawyers have very valuable skills, and they are not systemically oppressed.’

    Find an example where people are born with valuable skills and we’ll talk. Otherwise that’s a terrible argument against orogenes being oppressed. Unless you think lawyers are born, not made.

    • Bellis

      He did. Tall and strong people and also Rudoplph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
      Also the fact that mages don’t exist in the real world and nor does any clear parallel is part of the reason this article needs to exist in the first place.
      I don’t understand why you think mages (is that what you meant by “orogens”?) would be more likely to be oppressed if they are born with innate power/skills and not LESS likely to be oppressed. Because then they’d be more likely to have powerful magical parents and a community that bands together, protects and trains them from a young age and would more likely be an elite or oppressive force than a marginalised group.
      Unless you imagine a world in which random people are born with magical abilities and it’s not more likely that they are born to magical parents. But still I don’t see why that would lead to oppression. If lawyers WERE born with lawyery skills, do you really think they’d be systemically oppressed for it? It would be at worst like the eastern European athletes discussed in another comment thread above.

  19. NN

    Alas, the real reason this trope keeps appearing is reader wish fulfilment, a power that knows no logic.

    Imagine being the underdog BUT you can blast everyone with fireballs when they call you names!!!!!!

    I mean, there’s a reason these stories are popular. Just sayin’.

    • Justin Wou

      Or as I like to say, it goes hand in hand with the chuunibyou (“Eighth Grader syndrome” – for those not versed in anime jargon. Or basically a teenage edgelord) mindset of “the world hates you because you’re special”. There’s certainly a strong wish-fulfillment to be had in believing oneself to be actually cooler/smarter/more badass than everyone else and that’s why they try to keep you down and deny you the glory you deserve.

      I mean, I think many of us have gone through that phase in our childhood/teens. Being a target for bullies, but reassuring oneself that the only reason you’re targeted is because they refuse to acknowledge your ingenuity/coolness, aka. “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

    • Innocent Bystander

      The worst part is that there are plenty of ways to have the wish fulfillment and the underdog narrative while still making sense. For instance, say your story is set in a magic school. Your protagonist can use magic, but they’re the underdog in a different way. Maybe they struggle using a kind of magic that’s easy for everyone else. Maybe they’re marginalized in other ways, such as being a commoner in a school for students from rich and/or noble families. Maybe they’re from another country and have to adjust to a place where everyone speaks a different language from them and follows different customs.

      There are ways that not only make sense but are more interesting narratively. Plus, most of the ideas I listed are more relatable to readers than just “oppressed because magic.” Using the excuse of magic being oppressed just reeks of laziness.

  20. Bellis

    I understand the appeal of oppressed mages especially in the case of a marginalised person writing wish-fulfillment for themselves and their community, say a trans person writing about how us trans people are cool and magical and the cis people only hate us because they don’t understand us.
    For a trans audience, this concept is controversial, some love it and find it empowering, while others reject the idea of being inherently different, unnatural (already a big stereotype) or even dehumanised (if they are cast as mutants for example).

    Cis people who don’t know or understand the context might read such a story and either think trans people are conceited or have their prejudice of “trans peopl (especially transfeminine people) are dangerous” confirmed. I guess it would depend on how it it depicted however, having a bunch of trans main characters would probably dispel more prejudices than reaffirm them, especially if they are (like most main characters) depicted as admirable and complex and if there are whole groups consisting of different trans individuals who all get some decent characterisation.

    It would still not pass the test of in-world logic, but that’s not always the goal. Sometimes the entire premise of worldbuilding for a story is a giant metaphor that is not meant to be examined in this way. Whether that’s a shortcoming of the story or not depends on the views of the reader. In the case of satire, this is done on purpose and to make a point, although admittedly satire needs to be more on-the-nose than most writers think. So maybe my hypothetical trans author thinks it’s obvious that their story satirises the way cis culture allows trans people’s talents to go to waste instead of celebrating them, but most cis people will probably not catch on to that if it’s too subtle. But the “it makes no sense” would be on purpose to show the irrational aspects of oppression (and ignore or downplay the rational aspects of oppression in order to have this focus).

