I had a friendly argument with a roommate of mine recently over our preferred nature of magic in fiction. I don’t think either of us were deeply set on our side in that argument, so needless to say I don’t think either of our stances were terribly well developed, but ultimately what needs be known is that my preference is not for magic to be inheritable. I find stories where those who can do magic were just born special to be…I don’t want to express it as distasteful, but its certainly not ideal.

No, my preference is for settings where everyone could do magic. The reason why everyone doesn’t do magic is twofold: first, because it is very hard and second because it is kept very secret and very safe.

Alright first part, this was not an argument for learnable magic that I presented in the argument with my friend, it’s something I thought of L’esprit de l’escalier. Asking “If magic is learnable, why doesn’t everyone do it?” is, in my eyes, the same question as asking why everyone doesn’t write novels or do calculus equations or successfully raise children. It’s the same answer every time for complex skills of this sort: it’s because it’s fucking hard. You don’t just say bibbity bobbity bo and congratulations, you are now a wizard! In order to do anything successfully with magic without ending up heinously cursed or exploded, you have to work at it, painfully and over many years. You have to sacrifice yourself to the study of it. You have to need that magic, not just kind of want it. Most people want magic, but if we’re being honest, most people also don’t need magic in the way I’m describing here. To even complete the study required to know how to ask for anything will cost you most of the best years of your life.

If someone came up to you and said, “You can become a wizard, but it will mean never meeting any of your friends or loved ones, instead you’ll be locked in this tower toiling in study the entire time.” How many of us would actually say yes? I’m not even convinced I would say yes (oh, who am I kidding, I certainly would’ve!)

And even if you do feel the need…many people probably should not be gifted the art.

The argument I actually did present was one of ethics. Basically, that phenomenal cosmic power cannot just be handed over to just anyone. Because obviously the world would end. I have heard it argued before that this is essentially what differentiates a wizard from a demon or a sorcerer king or any other powerful magical being from stories; they need the wisdom to know when to use magical power at all. The ideal here is that wizards will very selectively choose apprentices. Think about why the doctor in Captain America chooses Steve Rogers to be the first to undergo the process. He states it’s because he can so clearly imagine what this kindly, frail boy would do with the power he’s offering him.

Now obviously this ideal is not always achieved and that is drama. Not all wizards are good as they say. But all the same, my preference is that the average wizard is chosen for their character and not for their bloodline.

There was some discussion in the original argument about the downside of learned magic being that its limitation becomes about class in that it becomes a kind of metaphor for the haves and the havenots of the world. The imagined reason here why everyone is not doing magic is because those who have it are restricting it to maintain their power. A Machiavellian sort of realpolitik view of magical restriction.

I would add in retrospect that power of this kind is always a metaphor for class. Especially if it is inherited. What is inheriting magic if not the ultimate in unearned privileges a person is born into? If you take your setting deeply seriously, it would always result in an imbalance that leads to those who can do magic being of an upper rung of society. Maybe not king themselves, but certainly welcome in court. At least in a learned magic environment, a lower class person could at least in theory get their hands on the ancient texts or find a mentor who believes that this person should have the magic and they could learn it. In inherited magic, there is no such option. You’re born into one of the special bloodlines, or you’re just not magic. Deal with it. Oh, your daddy didn’t set you up with a loan of a million mana at birth? Sucks to suck I guess!

Now, to be fair to my friend, I think she was not imagining a magical bloodline like in Star Wars or Harry Potter, which is essentially what I’m arguing against when I was talking about Inherited Magic, but instead that it was just like a non-dominant gene throughout humanity. In retrospect, I think what she’s arguing for is to take the initial choice of who gets the power out of the hands of mortals entirely, even very well trained mortals. The only way to be truly fair is for the marker for magic’s use to be completely random. I think this is laudable and want to make it clear, I don’t think my friend or anyone whose preferences run the opposite direction are wrong or a fool. I can see the appeal of this…but I still just at my core do not like the idea that you get the power without work or sacrifice.

I don’t like chosen one narratives either for this same reason. In my life experience, you become the chosen one by choosing yourself and then working to fill the hero’s space in the story of your life and it’s hard and you must sacrifice to do it if you really want to and most people just don’t.

I guess to me, the learned magic feels both more aspirational and also much more true to how complex skills in our world are actually learned. Basically, nobody is born a good writer. I know I wasn’t. I studied writing formally and informally in so many ways before I ever wrote anything that was good. I just don’t feel like The Great Art should be all that different from any other art.

That’s my thought this week. If you read the whole thing, I love you for it. If you’re not subscribed, there’s a little place over to the right there where you can do that. I’ll catch people next time and as always remember to tend to your dreams because if you don’t, who will?

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