Regarding Muggles

Mark Lawrence on fantasy’s “born to magic” aspect:

Muggles and Elitism in Fantasy

The main difference between fantasy and science fiction is the nature of the fake science (magic) they present us with. Generally the technology resulting from science is available to anybody to buy or discover given sufficient reserves of money, intelligence, infrastructure etc. It’s an egalitarian form of “magic”. To use a warp drive or phaser gun doesn’t require you to be born special.

Magic, on the other hand, often requires you to be born “magic”. Fantasy is rife with chosen ones, singular heroes whose talents allow them to change the course of history, wielders of magic that is  available to them alone or to some elite that were born special.

I think there are several aspects Lawrence is missing.

(1) If the dividing line between fantasy and science-fiction is “universal access to weird stuff” vs “genetically-determined access to weird stuff”, you run into difficulties. By Lawrence’s reasoning, X-Men (people being born with special powers) is fantasy, despite the fact that the underlying explanation is gene mutation (i.e. a science-fictional scenario). Alternatively, the necromancy in Wise Phuul (taught as a school subject in the Viiminian Empire) is science-fiction, despite the fact that it is, well, magic.

(2) Even in settings where magic is a limited resource, the Harry Potter-style wizards/muggles divide is hardly universal. Indeed, looking across the genre, you have all sorts of variations on how magic users obtain their abilities – from it being something that anyone can learn (Patrick Rothfuss’ sympathy), to something anyone can access from a source (the earthpower in Thomas Covenant), to something that is purely the domain of supernatural beings (Tolkien’s Istari are de facto minor angels), to something dependent on one’s god (George R.R. Martin’s R’hllor worshippers), to being a matter of folk wisdom and psychological manipulation (Terry Pratchett’s Witches). One even sees this distinction in Dungeons & Dragons, between wizards (magic from study), sorcerers (magic from innate ability), and warlocks (magic from pacts). Real-world magical traditions tend to be a combination of study, ritual, and interacting with the allegedly supernatural – there is very little emphasis on the practitioner’s ancestry. By Lawrence’s reasoning, such “real-world” magic would fall under science-fiction.

(3) Even in settings where there *is* a wizard/muggle divide, there is no need for the protagonist to be a wizard. Sam Vimes lives in a city where magic objectively exists – but he is strictly non-magical himself. Conan the Barbarian is also very much a muggle, but that doesn’t stop him chopping and slicing his way through evil sorcerers. Locke Lamora doesn’t do magic, but he deals with bondsmagi. Jon Snow and Bran Stark may have innate warging ability, but Tyrion Lannister doesn’t. Et cetera. Rather than focusing on the 1% in such a setting, why not focus on one of the 99%?

(4) It is perfectly possible for science-fictional works to be every bit as elitist as Lawrence alleges fantasy works to be. Indeed, the entire basis of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light is that a particular caste have got their hands on a technological means of reincarnation – which they keep for themselves, and use to control others.

(5) Just because a magic system is (in theory) meritocratic doesn’t mean the end result is particularly utopian. Taking Wise Phuul as an example (it feels wrong citing my own work in this scenario, but let’s run with it anyway), necromancy is not only universally accessible, but one’s ability to do it is entirely independent of ancestry, gender or sexuality. That does not stop the development of a class system, or socio-economic factors playing a key role in determining how well one does at examination time.


3 thoughts on “Regarding Muggles

  1. Pingback: Blood lineage: A Song of Ice and Fire vs The Lord of the Rings | A Phuulish Fellow

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