Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

Spirituality and Magical Power

13424453_sThis relates to my current work in progress, Volume Two of Refuge, titled The Ingathering. The main character is a magical prodigy, potentially a huge asset to the Andol in their struggle against the Droon (see here for information about the Refuge world). But she has serious barriers to developing her abilities. Her magic is suppressed and causes her to exhibit psychotic symptoms, bipolar disorder with hallucinations. As she speculates:

Maybe it was like the pressure in an abscess. Her magic, bottled up inside her, pushed at her brain and wanted to get out. According to Richard, that was what caused her mood swings and hallucinations. If she learned more about it and gave it ways to come out, the pressure would drop and her symptoms should go away, or at least get better. That’s if Richard was right. Claire wasn’t totally convinced about that.

The other problem is that Claire, a Buddhist, is convinced that use of magical powers is antithetical to the quest for desirelessness and enlightenment. Use of magic feeds the ego and prevents a person from rising above the illusion of the individual self, or so Claire believes. Her powers manifest normally only in small and mostly passive ways, enhancing her perception of the world and allowing her to sense people’s feelings, see auras (including the malevolent auras of the Droon), and gain intuitive insights into the past, present, and future. She is capable of much more, but (so far anyway) these greater powers have only manifested when she loses a measure of control in a depressive or manic episode. When that happened, her depression disappeared (temporarily), but she is reluctant to learn how to use her magic because of what it may do to her spiritual journey.

This internal conflict suggested itself to me because it really exists in some spiritual contexts, mostly but not exclusively Eastern, particularly Buddhist. But one finds it in a Hindu setting as well, and Abrahamic religions have a dubious view of magic, too. Refuge is contemporary fantasy, set in our own world, and so I am in a position to use real-world religious teachings such as Buddhism and Christianity (the latter being the faith of the Scourge of God) as part of the story. In an other-world setting this may not be possible, but in crafting the religion, spirituality, and magic of the other world, or in applying fantasy elements within this one, the conflict between spirituality and magic (and its resolution, if that is possible) become potential story elements and, at very least, parts of the world.

What I’m setting out below are some points in regard to the relations between magic and spirituality as they actually exist. It’s possible to craft a fantasy version of magic that bears little resemblance to the real thing, of course, and then some of the points below will cease to be valid; magic will simply be a type of natural force that exists in the fantasy world but not (as far as we know) in the one we inhabit. My own preference both as a writer and as a reader is to start with real magic and blow it out of proportion or give mages abilities that are beyond my own, but the same in principle — something analogous to speculative science fiction, which starts with real science and speculates on what might be given further developments. The points below assume that context.

Spirituality is magical

The rituals and methods used for spiritual purposes in many esoteric and meditative paths are very similar to those used in magical practice for other ends. The power raised is essentially the same, and so are the methods by which it is channeled and focused. The only difference is the purpose to which it is put. From the point of view of religious authorities, it is those purposes that are problematical, not the power of magic itself. (Unless of course the power comes from an unacceptable source, which it may, but need not — and any mage with a grain of common sense will avoid power sources inimical to his or her own existence!)

Religious authorities are not only uncomfortable with the idea of magical power being used for worldly and perhaps malicious ends, but also with the increase in spiritual experience that may result in a context beyond their control. Every prophet is a heretic, inspired by the power of the cosmos to penetrate under the comfortable and secure illusions that religion weaves and dispute the standard doctrines. If prophecy becomes widespread, belief will become ungovernable, and religious authority will face constant rebellion, chaos, anarchy!

One finds countermeasures applied in all religious contexts. Some religions simply suppress magic and spirituality both, and try to keep everything on a rational basis. Note that this is not the same as a scientific basis. Science is rational, but its reasoning is based on observation as a touchstone. It is quite possible to be rational but unscientific, basing one’s reasoning on assumed first principles or sacred texts, rather than observation. A rigid framework of doctrine defines such an approach, and any spiritual insight that points outside the framework is condemned. What should be in the domain of mythos is instead subjected to the rules of logos.

