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?
Harry Potter has indisputably become an important part of our modern mythos about witches, wizards, and magical know-how. We’ve discussed the series a lot on this blog, but as I was randomly thinking the other day, what exactly prompted Rowling’s choice in animal companions for her young magic users? Creatures like toads and cats have long since been staples of witchiness in the current pop media consciousness (although as far as cats go, Hermione’s fluffy ball of grump Crookshanks isn’t exactly the stereotype), and rats kind of fit in by virtue of so many people having an aversion to them. But owls? From where I stood, owls seemed like a random choice. Rowling has stated that she chose the creatures because they’re “traditionally associated with magic” and just because she likes them—both valid points—but in my pop culture experience, owls aren’t the go-to bird for shorthand magical implication. No, that honor goes to ravens. Still, this got me thinking further: what are the symbolic differences between owls and ravens when it comes to magic? Surprisingly, their purpose in folklore and their general symbolism are quite similar.
I was recently watching Movie Bob’s review of the Doctor Strange movie, and in it, he lamented the fact that all comic book movies are action movies. Which got me thinking: do all genre fiction movies, in general, really have to be action movies? Especially when it might not entirely serve the narrative? Are we missing out on a ton of interesting movies just because writers are afraid to take science fiction and fantasy outside of the action box?
With this in mind, there are some recent movies whose plot and character development would definitely have benefited from not being action movies.
I really love the movie Stardust. I’ll watch it any time it comes on. But while rewatching it recently, I realized how often the women in the movie were not active participants in the story. Victoria, Yvaine, and Una don’t get to do much of anything—they don’t fight battles, go on any great quests, discover any great secrets, or attempt to gain the family throne. The only female participants who are very active at all are the evil witches, particularly Lamia, their leader. This sends a particularly bad message, especially since of all of the good female characters I mentioned, only one wasn’t someone’s prisoner. Una is kidnapped by another witch, Yvaine is kidnapped for a time by Tristan, and Victoria, though never kidnapped, is barely in the movie and is portrayed as rather vain and selfish. Basically, the women of Stardust not only do very little, but also are severely lacking in any sort of empowerment.
In many fandoms these days, science and magic exist together with a variety of results. Sometimes magic and science exist in harmony, sometimes they are at odds, and sometimes magic is really just misunderstood science. There’s a whole plethora of ways these two forces can exist in the same world. But there isn’t always a narrative reason for it; oftentimes, magic and science simply exist together to cause drama or to add more interesting elements to a story. Which can be fine, but when a story involves both science and magic, it can be helpful for the writers to use these two forces to strengthen the overall message of the story. In Rick and Morty, science reigns supreme, but elements of magic still exist. In one notable episode called “Something Ricked this Way Comes”, in which Rick fights the devil, we see a continuing affirmation of the show’s philosophy of existential nihilism.
Fantasy is big money now. Everyone is looking to the hefty fantasy tomes of the past for inspiration for the next Game of Thrones, with mixed success. The appearance of Terry Brooks’s world of Shannara on the small screen thanks to MTV is just one example of this.
When I first heard that the show was being made, I decided it was time to finally reread The Sword of Shannara, the 1977 book that introduced me to Brooks’s expansive world, and which I first read in my grade school’s library. Real life intervened, however; a season of the show has come and gone, and I only just sat down with my battered old copy of the book last week. Unfortunately, my reread left me mostly confused and concerned for the tastes of my elementary school self, as The Sword of Shannara is an odd mix of utter tedium and story beats lifted directly from its more celebrated contemporary, The Lord of the Rings.
Spoilers for the novel below.
I’ve mentioned before that fantasy is an important tool for analyzing and commentating on reality. Many social conventions that exist in reality are reflected in fantasy, with varying degrees of abstraction, and this allows for some pretty accessible metaphors. I have realized recently, however, that there is a significant difference between the place religion occupies in society and the way it is typically represented in fantasy. The most critical thing is that in reality, of course, religion is a matter of faith: the results of prayer or ritual are not measurable and the existence of deities is not provable. In fantasy, on the other hand, it’s quite common for deities to appear unambiguously and for religious rites to produce clear and repeatable results. That’s generally convenient for the characters, but excluding some or all of the “faith” element makes fantasy religion a much less useful metaphor for real religion. When religion is an important element of a fantasy world, therefore, it does serve a purpose, but generally a less direct purpose than representing or commentating on real religion.