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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Materialism and the Fantasy Genre

Skimming critiques of critiques of capitalism makes you think really interesting things. Take, for example, the concept of materialism and how it relates to the fantasy genre--and more specifically its typical representations found in the big names of the genre. What does magic do to issues of hoarding, to materialism itself, and to general concerns over resources?

I can't think of many examples in which magic is used as the primary method of acquiring, well, everything the kingdom needs, but it is interesting to consider how materialism acts as a dividing force in fantasy. Individuals who hoard and who must own things are seen primarily as the enemy, or are at least on the darker side of the good guys.

Harry Potter, perhaps, is one of the few series that so obviously presents oppositional forces in the world of materialism--a good and evil battle between the kinds of materialism we are familiar with today. The Malfoy family dominates much of the series as the principle nemesis family to Potter and the Weasley's: they are wealthy, pride themselves in said wealth, and spend it with the express purpose of acquiring new and flashy things; they are the pinnacle of materialist families in the Potter universe. Harry, however, is exceptionally anti-materialist. Most of his possessions are those he has acquired not necessarily by intent, but through gift or necessity--and each of those possessions is "special" to him, having something to do with his family or his friends. Potter isn't interested in acquiring things so much as hanging on to his links to those most important to him; the Malfoy family, however, is the opposite. And, of course, Potter is the hero, the good guy, the Chosen One.

These things are seen elsewhere too. Karen Miller's The Innocent Mage/The Awakened Mage series splits society into two distinct groups: those who typically support the King, and those that believe the King's family doesn't deserve to be where they are. While each of these groups are in a position of privilege and power, there is a particularly strong materialist bent in those families that do not typically support the King. These "darker" families want the throne for purely selfish reasons, while the "lighter" families want the throne to protect the Kingdom. Even the King's magic-less son is opposed to materialist formations, rejecting much of what has been forced upon him as the son of the King. There are even splits within the royal family as well, with the princess being particularly arrogant and selfish, despite her parents' level-headed approach to authority.

But what about materialism in fantasy that isn't definitively evil or good? How does magic influence the way the material is perceived? I can't think of any examples, but it seems to me that if a select few individuals in a society were to have magic and were also not inclined towards ruling "normies," wouldn't there be a rejection of materialism in general? Why would you be a materialist if you could create anything you needed out of thin air? What of Gods? Why is it that in fantasies which contain Gods as active participants, that they are often materialist in nature?

Perhaps there's a bit of faulty thinking by fantasy writers in certain instances. It seems illogical to have materialist tendencies in societies in which magic alters the consciousness of select individuals, or even where entire societies are magically inclined.

But maybe this is what fantasy does: it steals from modern society and drags it into the fantasy landscape, even if the analogy doesn't quite compute.


What do you all think about materialism in fantasy? Let me know in the comments!

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  1. Interesting. I'd never really thought about it before, but there definitely is a tendency to portray the "bad guys" as materialistic. I wonder if that isn't the case in most fiction, though. Just think of all the stories in which a corrupt billionaire gets what they deserve, or the tenants triumph over their greedy landlord.

  2. That's true, but it seems rather ridiculous in fantasy considering how magic often works. You look at Tolkien's LOTR and you can see how he altered the course of the world with magic: neither Gandalf or Sarumon are particularly materialistic. Sarumon wants power, but his motivations aren't necessarily materialistic, in my opinion. Neither are Sauron's, to be fair. Otherwise you'd expect much more out of the orcs and what not. As is, they live in rather squalid conditions, something that gets ignored simply because they are evil. I'm curious as to their motivations for wanting to work with Sauron. Do they do it primarily out of fear, or because they want better things? Is that necessarily materialistic to want something more than swamp and sludge? Maybe...

  3. Then you have D&D in which it's your mission to raid the poor goblins of whatever few coins they have so as to help you amass the greatest fortune in rare weapons and magical items.

    On a serious note, I think the motivations of greed and list for power are things most people can understand being bad. It's common in american political talk to discuss special interests, greedy corporations, and power hungry officials.

    It's a common motif because so long as there is scarcity there's likely to be conflict over resources. I think it would be interesting to see a magical post-scarcity economy.