Where suppression is either impossible or, for whatever reason, not desired, religious authorities have instead attempted to contain magic. Those with magical talent and spiritual awareness are discouraged from having children (hoping to snuff out any genetic predisposition that may exist — something we don’t actually know, of course). One finds this in the Christian and Buddhist monastic traditions and in the Hindu tradition of renouncing the world in pursuit of holiness. At the same time as the talented are forbidden to breed, they are also forbidden from being involved in the world. The monk has all his worldly needs met and turns all of his efforts and powers towards achieving holiness or enlightenment; the sadhu lives in deliberate poverty and does nothing that might impact society. Among those who might not be willing to pursue a monastic or renunciate life, teachings are spread suggesting that the use of magical powers interferes with the quest for enlightenment (such as Claire believes), or that all magical power comes from evil sources.

This is a pattern found in all the world’s major religions, but there are some religious exceptions. Notable examples are the African and African/Christian fusion religions such as Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomble, and also Neopagan religions such as Wicca and Druidism. But it is characteristic of these magic-encouraging religions that they exercise less doctrinal and behavioral control by central authorities than is common with the major faiths.

The head of the dragon

The power of magic and spirituality has been likened in one Yoga tradition to a serpent that winds about the spine. Another metaphor that I’ve used in the past is similar: this power is like the head of the dragon, which may be lifted up to the skies in flight, or may drop down towards the Earth and breathe fire.

The potential tension here is between the quest for enlightenment and the quest for power. The power of the dragon (that is to say, of magic) may be used for either one. But if it is exclusively focused on enlightenment, then it makes no difference in the way the world functions, and the potential good it might do is lost. On the other hand, if the focus is exclusively on power, then the danger of power being misused (deliberately or inadvertently) is real and high. Only by soaring high can the dragon gain the vision needed to guide his power. But only by dropping low and breathing fire can these insights be put into practice.

And that is the dilemma that Claire will face as she confronts situations where she must use her magic or see all her friends die — and at the same time, retain her focus on enlightenment that has defined her life up to now. Because if she doesn’t learn to use the power, then it will use her, and not necessarily in ways that she would like.

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Presenting the Weird

13897031_sFantasy storytelling is the art of presenting the weird in a way that feels real.

To some extent that’s true of most fiction. (The exceptions present the banal in a way that becomes interesting. I’ve never been good at that, though, nor inclined to become good at it.) It’s especially true of fantasy storytelling, though, more so than any other genre. Science fiction runs a close second, but even science fiction isn’t quite as weird as fantasy.

But here’s a curious thing. Sometimes fantasy storytelling of the past has become so successful in presenting the weird that, in the present, it has become not just real but commonplace. Hackneyed. Cliched. And hence pointless when it comes to telling a good fantasy story.

Keep in mind the etymology, original definition, and archaic meaning of the word “weird.” It can mean (and today often does mean) anything strange, unusual, or odd. Originally, though, the word “weird” had to do with fate or the Fates of Greek and Roman mythology. More recently, but still in the past, the word came to mean anything of an occult, magical, or uncanny nature, which of course makes it perfect to describe fantasy elements. By these older meanings of the word, fantasy is weird.

So the first step in presenting the weird is discovering it. How does one do that? It’s a matter of turning the imagination loose and not being satisfied with the world either as it is or, perhaps even worse, as someone else has already imagined it. At the same time, in order to be good fantasy, the weird one imagines needs to have mythic significance.

How does one discover the weird? There are two ways to do this. First one can imagine something that is wholly new and weird. This is quite difficult, however, and rare. Second, one can take something that has already been imagined and put it in a new context or give it a new twist or two. This is easier to attempt but less certain of success.

Either way, once something has been done a few times, it’s no longer weird (because it’s become part of the established fantasy genre) and one must seek elsewhere for weirdness.

Consider the vampire. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, vampires were weird; although they had been around in legends and myths for millennia, they had not found their way into popular fiction (in English anyway) prior to Stoker’s (ahem) rather badly-written Victorian-era vampire tale. He was breaking new ground, and established some conventions: vampires are bad guys; they drink blood; they have superhuman strength and awesome magical powers; they have certain vulnerabilities (sunlight, crosses, garlic, fire); they can turn humans into vampires. Thereafter, vampire stories with the same details could be written only a few times before the vampire became cliche and was no longer weird.