    Aside from a well-done satire or comedy, I do however prefer the approach of writing about mage/mutant/superhero etc characters who happen to have real-world marginalised traits without it being tied to their super abilities. That way you get the benefits without the drawbacks. In my example you get a lot of wishfulfillment trans characters and good representation, but without the implication that oppressed groups are secretly powerful or dangerous or inherently different from “normal” people.

  21. Kinsley Castle

    Yeah, this whole subject is one of the things that bugs me about contemporary fantasy. There has to be some limitation on magic, otherwise you go full Brandon Sanderson, and your character story about human beings takes a back-seat to the BS pseudo-philosophical tract about the magic system.

    But the justifications for limiting magic are all arbitrary and implausible (just as magic itself is). If magic exists, it will eventually become the dominant force, because of the power-differential it creates. You can forget about knights, kings, or any other aspect of the traditional fantasy setting, it’s all about the super-powered wizards. And yet, these ubermenschen are not particularly compelling characters. What is ever going to be challenging to them, except more magic? The best you can do with that is create some sort of abstract logical puzzle, where you spell out the rules, and then show how your protagonist cleverly exploits them for a solution. Which is fine, if you like that sort of thing, but it’s not a story about people you can relate to.

    I’m serious tempted to write stories with no magic in them at all. Or stories where all the wizards are delusional, because their magic just doesn’t work, even though they’ve convinced themselves that it does. But then, in what sense would I be writing fantasy? The solution I’ve actually hit on is to make magic so dangerous and unpredictable that only the truly desperate would even attempt it. But that’s an old-fashioned idea, not something that contemporary fantasy does.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      Brandon Sanderson actually has more limitations on his magic than many other authors do.

      That’s not to say that either style is good or bad, just that there seemed to be the implication that Brandon Sanderson doesn’t have limits on his magic.

      Funnily enough, The Stormlight Archive (one of his series) is actually far more character-focused than a lot of fantasy is.

      Also, what do you mean when you say that “the justifications for limiting magic are all arbitrary and implausible”? Or “your character story about human beings takes a back-seat to the BS pseudo-philosophical tract about the magic system”? Because I don’t know what these could mean.

      • Kinsley Castle

        “Brandon Sanderson actually has more limitations on his magic than many other authors do.”

        I never doubted it. But to do that, he makes magic front and center in his books, at the expense of the other story elements. Mistborn is an example. In the first book, Vin and Elend are interesting characters. Vin gets her Pygmalion arc, where she’s a street kid who has to learn how to be civilized. Elend is a political dilettante who has to decide whether he actually has the courage of his convictions.

        But then, in the next two books they “level up” with magic. Vin hangs up her corset and says: “Phew! I’m glad I don’t have to wear that thing again. Now I can just be some sort of demented murder-batman, flitting around the streets of the city at night.” And Elend has his face rubbed in all of his convictions on the way to becoming a magic-powered wind-up tin-soldier. Both characters become less interesting as magic displaces their personalities.

        • A Perspiring Writer

          Brandon Sanderson puts magic front and center in his books because that’s clearly what he’s interested in writing about.

          I also want to know; how do you feel about the Stormlight Archive? In those books, the magic system is intrinsically related to character development.

          Although, there does seem to be a shared belief in fantasy circles that Sanderson’s characters… aren’t very good? For what it’s worth, I enjoy reading about his characters.

          A couple books and series you might enjoy (all more character-focused, with little focus on magic), based on this one data point:¹
          -The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
          -anything by Guy Gavriel Kay

          ¹ I don’t intend to seem pushy here, I just believe you’re reading the wrong parts of fantasy for your interests. The list may also be inaccurate, as I’m writing it from my viewpoint.

          • Kinsley Castle

            Well, I’ve done my due diligence. I still haven’t found anyone to fill the Terry Pratchett shaped hole in my reading list. And I’m wondering if there’s actually a market for my stories that read like Alexander Dumas riffing on Fritz Lieber.

          • A Perspiring Writer

            When I saw “like Alexander Dumas riffing on Fritz Leiber”, I thought of (after looking up who Fritz Leiber was) something like ‘adventurous sword-and-sorcery historical fantasy’.

            Does that seem about right? Or am I assuming wrong?

            P.S. – Also, if you’re worried about there not being a market for your books, Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are pretty low-magic (at least I think they are), and he’s a pretty popular author.

