2013-01-13

What's magic for?

A very striking difference between Harry Potter and Wheel of Time is the use of magic for practical purposes. Why would you bother to wash clothes the hard, time consuming way if you can do it, and do it better, with magic? In Harry Potter's world, wizards and witches certainly don't bother to swipe the floor if they can enchant a broom to do it.

In Wheel of Time there is instead servants that do everything the backbreaking way, and if a person doesn't have a servant she does it herself the hard way. Anything less is some form of cheating. No one ever dries her dress with magic without a twinge of guilt.

In addition, manual labor is used as a way to punish, humiliate and "humble" people who are able to use magic or are rich and can afford to hire people to do their work for them.

I can see that there is a certain puritanical asceticism in choosing to do things manually, but every culture in Wheel of Time appears to have arrived at the same ideal: magic is special, to use it to wield a broom is to diminish it.

It would be more realistic with some variability here. For example, among Aes Sedai, who are obsessively hierarchical and who rank themselves by their strength in magic, it would make sense if those weak in magic were used as highly efficient servants. Of course, the Seanchan, among whom the ability to wield magic is so dirty and low that a person able to must be enslaved, is the other extreme. Even so magic wielders are used as weapons, rather than brooms.

As an ideal magical asceticism has a certain appeal; consider mindfulness where washing dishes and being present while doing so is a way to increase your awareness. However, the element of choice seems rather important, being made to wash dishes would probably not have the same enlightening effect.
It's clear though, that enlightenment is not the goal. The goal is to dehumanize, punish and enforce hierarchy by removing to choice to use magic or not.

It's frankly bizarre that manual, sometimes meaningless, labor, flogging and humiliation is so universal. While I appear to recall from my history classes that flogging, severing of body parts and death was used as punishments, there were other forms as well. A rather popular one, in my home country, was to lock a person to a wooden contraption outside the church for a certain amount of time. The person had to endure stares, being spit on and verbal abuse; lots of humiliation, very little spanking, labor and public nakedness.

At any rate, if you have magic why wouldn't you use it to solve everyday problems so that more time could be spent on other things? Your servants, free from seriously time consuming tasks such as washing clothes, could be put to use as researchers to further your knowledge.

Hans Rosling gave a very moving TED talk, http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_and_the_magic_washing_machine.html, on the impact of the washing machine. It gave women time to spend on their families and themselves. Suddenly there was time to read books! I think that heavy labor was a greater contributor in preventing women from making their mark on history than being ignored and overlooked. History has a similar absence of working class inventors and intellectuals. When would they have found the time?
In Wheel of Time, it's the only the men in the Black Tower (men who can wield magic), who use magic for menial work, but it's clearly stated that it's to speed up the rate of learning rather than a practical, logical consequence of being able to do things an easier way.

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