Since then, if one wishes to write a vampire tale, one must twist and turn the creature about so as to break, or at least bend, one or more of these conventions. For example, Anne Rice wrote stories from the vampire’s own point of view, so that vampires ceased to be the bad guys (in the sense of being antagonists). Stephanie Meyer in Twilight made the vampire a romantic figure. Jim Butcher in The Dresden Files introduced several different types of vampire, most of them departing sharply from the Dracula motif, and made one of them the half-brother of the main protagonist.

To do a little self-evaluation, my own novels have featured:

  • Sorcerers living in the modern world, rising above and beyond the occult traditions through the effect of “deep-tier talismans,” and engaged in secret conspiracies to change the course of history, while struggling with one another over what direction that should take.
  • Gods and goddesses and faerie-folk all of whom were once human; the deities are highly promiscuous and seek to transform humanity by seducing large numbers of them and creating children who are “god-sired” and “goddess-born.”
  • Aliens that blew each other to extinction, and then used magic to reincarnate on Earth as human beings and continue their age-old struggle with our planet as the battleground.

The reader will have to  decide for himself or herself if any of that rises to the level of weird; I’m fairly satisfied myself.

Having discovered the weird, the next step is to present it in a way that feels real.

The weird does not feel weird to itself. Nor does it feel all that weird to those who are used to dealing with it. The ideal achievement is to create a story in which the reader is immersed in one of these two points of view and so finds that a part of the mind accepts the weirdness as ordinary and to be expected or even identified with, while another part in the background shrieks, marvels, gasps, or stands in awe of the truly bizarre and unexpected.

There’s another technique that’s sometimes used that I call the meathead perspective. This involves introducing a meathead, a person of fixed modern banal viewpoint who can serve as a foil and express disbelief, skepticism, denial, and downright blinkered stupidity in the face of the weird. You know the type: the dim-witted imagination-deprived dunderhead who insists, contrary to the evidence of his own senses, that there’s no such thing as magic or ghosts or vampires or gods or whatever; that the wardrobe can’t lead to another world; that those mental powers can’t be anything but primitive superstition; that the horde of zombies shambling in pursuit, immune to anything but a head shot, have to be just teenagers on drugs. The value of the meathead perspective is of course to say, in a rather hammer-handed way, that yes, it is real, and look where Stupid, Blind Skepticism gets people (captive of the White Witch, zapped and befuddled by mental powers, or horribly eaten alive). I can sympathize with the desire to portray meatheads in an unflattering light, but find myself uncomfortable with the meathead perspective and prefer to avoid it. Meatheads in my fantasy worlds may exist, but generally don’t come into the stories much. (The closest I ever got was Arnold Bittermint, Johnny’s lawyer in The Green Stone Tower, and although he was a meathead he didn’t play the usual meathead role.)

Rather, present the weird from its own point of view or that of those who accept its reality. Let the weirdness come through in description, dialogue, and action, shining in its own preternatural light, without having to tell the reader how weird it all is. If the job is done well, that should be obvious and require no elaboration.

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Musings on Various Things

musings

A fantasy story is about strength: about the potential we all have to rise above normal human limits, to confront realities that are beyond the norm, to wield power and knowledge denied to ordinary mortals.

At the same time, though, any story at all is about weakness: about the flaws in our nature, our capacity for self-destruction or the destruction of what we love.

Put the two of these together and you have a whole message. We have the capacity to become greater than we are. We also have the capacity to ruin all of this potential and turn our abilities to cruelty, vengeance, pettiness, greed, power-lust, vanity, and shame.

***

Religious people get into quarrels when they focus on peripherals rather than essentials. They become sidetracked; if they did not, no quarrel would ensue. For example, consider the conflict between Muslims and Baha’is. The main point of dispute involves whether Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, was a prophet in the same sense as Muhammad or Jesus. He claimed to be and Baha’is believe he was; Muslims insist that Muhammad was the last prophet and there can be no more. This disagreement has resulted in the persecution and official murder of many Baha’is by Muslims and the governments of Muslim countries (especially Iran), but the correct answer is that it doesn’t matter. The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh as recorded in his writings must be judged for themselves, neither accepted nor rejected unquestioningly. If one is not able to make that judgment, neither is one able to understand a prophet’s words, which makes following those words useless. Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings (or those of Muhammad or Jesus or the Buddha or any other such person) are the proper subject of study. Focusing on his credentials is getting sidetracked.