            P.P.S. – What is it about Terry Pratchett that you enjoy? Maybe I can help you find something like him.

          • Kinsley Castle

            There were only three or four Discworld books when I started reading them, and they were all really funny. His whole thing was: what if fantasy worlds were inhabited by real people instead of heroic archetypes? Then, as he matured as a writer, I really appreciated the humanitarian vibe of the series.

            There are plenty of people who have written like that (Robert Rankin, Douglas Adams, etc), but I’m not seeing it nowadays.

          • Cay Reet

            If you’re okay with something closer to our world, I’d suggest looking into books by Jasper Fforde (yes, the second ‘f’ is not a typo). I do love “The Big Over Easy” and “The Fourth Bear”, but his other books are great, too. The idea of a book universe some humans can enter is great and the idea that books are taken as seriously as jewellery and other expensive things is something that warms my bookworm’s heart.

            Or look at the Brian Helsing series (they just had their big big bad in book 10) – Brian is a guy who gets stuffed into a heroic role and deals with it how you or I probably would, so not that heroic.

    • Esq

      Magic is nuclear energy or the wild magic solution. The problem with the wild magic solution is that authors can’t seem to resist the urge to make their wild magic protagonist so awesome that they can still use magic without much harm. There is a good reason for this though. If magic was as dangerous than chances are any magic using character is going to die from a magic related accident before the book is over. So you need to figure out why your character doesn’t get imploded by a wrongly cast spell.

  22. S

    What do you think of a world where magic can be easily extracted from mages (eg to create “batteries”)? Or a world where all mages are conscripted into the army?

    • King Atlas

      Hi, S! That sounds REALLY INTERESTING, NGL!! Do they use tech or magic for the batteries? Why not just hire the mages? And for the other one, are there ways that people like. “avoid the draft”? Is there propaganda for that kind of stuff? It sounds really cool!

    • Cay Reet

      I believe there’s a series running on a streaming service (only read about it, don’t have the service) which deals with the idea that all witches (they seem to be the only mages) are conscripted automatically into their world’s/country’s army. That will, though, sooner or later also lead to large numbers of deserters or draft dodgers, as long as there’s some place to flee to.

      I don’t really see the point in extracting magic from mages, to be honest. Would other mages do that to expand their own powers? Why use a battery system that needs the violent draining of mages instead of the mages themselves? You could, technically, keep them unconscious and hook them up to something until they’re fully drained (and the system might work even better, if you let them recuperate and then draw again, provided they regenerate magic). Or just pay them for powering your stuff, which means you don’t have to hunt them down in the first place (cheaper in the long run, too).

      • Jeppsson

        In Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep there’s a species of vampire (or whatever you wanna call them) that can only feed on magic/PSI-powers. Most mages are very low-level though, can’t do that much, and never realize to start with that they have magic powers. They’ll occasionally use their magic in small and sub-conscious ways, and then think of themselves as “lucky” or something.
        Anyway, for this reason, magic kids (the vampires usually target kids) are pretty easy prey. Furthermore, a single kid can feed the whole clan for like a year or more, and they keep travelling around, which explains how they can get away with their murders.
        They get in trouble when they make the greedy mistake of targeting a powerful magic kid, who also understands she’s got powers. She could potentially provide food for the clan for many years to come if they manage to kill her and bottle her magic up, but she’s much more dangerous to attack.

        I think this worldbuilding works, by and large. HOWEVER, it’s really not an “oppressed mages” scenario.

  23. Dallas Taylor

    For the most part I find your oppressed-mages-as-unbelievable critique spot on. But I think you really should reconsider including The Fifth Season, at least if you haven’t read the rest of the trilogy. Jemisin deals with it all pretty skillfully, and I think you could probably pick a better target for what is largely a pretty solid hobby horse.

  24. Kenneth Mackay

    Kinsley Castle – have you read Tom Holt? He has (among many other books) a series set in a world where office culture mixes with fantasy, set in the offices of J W Wells.

    You might also enjoy Christopher Moore’s ‘Bloodsucking Fiends; a love story’ about vampires in the Bay area of San Francisco.