  4. I don't understand where the connection to magic is here. You mostly seem to be complaining that many fantasy bad guys are

    materialistic, and as Memory pointed out, that spreads to other genres. Obviously this is because materialistic people in

    real life tend to be complete jerkified morons who end up regretting they went after career instead of family, because

    they're lonely and their money doesn't hug them. Being materialistic generally means you're selfish. Look at my sister

    compared to me: she's very well prepared to rip other people off if it means she can get what she wants, while I would feel

    bad asking for a mint. Who would you rather hang out with? :p This doesn't, of course, mean I never want anything, but I

    totally recognise the value of non-material things. In a fantasy story, particularly of the epic variety, you're generally

    following someone who is not a jerk, and who is doing something so important they have better things to think about than

    getting better clothes, which doesn't mean they have no materialistic bone in their body--it's just not shown.

    Come to think of it, Scott Lynch's hero, Locke Lamora, is very, very, materialistic. He's a thief, materialism is what he

    does, and he often can't resist scamming a little extra money, but his friends are more important, and the moment he loses

    one of them, the money becomes secondary. Not very secondary, but his friends are more important. I think in the fantasy

    genre it comes down to idealising a lot of things, to putting in the kinds of people we wish we were friends with, and who

    wouldn't want a friend who cared that much for you?

    The HP example is rather weak, I think. Harry, is, after all, pretty rich once he enters the wizarding world. He buys up one

    of every kind of sweet on the trolley on his very first day at Hogwarts. He gets given the best, most expensive broomsticks,

    and since he doesn't have any other hobby, he sort of gets everything he wants. Voldemort on the other hand, doesn't seem to

    want anything material: he just wants power (for no reason stated, as I recall). Who's the more materialistic there?

    Of *magic* and materialism, there are plenty of books out there that deal with it, you just haven't read them. The details

    are fuzzy cause it's been a while, but Stan Nicholl's Quicksilver trilogy was interesting in the way that magic was pretty

    much a commodity; it was sold in the streets in a terribly gaudy manner, and I believe there was some question of magic and

    food, but I can't really remember, and I may be thinking about some musing I had some time ago.

    I can't think of any other examples right now (plus I tend to prefer the epic stuff anyway), but I know there are others.

    They're a minority, sure, but that's because most people stick to the "rules" of making up magic systems, and that generally

    focusses a great deal on the "cost" of magic. If you're going to have magic thrown around willy-nilly on food and everything,

    it becomes sort of boring. Kid's books do frequently have that kind of magic, though. Enid Blyton's fairies etc are always

    whipping up feasts out of thin air. As a kid, that's seriously awesome, but I'm pretty sure adults would be questioning it

    big-time. I think the major reason magic is very rarely portrayed in that materialistic sense, on a large scale, is because when magic is so widespread that it's even used to create food, it becomes so commonplace that it's unimportant to the story and little more than a gimmick. Unless you're consciously using it in that way (Diana Wynne Jones often has a sort of background magic in her stories, but it's very cleverly done) it's just going to be irritating.

    Aaaand done.

  5. aaaand I wrote that post in Notepad, with word wrap on, so apologies for the weird formatting. :p

  6. Ellira: The connection for me is in the disconnect, because it seems somewhat ridiculous that materialism would be so prevalent in fantasy in a perfectly analogous fashion without any consideration for how magic influences material wealth and desire. There are examples that break that mold, but it seems rather typical of the more popular stuff to be, to a certain degree, about a battle between materialism and non-materialism.

    As for HP: I don't think that's a weak example primarily because while Harry does acquire wealth and what not, he's not actively seeking to spend it to acquire loads of things, etc. Whether there's an unspoken reason for it (maybe wizards have a law that prevents young wizards from spending all of their inheritance in one go, for example), I don't know. But he isn't a materialist individual. True, he does buy everything on the cart that first time, but that wasn't because he necessarily wanted everything for selfish reasons--he was new to the wizarding world, and, thus, wanted not only to give his friend something (Ron, who is materialist, I think, though due to issues of scarcity rather than pure selfishness; giving Ron things is inherently charitable), but to, well, try things. I don't see the desire to want to try something new as necessarily materialistic, unless your reasons for doing it are purely selfish (it's all for me, mwahahaha). Most of what Harry owns are gifts from friends (his owl, all the brooms, the picture of his family, the album, etc.). There is an exception to his school books, obviously, but they aren't materialistic possessions either, since they are required materials.