The Baha’is themselves are often not much better. The Universal House of Justice engaged in, of all things, a copyright lawsuit alleging that a Baha’i sect that broke away from the main organizational line represented by the UHJ had no right to use the name or religious symbols of the faith. Is that petty or is that petty?

Organized religion is the bane of spirituality. It creates a structure for the exertion of power, and inevitably elevates people interested in power and status to positions of respect. One may ask, paraphrasing the words of Jesus, whether it is harder for a rich man or a powerful one to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The Baha’i Faith isn’t even supposed to have clergy! Obviously, that change in nomenclature is not proof against corruption.

The goal of genuine spirituality is for the seeker to become a prophet (or avatar or enlightened one or whatever term you prefer). A seeker who proclaims himself a follower of a prophet has at best announced he has not found what he seeks, and at worst that he has abandoned the quest, especially if he thinks the prophet has some special divinely-granted status that can’t be achieved by other people.

The Kingdom of Heaven will be realized on Earth when everyone is a prophet and no prophet is honored in particular.

***

In my current work in progress, Refuge, some of the protagonists are centuries old. At the same time, however, they started life as part of an advanced alien species living in a far more progressive society than anything on Earth. They have the advantage of many years of experience and accumulated wisdom, but are protected from the ailment that too often accompanies the old: fossilization and inability to adapt to change. The combination of the two is fun to play with, and I also think it suggests something about our situation. We are confronted with material circumstances that change daily, driven by advances in technology. As our circumstances change, so must our moral values, religious conceptions, and laws and institutions.

In a world like that, greater wisdom (or at least greater insight) is sometimes shown by the young than the old, because the old have preconceptions and rutted thought-patterns that block their ability to adapt. At the same time, the young are still foolish in all of the ways that young people have always been foolish. What’s the solution?

The only solution I can see is for people to maintain open minds and retain flexibility of thought and behavior into advanced years. Abandon the idea of “growing up.” Growing is good, but growing up implies an end to the process and if that happens one has become a fossil. Anything that puts the mind into a cage should be resisted. Fixed doctrine is the death of progress and, in a rapidly-changing world, a death sentence for civilization itself. And so again, organized religion reveals itself as a great evil.

***

I was a Pagan when Paganism was a loose community of seekers. I abandoned it when it started to look like an organized religion.

All Words are sacred and all prophets are true, until they reach the ears of the unenlightened and then they become false — indeed, typically they become the opposite of themselves. A prophet’s words from his mouth are living water. The same words coming from an organized religion, with convenient interpretations, are a cage made of the prophet’s stripped bones.

A prophet’s words have the power to move the heart. That power remains when the prophet is no longer alive to wield it, and it is taken up by the power-hungry who use it to secure their own positions and influence.

Once a prophet is dead, read his words only in secret. Never take advice from anyone claiming to be his follower. These are not guides. They are carrion-fowl.

***

We (by which I mean the human race) face a challenge to our survival created by our own inability to evolve. But in a way, this is a good thing, because our survival as a species is only of value to the extent that we are a good people, a blessing for the Earth and not a bane, happy and enlightened.

If we survive, that is what we will become. If we don’t, we will destroy ourselves and the universe will try again. Eventually someone will get it right.

Optimism is always possible if one takes a long view.

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Villainy

villain

What is a villain in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction?

The villain always partakes of myth. He is the Enemy, the reason why we need a Hero, the Challenge that causes the Hero to rise above his limitations and self-doubt and reach his potential. Depending on how the story is crafted, the Villain (time to capitalize that word, I think) may also be a human being with limitations and flaws of his own. But that isn’t always so, particularly in fantasy, where the Villain may be a myth in the conventional sense. There’s nothing human about Sauron or Emperor Palpatine. (There is, of course, about Darth Vader, who is the central character of the whole Star Wars series.)

Whether to make your Villain a human being and show his or her point of view is a literary decision and there are benefits either way. I usually do. Some writers don’t. But it is always necessary to introduce into your villains a mythic element. That is what makes a villain into a Villain.

So let’s consider some of the implications of Villainy in terms of myth.

The Villain is that which stands in the way of Good. Whatever we want or believe in, it’s the antithesis. We can (or anyway I can) identify three levels of villainy, each a higher octave (so to speak) of the one before.

