Q&A: Magic to Power

So I’m writing a story where magic exists. But it’s not exactly outlawed In the kingdom. But there’s a bunch of superstitions involved that they don’t use it. And the king actively encourages those super stations albeit not blatantly. My question is the king still employes people with magic from a group or some sort of organisation that trains these people in secret. How would I go about forming that? Would they work better as spies or independent contractors? This is set in roughly about 1700.

They’re not going to be, “independent contractors.” I’d say, “not in the eighteenth century,” but, given the circumstances, no, not at all. So, let’s talk about how these things would have to function.

For mages to be independent of their government, one of two things has to be true. They must either be powerless, meaning the magic they perform is trivial and ineffectual, or they must be more powerful (either individually or collectively) than the governments that seek to control them.

If their magic is utterly powerless, there’s no reason to pay attention to them. They’re irrelevant. If your world’s mages struggle light a candle with their magic, they may be scapegoated by groups, but governments wouldn’t care unless they wanted to get in on that.

Basically, if magic works as advertised, that’s going to be an asset to any ruler. It doesn’t matter if someone is a soothsayer, a healer, or able to throw fireballs around, their powers are useful.

If you are an eighteenth century noble, you do not want the peasantry to have that kind of power. Inevitably, they will use it to kill you. This is before you consider the kind of damage a single disgruntled mage could cause to your kingdom. The ability to project fire (or any other element) could completely destroy your agricultural base. Fire in particular opens up the possibility of remote detonating gunpowder stores. Prescience or clairvoyance could be used to sabotage your economy. Simply put, having a rogue mage out there could wreck your domain.

So what do you do? You make them work for you, or kill them if they refuse. If you need to, you can justify a public execution by pointing to all the harm they could have caused, and whatever harm other mages had inflicted in the past.

At this point, the way people learn magic and gain magical power, becomes really important. I’m mostly interested in two categories, and grouping everything else in.

The first group gain their powers spontaneously. It could be random, exposure to something in the world, demonic possession, really, whatever. The end result is the magic user gains magical powers intuitively and they can pop up anywhere.

If you’re dealing with this group, your goal will be to find and shut them down before they become a problem. It’s also an issue because you could potentially get a rogue mage in your peasantry. So, this needs to be quickly dealt with. Given the time frame we’re talking about, it’s not out of the question that one of The Holy Inquisitions is specifically rooting out magic users.

The second group gain their powers predictably. You know who will become a mage before they gain their powers. This could be the traditional academic wizard, who learns magic through study, and finding hidden lore, it could be your superhuman martial arts masters, it could be people that gain magical powers through their bloodlines. The short version is, you don’t have to worry about a surprise peasant mage, and any rogue mages are an espionage problem.

If it’s academic, it’s very likely that court wizard is an established position. Similarly, if superhuman martial artists are part of your world, they may also have a permanent court position. If it’s a bloodline, then those are probably very powerful families who have a lot of political influence, if not outright control.

Depending on which group your mages fall into will determine how your ruler needs to worry about magic. If it’s completely random, then it’s more about damage control; securing (and recruiting or eliminating) mages before they can become a problem. Mages become an incredibly valuable asset in dealing with other rulers, because you don’t know if they have mages. Tipping your hand about your resources to other nobles becomes very dangerous.

Further, if magical talent manifests randomly, it is extremely likely that any unified control over them would rest with the governing religious bodies, not with your king. It’s entirely possible a single mage is powerful enough to kill your ruler, but to take on a continent wide religion that’s been in power for over a thousand years? They’ll know how to deal with an inexperienced spellcaster.

Note: This also applies if you’re dealing with a large, well established, empire, like Rome at the height of its power. They would also have the capacity to locate and detain new mages.

If we’re talking about religion, then we have a perfect justification for magic being good when the organization needs it to be and evil when someone does it else does it. When a member of the church casts a spell, “it’s a miracle,” “it’s a holy act,” “an implement of divine will.” When a heretic does it, “it’s witchcraft.” Church affiliated mages might even look at the aggressive use of magic as, “fighting fire with fire,” or “turning The Devil’s tools against his own.”

It’s also distinctly possible that you have multiple kinds of spellcasters. So it could be your church affiliated mages are using entirely different spells from the ones used by rogue mages.

This is the problem with, “superstition.” It needs to be based on something. For people to shun a mage, the magic they use has to be dangerous, unpredictable, or both. For example: If there was no, “beneficial,” magic, just curses, people would be a little circumspect about interacting with a mage. Or, if magic required the intervention of a demon, and you could never be completely certain it would do what it was told, same result.

How would a king form a secret organization of mages? With the stroke of a pen. He may simply hire from registered guild mages, offering them a job. He might form a covert group of witchhunters, possibly even hiring veteran inquisitors, with the task of finding willing, unaffiliated recruits. The options are open. What he can’t do is, have a secret cabal.

If you live in a world where magic is real, you’re going to become attuned to the idea that people use it to advance themselves. Even if you can’t, even if no one you know can, you know people can and do. A king propped up by a hidden cadre of mages will stand out. Even if this is standard practice. Even if magic is subtle. You may not be able to prove that your king is in power because of mages secretly backing him, but if the mages are helping him in a meaningful way will be somewhat obvious: Things go too well.

At the same time, if magic is subtle, it would be a boon for any court spymaster. Either directly or by employing their own mages. This isn’t a problem your king would be dealing with directly. That’s what his spymaster is for. As to a question of whether mages make good spies, it depends on your magic. Even if your magic is overt, an individual mage may make a good spy simply from their non-magical talents, and being a mage may get them access to places that a non-mage wouldn’t. Conversely, if magic is persecuted, it would also be a liability for any spy. Get caught practicing magic, and they’ll kill you for that, without even realizing you’re a spy.

Ironically, forming good relations with a magical power base is a vital skill for a king in a magically active world. He needs mages that are at least friendly enough that they won’t wipe him out for a rival. It would also, significantly alter the balance of power from what we saw in the real world, where, by the 18th century, the Catholic church was dealing with losing power in much of Europe, and the modern nation states were on the rise. For a religion empowered by spellcasters who can inflict religious edicts directly, the results would be considerably different.

When we’re talking about alternate histories with fantasy elements, there are a lot of historical events that could go very differently, which I couldn’t even begin to list here. The big thing I’d suggest considering is that if mages were aligned with multiple groups, you could easily see a “cold war” type situation, with proxy wars playing out, or a even a magical, nuclear detente.

What you have here digs pretty deeply in your world building. It’s not simply, “1700s, but with mages,” or at least, shouldn’t be. You need to reevaluate history up to that moment, and try to figure out what would have happened with those changes.

-Starke

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