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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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