The most basic level of Villainy is Selfishness. This involves base human motivations: greed, power-lust, anger and violence. A lot of Villains are motivated by one or more of these, with the first two being the most common. These are points where individual human desires are in conflict with the enterprise of civilization. Greed puts individual selfishness above the common good. Power-lust elevates one person’s will above the commonalty. Anger and violence strike out to destroy the peace on which civilized life depends.

You can do a lot with just these human motivations. Most bad guys outside the genres of fantasy and science fiction are motivated by nothing more than these. But the Villain potentially becomes more interesting when he rises above these ordinary failings and exhibits something even more sinister.

The next step up in Villainy is Twisted Virtue. It consists of a warped dedication to the Good: a Robespierre, a Cromwell, even a Hitler. These three men acted in pursuit not primarily of their own personal gain, ambition, or rage, but out of what they saw as the good of society. Their evil came about because they pursued the good through dubious means (Robespierre), too inflexibly and autocratically (Cromwell), or with a warped idea of the good that authorized actions most would call evil (Hitler). This sort of person makes a much darker Villain, capable of far greater evil, than a mere greedy businessman, crooked politician, or thug. Corrupted virtue accomplishes greater evil than mere vice. A person will seldom make sacrifices for his own gain, especially not ones that outweigh the gain anticipated. There’s a cost-benefit analysis involved in selfish evil that applies a certain amount of restraint. But in pursuit of something conceived of as the greater good, something that is greater and nobler than one’s own selfish desire, a person will go to greater efforts and make greater sacrifices and risk greater dangers. If that conception is flawed, greater evil can result.

The third and highest octave of wickedness in a Villain is what might be called Demonic Evil. Here we have the Villain who commits evil deeds, not out of base selfish motivations nor out of a warped desire to serve the Good, but out of a clear, no-bones-about-it dedication to Evil itself. The corruption of virtue, the shattering of innocence, the destruction of society, the spreading of fear, pain, poverty, and ruin, are sought by the Demonic Villain not because they are means to some desired end (whether selfish or noble), but as ends in themselves. It’s difficult to make this level of evil believable in a human Villain, although not impossible.

Now here’s the challenge for a fiction writer, especially a fantasy writer: incorporate the most challenging level of Villainy you can, without losing the belief of your reader. This is especially a challenge for the fantasy writer because in fantasy the normal stops are pulled and you can introduce Demonic Evil completely unrestrained, by having your Villains be actual demons or the equivalent. Cosmic principles of annihilation. Ancient gods of darkness that have slept for thousands of years and are about to return. The Dark Lord and his mind-warped priests who have left all humanity behind them. A great mind consumed by the Dark Side of the Force. You can do this sort of thing in fantasy and get away with it, but if you do, it becomes much, much harder to have your Villain be a sympathetic character.

Sometimes it becomes impossible to do that and the goal is abandoned. The Villain is simply an Enemy and all sympathy lies with the Hero, whose human struggle against inhuman evil makes up the main plot line.

On the other end (and this tends to be closer to my own failing), it’s possible to seek humanity on the part of the Villain so much that his villainy becomes watered down. It’s easier to do it the other way, with a Villain who is just a Villain, but it seems to me that you lose the opportunity for some interesting character development that way. The balancing act can be delicate. But the great thing is that it can work no matter where you come down, as long as there are sufficient challenges posed by your Villains, internal, external, or a combination of the two.

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Book Promotion Time!

Green Stone Tower

Time once more to offer a free copy of a book for a limited time.

The Green Stone Tower, book 1 of A Tale of Two Worlds, will be available free at Smashwords from now through February 28, 2013. To get your free copy, use this coupon code:

BE57T

You can order your free copy here: The Green Stone Tower. It’s available in any e-book format (for the Kindle, Nook, Sony reader, any app on your phone, whatever).

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Goddess-Born

As I said a couple of weeks ago, my new fantasy novel Goddess-Born, part of the four-book Tale of Two Worlds, is almost ready for publication. I’ll post links for purchase of the book here when it goes live, which should be in the first week of December, but what I want to do now is to offer a free copy to anyone who is willing to write a review. An honest review, that is. This isn’t, “I’ll send you a free copy if you promise to write a 5-star review full of praise.” It’s “I’ll send you a free copy if you promise to write a review that actually tells prospective readers about it, what you liked and disliked, and whether they should buy the book themselves.” That will benefit me, as well as readers, best.