  25. Kenneth Mackay

    If you mean ‘Fort Salem’ the premise is that, during the Salem Witch Trials, they caught a genuine witch, who made a deal that witches would serve in the military, in return for an end to persecution. As a result, the American Civil War was a draw, with the South remaining Confederate. There are draft dodgers, who mostly escape to the USA, but the main enemy is a group of witches who believe they should rule over non-witches and use terrorist tactics against the general populace, so it’s not so much ‘oppressed mages’ as ‘mage v mage’.

    As for unconscious mages being drained of magic – isn’t that ‘The Matrix’?

    • Cay Reet

      I remembered something about Salem, so you’re probably right.

      As for the Matrix – it drains regular humans, not mages, using their life force or something like that. The principle would also work with mages, I guess.

  26. Alverant

    You didn’t bring up conscription, which is a type of oppression as well. Consider a setting where anyone who exhibits magical power is pressed into government service under the guise of “patriotism” or “arcanus oblige”. A society that indoctrinates the idea that any mage should use their talent for the good of all. Refusal is seen as unpatriotic or even treasonous (if you’re not helping us, you’re helping the enemy). If your magic is weak, like the aforementioned cleaning rooms, then you’re drafted into sanitation and told to start cleaning the messy rooms of upper-class brats. You can throw fireballs? You’re in the Army now. (You’ll never get rich, you sonofa witch.) It may be a job with pay (maybe even good pay) and benefits, but you can’t quit because you’re “too important”. You’re not only held in place from social pressure, but your fellow mages who may actually believe the part about community service.

    • Cay Reet

      That can work for a while, but will eventually fail. Conscription is still oppression, because you’re forced to do something you might not want to do. No amount of propaganda will make everyone believe what the government is saying. Sooner or later, some people will ask themselves ‘why am I magiacally scrubbing latrines when my brother, who has no magic, could become what he wanted?’ People will get restless, will dodge the draft, no matter the pressure. Then there just has to be one other country around that welcomes mages and promises freedom and more and more of them will do their best to get there. Just as the GDR was drained of workers, because the western sectors offered better life (which was why the Wall was built).

      • Alverant

        “but will eventually fail”
        But how long will that take? Weeks? Years? Generations? Centuries? Nations had laws on the books allowing conscription for centuries The US had a draft. England had its own tricks to get sailors. Switzerland, Norway, and Isreal (among others) have mandatory military service with limited exceptions.

        The article is about how oppressing mages will fail, but how long will it succeed? Conscript all the mages for a “national emergency” that’s only expected to last a short time and there probably won’t be as many objections or draft dogers.

        • Cay Reet

          Draft is one thing, but successfully drafting everyone is another. There have been draft dodgers for every war and every conscription people have come up with. There’s always some who’d rather leave their country than be drafted. How long it will work in general depends on several factors, such as how easy it is to get away from the country which has the draft or how good the argument for drafting people is.

          Drafting for a war is one thing, but conscripting all mages as they reach adulthood and keeping them under control for their whole lives is a different thing. That is something which will not be around for long … a few decades, perhaps, until it’s clear that only death gets you out of that, but not longer. Shorter, most likely, especially when conscription goes along with bad treatments or severely limited freedom.

  27. BLAKE 1001

    So this one immediate reminded me of earlier ‘Masquerade’ articles.

    And my first thought, before I’d even finished it, was, again, a major problem was Overestimating magic. But, this time you addressed that, sorta. You did have a heading for ‘Weak Magical Powers’ where you reasoned that, well, if magic gives you any advantage, it’ll make you some money, and money = power = no oppression.

    But, I wonder about that on two levels. First, most of the other objections you raise to both reasons and means of oppressing mages boil down to them being too powerful. So if you combine Weak Magic with any number of the above – anti-Mage propaganda, numeric superiority, religious intolerance, etc, they start working. Likewise anti-magic and Gods Being Real. If there are Gods and they don’t much care for mortal mages, they could set up an analogue to historic religious persecution – they don’t give their followers magical powers, but do offer them protection, if their faith is strong enough, from said powers. If something mundane – like, oh, cold iron – protects from magic, then in the jackboot-meets-the-face nitty gritty of oppression, the mages’ advantages largely disapear, especially if their Weak Magic isn’t much for tipping buildings over on people.

