NobLes Oblige: State Formation in Fantasy Settings Pt.1 – Musings

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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22 Responses

  1. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    Dunno about the rest of you, but I’m really tired of the “all abortion, all the time” topics.

    Can we talk about something else?Report

  2. Avatar Murali says:

    LE Modesitt’s Recluse series is quite different. (as is his imager series).

    In his recluse series, Fairhaven is ruled by the white council. The position of high wizard is far from hereditary.

    The Island of recluse is ruled by a council of representatives.

    In his Imager series, various upstanding citizens from he various guilds and societies rule. (the imagers do tend to pull the strings though)

    Also, in at least the White Order and Colous of Chaos, we are walked through problems of governance for a fairly large part of the two books. (Those 2 books are about the rise of Cerryl, the son of a rogue mage and his beginnings and his joining the white mages and how he rose to high office.)Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

      Might take a look at that, thanks.

      One thing I probably should have mentioned above is that magic makes representation more likely, depending on how “democratic” access to it is. If wizardry is learned, rather than innate, then it’s more likely that the society will end up at least quasi-egalitarian.

      I’ll go into more detail about this at a later date, when we discuss the history of Tabayelle, which was an extreme mageocracy until bad things ™ happened to it.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Magocracy seems like it would be an inevitability and all manner of fantasy-setting states would trend towards it.

        In order for magic to be cool for storytelling purposes, it generally must be powerful. Particularly if you’ve got wizards slinging fireballs and summoning demons, the magic-users would make for powerful (and probably very mobile) players in a set-piece infantry-and-cavalry battle. The army with wizards is going to have a big advantage over an army without them.

        In most fantasy fiction I’ve read, magic has been an unusual sort of skill. Most people either don’t or can’t do magic. It seems only natural that wizards and sorcerers would percolate up to elite levels of society. Magic is also something that, depending on the rules of how magic works in the fantasy world, can effectively arm a criminal standing against the state’s monopoly of force.

        All this points to the successful military elites incorporating magic into their military and thus political power structures, at the risk of rendering themselves vulnerable to co-option and takeover by their wizards. At some point, some wizards (either good or evil, depending on the needs of the plot) will make a bid to personally hold political power, and boom, you’ve got yourself sorcerers ruling over non-sorcerers.

        Maybe if the society had developed very strong norms for the rule of law, and some careful thought had been given to legal regulation of using and learning magic, you could have a situation where sorcerers would, over time, willingly subordinate themselves to mundane temporal authorities. But even then, laws and the identities of the shot-callers are inherently malleable and a clever magician would have inherent advantages at bending circumstances to her favor.Report

        • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

          I think this boils down to:

          1. What countermeasures exist for magic?
          2. What’s the history of magic use?
          3. Who controls magic’s sources?
          4. Is there a divine influence that can counteract standard mage casting?

          Being a setting with actual deities and divine powers granted to priests does help balance things out a bit. If that doesn’t exist, though, you do have a problem.

          If there’s interest, we can go into these issues in more detail in this series, perhaps a dedicated “magic” post, where I examine this from a world-builder’s POV…Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            Raymond E-feist’s Krondor avoids magocracy. Pug has deliberately avoided taking on secular power. Even Kalewan is nominally ruled by the emperor (although the magicians are above the law and are in fact a law unto themselves)Report

          • Avatar Kolohe says:

            I also think its interesting to note that in the real world, for the most part, ‘magic users’ are seen as potentially revolutionary, countercultural forces, and squashed as such.Report

          • Avatar Zach says:

            1. What countermeasures exist for magic?

            Simpler countermeasures provide, in my opinion, a more legitimate framework, especially  in stories where individuals can tap magic equivalent to nuclear weapons. The two that come to mind are Erikson’s Malazan series – where the eponymous Empire controls the mining of an anti-magical material – and Bakker’s Three Seas world, where a similar physical material can kill sorcerers by mere touch. Both treat the countermeasure as relatively rare, but still available to preserve a balance of power.

            In the absence of such simple measures, I think that you would see early wholesale domination by magic users, and probably devastation on a global scale, before non-magic users could ever devise more complex tactics or strategies (e.g. the quintessential mage hunter).Report

            • Avatar Artor says:

              The difficulty of learning magic can also be a potent tool in restricting it’s use. If an effective magic-user is the equivalent of a multiple PhD-carrying theoretical physicist, there won’t be many available to overthrow a kingdom, and they may be completely uninterested in doing something so mundane, when there are exciting new lines of research to explore.Report

      • Avatar Friday Next says:

        Thank you for mentioning both of these series. I love both.