If you would like to do this, please email me at briandrush@gmail.com and I’ll put you on a list to send a coupon for a free copy in a couple of weeks when the book is published and available for purchase. It will be in e-book formats only but should be available in all of those. Here’s a synopsis of the book to help people decide if they would like to take me up on this offer.

Sonia is the child of a goddess and a god. The world where she lives heaves with revolution and is threatened by a sorceress who wants to bring it to ruin. The revolution that toppled the monarchy has been seized by a tyrant mage, the lover and protégé of the sorceress, and Sonia must stand against them and restore the people’s chance at liberty.

Sonia’s divine mother fostered her with a merchant’s wife, and so she grew up as the offspring of a wealthy couple in the Kingdom of Grandlock, believing they were her real parents. But as the goddess had asked when she gave her to Emily Sandburr to raise, on Sonia’s fifteenth birthday, her foster mother told her of her true heritage: she is the daughter of the goddess Illowan, Lady of Light and of the god Malatant, Lord of Shadow.

From that day on, Sonia became a devotee of both her divine parents, even though she has never met them and they reside in the other world, the world of Faerie that can only be accessed by the magical Green Stone Tower and its endless stair.

Although mortal as the gods’ children always are, Sonia is a talented sorceress and must confront the destiny her divine mother foresaw for her. A renegade priestess of Malatant has come from the world of Faerie, a warped and evil woman who lives to bring chaos and ruin. She has gathered a secret following called the People of the Shadow, among them Edwin, a talented sorcerer who aims to overthrow the kingdom. For the Kingdom of Grandlock suffers under the oppressive and obsolete rule of its noble class. The slumbering wrath of the common people is waking up and the country heaves with revolt. Revolution is in the air, but the cruel priestess Gilusa and the sorcerer who follows her twist the course of the revolt to impose a monstrous tyranny. Taking over the palace and the government in the people’s name, Edwin sends an endless line of victims – nobles at first, but ultimately anyone who threatens his power or that of his priestess – to the torture chambers and the gallows. There is no one who can hope to stop them except Sonia. She must face the tyrant sorcerer who rules Grandlock and ultimately confront Gilusa herself, accompanied by only three companions.

One of these is her lover Malcolm, who is also of divine parentage, being the son of the Lord of Art and of the Mother of Life. Another is General Tranis, a dark faerie warrior from the other world who has fallen victim to Gilusa’s spells; he has broken free for the moment, but will Gilusa be able to regain control over his mind and will? The third is the young Queen Luisa, Grandlock’s last monarch, deposed by Edwin, who seeks vengeance for the brutal slaying of her parents. The four of them stand alone against the stolen might of a nation and the incomparable sorcery of Gilusa.

Magic has warped the nation’s course and bound the people into tyranny, and Sonia’s magic must set it straight before the people can rule themselves. A priestess of Malatant has betrayed her god’s trust, and Malatant’s daughter must put matters right for her father’s sake as well as her own, while she finds the balance between Light and Shadow within her own nature. Nor will the gods help her, neither her own parents nor Malcolm’s, for in their ruthless wisdom and foresight the gods leave men and women to solve their own problems and in that way to grow or die – even when the mortals are their own beloved children.

Again, if you would be willing to write a review of Goddess-Born in exchange for a free copy, please email me at briandrush@gmail.com and I’ll put you on a list to receive a coupon for your free copy.

Another article on spirituality and fantasy storytelling will appear here tomorrow.

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Fantasy and Politics

It’s election time here in the United States, a presidential election year, too, and even non-political blogsters are succumbing to the temptation to say something about the ritualized and mostly non-lethal civil war that possesses the nation every four years. Can I be the only one to resist? (No — my friend Christi Killien at Farmlet remains above the fray so far, so I wouldn’t be the only one. Apparently she will be.)

I shall dive in, but in a disciplined way, and remain focused as best as possible on the twin themes of fantasy storytelling and spirituality that define this blog. No mention of current political contests even if Mr. Romney’s campaign does seem to be composing a fantasy.

Ahem.

