Not long ago, Ace and I were discussing how the wizards in the Harry Potter universe never seem to grow as a society. They are still stuck with very basic technology, and while many tasks are certainly made easier with magic, no one can deny that Muggles seem leaps ahead of wizards in a lot of ways. From being able to explore space, to using computers, to even having pens, Muggles have it better—seriously, why would I ever use a quill? But this got me thinking: this isn’t just in the Harry Potter world. A lot of magical societies in fiction seem to be stuck in a more medieval era. This led me to consider how we evolve as a society. It is just a fact that human beings are more likely to grow and change to fulfill a need. It’s easier to wash clothes with a machine than by hand, and having a computer makes it easier for us to access information, keep in touch with friends, or learn new things. But for magic users, when you can wave a wand to conjure fully prepared food or teleport yourself somewhere in an instant, is there ever really a need or desire to grow and change?
As I mentioned earlier, the world of Harry Potter seems to be particularly stunted. While I certainly used my school library when I was younger, I saved a lot of time by looking up sources on the computer. For the most part, from their style of dress to their technology, wizards seem to be stuck in the past. This appears to be the case in other fantasy worlds as well. In Tithe by Holly Black, though the story is more urban fantasy than Harry Potter is, we still see that the fae tend toward a more medieval way of doing things as well. Both Seelie and Unseelie courts are ruled by Kings and Queens with knights serving them, wielding swords and wearing armor. Where once these things might have been viewed as common by humans, it is now viewed as strange, otherworldly, and backward by the humans who encounter the fae. Even movies like Labyrinth show this theme. Sarah is a girl who lives in America in the 80s, meaning she probably has a TV, cassette players, and early video games, but when she is taken to the Goblin Kingdom to save her brother, we find a world with goblin knights and people fighting with swords and riding animals to travel. So why is this such a common theme?
Well, the easy literary answer is that fantasy started purely from a sword-and-sorcery perspective, meaning that stories like Lord of the Rings, which were set in a medieval fantasy world, were the most common for the fantasy genre. Furthermore, as things like urban fantasy become more popular, it is easier to show the difference and strangeness of these fantastic societies like wizards or fae by having them be a part of a society that is now very different from our own. However, could there be a more in-universe understanding as to why this is?
There is a classic saying that goes: “necessity is the mother of invention”; in other words, we are more likely to create something when we have a need to. For example, it is hard to sew by hand, and even if you are skilled at sewing, it’s time-consuming, so someone invents a sewing machine to help save on time and have precise stitching. It’s through necessity that we learn to change and grow. When I was in college taking a science class, we discussed how humans probably evolved because we weren’t perfectly adapted to our environment. This means that, for example, cows are perfectly suited to eat grass, and tigers are perfectly suited to hunt and eat meat, but humans have to gather or farm food, and make tools to hunt effectively if we wanted meat. Because we don’t have claws and razor sharp teeth, we needed to create tools, and because we don’t have the biology to just eat things like the grass around us and survive, we had to start doing things like farming.
But what if we had magic? If you can Apparate to any location on the planet, would you ever feel the need to invent a car or plane? Even Floo powder in Harry Potter seems to be an easier means of traveling than taking the bus. In Labyrinth, Jareth seems to just appear wherever he wants. In Tithe some faeries can fly or are even super fast, so they don’t really need to invent something to travel.
Magic is incredibly helpful and can allow you to do everything, whether that’s attacking someone, making food, helping with travel, or many other things. Arguably, the more magic you have, the less likely you are to need to invent something to do what your magic can do.
Now, I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. As someone who regularly attends the Ren Faire and loves sword-and-sorcery-type fantasy, having all fantasy societies follow this pattern makes me happy. That being said, it can definitely become lazy storytelling when magic users can literally do everything and therefore never evolve as a society. For example, in the Harry Potter universe, J.K. Rowling has said that before wizards stole the Muggle invention of plumbing, they defecated wherever they were standing and then Vanished the evidence. Seriously, no one in the wizarding community thought that was gross enough to do something about? It seems really unbelievable that any human beings, magical or not, would be okay with something like that. Why wouldn’t they have invented a better spell or custom before stealing technology from the Muggles?
I think the main problem with this is that magic in fantasy stories is often undeveloped. It’s not that magic has no rules in these stories; it’s that authors haven’t thought out how that magic should work realistically. And while fantasy doesn’t have to be realistic by definition, the characters have to be believable. Characters and the societies that they are a part of can certainly be different, but should still be relatable. Wizards and faeries might not have computers, but maybe they invented something magical that does the same thing. Magic should make things interesting and enchanting, but it doesn’t have to stunt the magical society that the characters exist in.