    I agree with you on Voldemort, but he's not nearly as present as Malfoy and his family until later in the series (yes, he's there in the start, but Potter seems to have more interaction with Malfoy than Voldemort in my opinion, and for half the series Voldemort is incomplete, in pieces, etc., so the motivations in those instances clearly could not be materialistic since all Voldemort wants at that point is to be whole again). But I agree that we get no sense of materialist tendencies in Voldemort even when he does come to life as a complete entity; he just wants power, it seems, and to kill people. There might be other motivations and desires, but we never really see them.

    I don't think it would be boring to seriously consider worlds in which magic is so common place so as to make scarcity no longer a concern. You could certainly do a lot with a world like that, and I think it would be interesting to have an anthology of short stories dealing with just such a scenario. How does a world change when magic literally makes the idea of starving or having things you need or want pointless?

    There's a lot to be done there. Does society segment itself with "better" wizards at the top? I don't know. There are a lot of options here.

  7. You bring up an interesting point. Could the theme be a subconscious throwback to the parables of Dives and Lazarus and such? I know that many medieval writers (romance, folklore and the like) often viewed too much wealth as something inherently bad (hording, not sharing). Material goods to some were physical manifestations of temporal power but spiritual weakness--if that makes sense? I do not think it is materialistic to want more than "swamp and sludge", I think that a character who does not look after others (Robin Hood) and does not share (or shares w.o looking for gain for self) is where materialism becomes something indicative of the power hungry evil beings. I will have to think on this further. I am not sure my rambling makes any sense...anywho.

  8. Harry's need to try every new nownownow isn't materialistic? Riiight. I'm not saying he doesn't have motives, but he's still more materialistic than Voldemort. Plus, if he hadn't been given the brooms and stuff, what would he have been buying? Brooms.

    I do think it would be insanely boring to have a fantasy story where the magic gives you everything. Like I said, it makes the magic only a gimmick, and I'm not interested in reading about that. If magic gives you everything, you have absolutely not conflict from that, the conflict would come from other places, and would be just as easily served without magic in the story at all. It might be interesting to muse over the consequences of such magic, but a story out of it would be fairly pointless, unless maybe you were using the story as a vehicle to convey the pointlessness.

    Dhympna, your rambling makes sense. I have thoughts on it, but they're not in word form yet. I shall be thinking further, too.

  9. I think you're misunderstanding what materialism entails: A desire for wealth and material possessions with little interest in ethical or spiritual matters. Harry is not at all like that. Not remotely. Yes, he probably would have bought a broom, but it wouldn't have been simply to own a broom; it would have a purpose.

    I disagree that such stories would be boring. They have the potential to be boring, but a good writer could do something unique with it.

  10. There's a reason why they haven't.

  11. Maybe because nobody thought about it enough to find a story that could be told.

  12. The thing about Harry Potter's materialism is that he actually does have a vault full of gold. During the series we discover it's depleted by school costs, but Harry's needs are met by that stash his parents left him. So it twists my perception, at least, differently than yours.

    To me, Harry's money isn't really real to him while he's in school. It is irrelevant to his magic, and it is merely another tool like magic. The Malfoys being rich as well as evil plays on a well-known tendency of people to mistrust the rich as well as hate and envy them for what they have. Even good wealthy people are envied and hated by some; so it is easy (and rather simplistic) to paint the Malfoys (and many of the Death Eaters-did I get that name right?) as evil.

    The overarching theme of HP is Good vs Evil, and the opposing forces do seem to encompass materialism in a way; but that seems a rather minor note to the story.

    Just my thoughts fwiw.

  13. Thanks for stopping by and giving us your thoughts :P.

    I agree that the materialist features are relatively minor in HP, but it's still interesting to see the differences in how these characters are portrayed.