        One thing to add about the world of Recluse, and why I love it when others, understandably IMHO, think the books are repetitive, is that it has historic change, competing economic and political systems, and a true sense competing ideologies, founding mythologies, and historical memories and heritage. I think Modesitt in these books is the only person who covers the exact same war from both sides, giving both sides their full historic context and sympathy.

        And it isn’t jut Colours of Chaos, but many of his books put heroes (sadly, not a very diverse lot) in positions to analyze not just the politics of each society but also its economics. Lots of artisans, merchants, and factors.

        What this series has done for me is force me to question what role magic plays in these societies and how it interacts with technological change and historic contingency to influence events. Some actually invents steam engines in the Magic Engineer and Modesitt explores how that would play out in a largely Medieval or early Modern world. Gunpowder, too. I have come to the conclusion that in Recluse’s universe (and it is a universe complete with space travel in two different eras of Recluce’s history. Or at least the effects of past space travel and encounters) and in many other Fantasy worlds that there is no magic, just a universe with different laws than our own and “magic” in those worlds is the empirical investigation and manipulation of those laws. Sometimes those laws are explained quite clearly, as in Recluce, and the authors are quite honest and rigorous in exploring the implication of a universe based on those different laws. I find that in those worlds what we are seeing are the implications of science based upon different laws and methodologies than magic.

        What the implications are for politics and nation formation, I haven’t thought through. I am more of a historian of science, so I go where my interests are, but I am looking forward to more in this series.Report

  3. Avatar Kimmi says:

    Kulthea takes a different route — tending/trending towards city states, because anything larger than that is rather incompatible with the level of “Monsters are Everywhere” (bear in mind, some monsters are sentient!). And I don’t think wizards rule everything…Report

  4. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I am really forward to this. Regarding magic, the social and political implications of the jedi Order are very different when everyone is (potentially) a “luminous being” – and has access to its power (through training and focus) – vice when ability with the Force is strictly determined by the genetic inheritance of a certain quantity of organelles.Report

  5. Avatar Kolohe says:

    As the picture above illustrates, the prototypical fantasy state is the absolutist feudal monarchy

    Let’s look at Middle Earth again, though.  The core protagonists were not feudal monarchists but (the English Version of) a Jeffersonian Agrarian Republic.Report

  6. Avatar Will Truman says:

    I actually particularly interested in how multiculturalism would work. I was developing an idea for one a long time ago and it was one of the things that loomed heavily. In one of the nations, it was a democracy, and how the elves, orcs, dwarves, and humans would align was something I had to think a lot about (okay, okay, I liked thinking about it). In the theocracy (of sorts, a sort of religion/magic combination) next door, it became a question of how to incorporate and use very different sorts of people. There was also a totalitarian regime. When it came to non-humans within their borders, they knew what to do.Report

  7. Avatar Katherine says:

    Interesting thoughts.  The benevolent absolute (or near-absolute) monarch certainly seems to be the most common default in high fantasy settings (in low fantasy, like Harry Potter, there’s more room to depart from this).  And they tend – at least if they’re intended to be good monarchies – to be fairly hands-off, focused on guaranteeing stability and safety within the realm and not doing a lot else.  In Tolkien’s works that particularly makes sense, since he had quite a hatred of bureaucratic governance and administration.

    An interesting point to me is how Tolkien deals with species/ethnicities within kingdoms.  His inclination is to favour autonomy for distinct minority groups – the Wildmen of the forest near Minas Tirith are given exclusive jurisdiction over the forest, and the Hobbits are given the same over the Shire; in both cases the minority group has the right to complete control of its borders, and no Men are to enter it without their permission.  (It should be acknowledged, though, that the minorities receive these not based on inherent rights, but as a reward for support in war.)  The Shire even keeps its own calendar, distinct from that of the Kingdom of Gondor & Arnor, despite being technically within Arnor.  Even if you go back to the Silmarillion, the Men who settle within the Elven realms retain their own governments.  Actually, even the Elves who go to the Undying Realms have their own governments rather than being governed directly by the Valar, though these governments are technically subject to the Valar.

    Multiethnic states are deliberately avoided: the kingdom of Dale (Men) is directly next to that of Erebor/The Lonely Mountain (Dwarven), but nobody would think of merging them and having Men rule Dwarves or vice versa.  Some of the academics I’ve read for my international relations courses would argue that this is the ideal setup for states.Report