25 February 2008

Models of Magical Law Enforcement

My recent return to the world of Artemis Fowl left me thinking about magical law-enforcement. It's widely recommended that fantasy authors figure out how magic works in the worlds they create, communicate those processes and limits to readers, and then stick to them. So rules of magic are part of nearly all fantasies.

But rules against magic that characters could do but shouldn't are another matter. These, too, have a long history, back to the sorcerer's apprentice and beyond.

Sometimes such laws are given the force of government, as when Princess Ozma of Oz forbids her subjects from practicing magic, excepting only Glinda and the Wizard--and herself--and Dorothy, when she needs to--and her other friends, come to think of it. Hmmm.

Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci is also a magical law enforcer and fixer, though his source of authority is not exactly clear. This is an aristocratic model of government: a carefully educated strong man chosen for his power, passing down his title and property (though not within his family).

In recent years, magical regulation has become more bureaucratic. We met the feckless Ministry of Magic in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, a branch of the British civil service headed by a politically minded wizard. Harry and his friends get a close-up look at its workings in HP7, when they penetrate its headquarters in disguise, and that book's epilogue tells us that as adults they basically seize its levers of power.

We also encountered an entire magical government of Great Britain in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy. In these books, wizards don't serve a non-magical Prime Minister but hold the ministries themselves, oppressing the commoners who can't work magic and the genies who actually perform all the spells.

All these models of magical law enforcement involve human magicians regulating other humans. Magical creatures, even sentient ones, basically remain above (or below) any law but nature's. A genie or giant might have to be suppressed here and there, but no one expects magical creatures to significantly adapt their behavior to society. After all, such creatures are basically embodiments of mysterious natural forces.

Which brings me back to Artemis Fowl. In that novel Eoin Colfer shows us all the bureaucratic rivalries and back-biting of the Bartimaeus books, the abject concern for public relations and petty rules of the Ministry of Magic. But in Colfer's world, the law enforcers are fairies themselves. They have natural laws they must follow, but they also have rules they've decided on for their protection and enforce ruthlessly. Far from being beyond human-style politics, they're in the thick of it. No wonder the series leaves some readers dyspeptic.

1 comment:

ericshanower said...

Edward Einhorn's The Living House of Oz deals with Ozma's law about who can practice magic in Oz and who can't. Your cynical "Hmm" is close to the attitude of the main character, Buddy, and his mother.