    Hmm… actually, cold iron (wrought iron) has been said to be baneful to magic or to faeries or whatever in some traditions, and for the science-magic-crossover folks, the element iron is unique in that (IIRC, this is from an off hand comment from a lecturer heard in the 90s) fusion of elements lighter than iron can net energy, as can fission of elements heavier than iron, making iron a sort of ground-state element. Thats intriguing, maybe it’s a sink that nullifies whatever subtle forcre magic uses? Maybe iron that ‘absorbs’ magic slowly transmutes into the next-heaviest element, cobalt, maybe only very pure iron works so it quickly becomes ineffective, and steel doesn’t work…

    … so you could have a RL-seeming setting that includes both oppression of mages in the past, and a modern day resurgence of magic with the attendant masquerade, based on that. It’d go: magic was common before the iron age, when metalic iron was this rare resource available only from meteorites and very rare deposits of native iron. When wrought iron became available it took on mysical significance of it’s own, being used by warrior-nobles, priests and the like to oppose mages – at first, ‘evil’ mages, but eventually mages in general. As iron became commonplace magic vanished in a practical sense, mages had to go get out of towns and cities with their innumerable iron nails holding their buidling together to work magic at all, and most everyone had a pesonal item – knife, tool, religious ornament, whatever – of iron most of the time. Persecution of accused mages continued but eventually belief in magic was debunked, entirely.
    Then, as steel and aluminum took over for iron in practical uses, newly minted mages began re-discovering their abilities, and, noting that magic never worked around gramma’s cast iron pans, realizing how vulnerable they were, kept it on the DL. Of course, it would still need to be ‘weak magic’ to begin with, or mages would have ruthlessly suppressed the working of iron, keeping humanity in the bronze age eternally – magic of the sorts people tended to actually believe in could fit the bill.

    • Cay Reet

      That still leaves you with the usual problems of the Masquerade, especially in a modern setting. One video of someone doing magic, a handful of mages selling their skills to people who are not supposed to know about magic (yes, illegal, but look how much that means with other things…), one country deciding to show that they have mages and that magic works and the Masquerade is nil and void.

      • BLAKE 1001

        We see videos of people doing magic all the time. We assume they’re tricks or special effects. Its a non-issue.

        It would be easy enough for ‘weak magic” mages to trade off their limited powers, just as people with no powers beyond cold-reading and grifting do. There’s a plethora of mages and psychics out there and many people who believe or are entertained enough to give them a living at it. Masquerading in plain sight could be pretty plausible.

        For a different tone you could invert the masquerade and have mages with weak, inherently non-scientiffically-repeatable, powers trying to come out to a mostly disbelieving world. Which could look exactly like the real world, with new age, psychics, and the like dismissed as kooks and fritters, but some of them would actually be real.

        • Cay Reet

          We see the tricks, yes, but some people, even in our world, want to believe they’re not tricks. Now add real magic, where the trick can’t be explained. A specialist on those effects can reproduce any trick you can see in the videos – either physically or by showing how the video can be cut to make it look like this works. In a world with magic, there will be things which can’t be explained that way.

  28. Alverant

    In a nice bit of serendipity, I found this video about Bewitched and how it was a metaphor for being homosexual.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1it8-y4gWwg

  29. Jarosch

    While 5 is questionable as a real-life allegory, if you go out of your way to avoid real life paralells- The infamous ‘Aug Lives Matter’ in Deus Ex being an example of what to avoid- It could be a very interesting scenario in it’s own right.

    Suddenly you have a genuine moral dilemma, assuming the mechanics are constructed right. Say that potential mages, even if they abstain from using magic, are demon-magnets. They have done nothing specifically wrong, and arguably suffer from their nature even more than those around them, yet even without trying too they hurt others and the world at large, just by existing. What is to be done?

    Since they are not (necessarily) responsible for their nature or their effects on others, doing anything to them would be morally wrong, yet to do nothing would harm many, many more people. It is a legitimate moral quandary, and a rich backdrop for lots of juicy character drama and world-building.

    A delicate hand is of course necessary- make one, ideally several, of the mages sympathetic, fleshed-out characters, with varied responses to the situation, avoid any reusing or alluding to any real-world terminology or events, and so on- but if if could be puled off, it could be very good, and well worth the effort.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah I could see a story like that working if you were very careful to portray it as a moral dilemma rather than a parallel for real life bigotry (which is notably not a dilemma).

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