What is politics? And how does it relate to fantasy or to spirituality? Let’s deal with politics and fantasy in this post. I’ll have another post later to cover spirituality and politics.

Politics is the making and implementing of collective decisions and the resolution of conflicts within a society by means short of the shedding of blood. Every society has politics even when it doesn’t have formal government. Politics is: All these people are living together in one place and interacting. There are things they have to do collectively all together and somehow they have to come to a decision about what things to do and how to organize it. Also, they don’t always get along, and somehow we have to resolve any conflicts that arise before they beat each other up or worse. The only human (or quasi-human) beings that don’t need politics are those that either live all alone as hermits or have a perfect telepathic interaction so that they form a single mind.

Fantasy writing must ask many questions of politics, although not as much as science fiction, for which the central theme is almost always political. The central theme of fantasy is almost always religious or spiritual, but politics remains an important part of world-building just the same. The politics of a fantasy world should work well with the circumstances of life for the characters who live in it. Circumstances relevant to determining the type of politics present in a world include:

  1. Civilized or not? That is, do the people of your world live in cities and practice agriculture or are they primitive hunter-gatherers? In the latter case, no formal government will exist, but there will still be politics practiced informally.
  2. How widespread is literacy? This depends in turn on whether the world has developed printing. A world without printing is unlikely to have widespread literacy unless it has some workable substitute. (The Roman Republic, for instance, had armies of slaves to copy books out. One could also posit a magical substitute for printing in a fantasy world.) A world in which most people are illiterate is also a world in which the participants in political decisions constitute a literate elite; such a world is incompatible with democracy and demands some type of oligarchy, monarchy, or dictatorship. Widespread literacy makes for widespread desire to participate in political decisions.
  3. How fast do people move? Also: How fast does information travel? If the highest speed for both personal travel and messages is that of a horse or a sailing ship, you will necessarily have a looser-knit, less centralized politics than if movement is comparable to a modern society or faster. If magical communication is possible at great speed, is this a privilege of a sorcerous elite, or is it widely available to most people? If it’s an elite privilege, who controls the elite? No one (the elite is autonomous)? The king or formal government? The Dark Lord? The Gods? An ancient prophecy that dictates all magic use?

That last brings up a fairly important point. In a fantasy world, the elites and commons may not be the same as in our own reality, just as they have varied over time in our own history. Today, we are ruled largely by a commercial elite defined by business or financial success and wealth. In the pre-industrial past, the elite consisted mostly of great warriors and war leaders or their descendants. In both eras, an educated elite of professionals coexisted with the main one: priests and religious leaders, government bureaucrats, scholars and philosophers. In some societies, e.g. Medieval Europe and ancient India, the professional class (clergy, Brahmins) were ostensibly of higher status than the military elite (nobles, Kshatrya), but then we must remember that they were the ones writing all this and may have credited themselves with more influence than they really possessed.

Politics in a fantasy world must of course take into account the fantasy elements as well as the mundane ones. If magic is strong and openly practiced, an elite of magicians may completely eclipse the warriors or exist alongside it, or may openly or secretly change the course of events in a modern, high-tech society as well. The existence in the world of gods, devils, and super-beings or of quasi-human races will also have political implications. The rule of thumb in all cases is that the political system in any world — including a fantasy world — must flow naturally from the circumstances in which the people find themselves. Otherwise you end up with anachronism. You can’t have an absolute monarchy in a modern, high-tech world, for example, because literacy and access to information are too widely spread for that and people won’t tolerate it. You might have a world in which the ultimate ruler is a god — but even then, it would not be identical to the absolute monarchies of our history.

Politics arises in my work in progress, Goddess-Born, in the form of a revolution. Part of this flows from mundane reality. The Kingdom of Grandlock has progressed in technology to the point where its monarchy and hereditary aristocracy have become unsustainable anachronisms. Noble privilege is driving farmers off their land, putting people out of work, and creating widespread hardship. The country is ripe for an overthrow of the government and in the normal course of things would struggle its way towards a democratic republic of some sort — but the emerging power of the magicians and the machinations of the Old Gods are both in play, and will inevitably divert that normal course of events.

In all cases, the politics of a society should flow logically from its material, magical, and other circumstances. It should seem natural and proper for the society. That’s part of the art of world building.

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