Harry Potter and the Ignored Memory of Colonialism
May 21, 2018 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone written anything about how to square the brutal, colonial history of the world with urban fantasy or Harry Potter type magic? Alternatively, has anyone written urban fantasy/alternative history where magic actually made a difference in terms of colonialism and Europe's power in the world?

I've proposed to my wife (who is sick of me going on about it, thus me turning to the hive mind) that the only explanations for the lack of any wizard activity in stopping things like the Belgian Congo or any of the massacres that are part of the colonialist narrative are a.) wizards are sociopaths and don't give two shits about their neighbors and muggles not related to them b.) European magic is the only real magic and all the magic done by anyone not European is fake and did not tap into the real world of magic, thus allowing the standard white racist assholes to come in and rape countries or c.) Somehow, despite being in such small numbers, European wizards were able to come in and dominate the African/Asian/Native American Wizards and wiped them out almost entirely (thus demonstrating again that the Europeans were the masters of magic). So sociopathy or racism. (There are probably books in which the evil forces are the ones who committed the sins of colonialism and it was all the good guys could do to prevent even more horrors, but that feels like a real cop out.)

I'm looking for any writing about this in terms of Harry Potter or any other system that proposes a hidden magical community that has managed not to prevent the worst atrocities of the last 500 years. Extra points for any fiction that either a.) addresses this issue or b.) goes into an alternative history as to what would have happened if the native peoples had been able to force the Europeans back via spells during the ages of exploration and colonization.

I know that the Harry Potter universe is, in terms of canon, held together by chewing gum and bailing wire and that this is just something that Rowling never thought of. However, it seems to me that any and all stories in which magic in the world is real, the people who wield it do not step in and try to fix things, even in the far past when people using magic would have been accepted and welcomed. Other examples include The Dresden Files and The Rivers of London universes. (Both of which I love, but, due to their attempts to make magic a not just in the US/England thing, this issue crops up.)

Unfortunately, I only read English, but it'd be extra exciting to read anything written by this from people who are not European if it can be found in English.
posted by Hactar to Society & Culture (29 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Not exactly what you are looking for, but I think the Temeraire series does a reasonable job of at least problematizing the colonial issues. No magic per se, but dragons are kind of magical IMHO.
posted by eglenner at 8:45 PM on May 21, 2018 [10 favorites]

Although it doesn't specifically address colonialism and the atrocities committed due to colonialism, I think Diane Duane's Young Wizards series attempts to account for how it is that bad things still happen in a world where wizardry exists. Duane is American and clearly writes from a western viewpoint, with most of the story that happens on Earth involving English-speaking countries (well, and Ireland). However not all the books happen on Earth and there's some very interesting ideas indeed that she tackles. I've always felt they are much more complex books than Harry Potter.

She generally has reasonably diverse characters too. While she doesn't necessarily make a big deal out of race or sexuality, one of the recurring main characters is Latino; there's African-American characters and (I hypothesise, although it is never explicitly stated) gay characters. Not to mention all the non-human characters, not necessarily aliens. (I am pretty fond of the spin-off series about the cat wizards.)
posted by Athanassiel at 8:50 PM on May 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

I am having trouble coming up with exactly what I think you're asking for, but...

A couple of good examples of (sideways) fantasies with European magical systems in conflict with either indigenous or other invasive systems (Chinese, African, etc.) are Lila Bowen's series starting with Wake of Vultures, as well as some discontinuous stories by Ursula Vernon like Tomato Thief or Jackalope Wives.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 8:52 PM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've seen this in some Harry Potter fanfiction, are you interested in that kind of thing?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 8:53 PM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud has some of these elements, including several historical figures depicted as either wielding magic or at least knowing about it. It is still very London/UK centric and the main story takes place in the 20th century. The fourth/add-on books goes back to 950 BC.
posted by soelo at 8:57 PM on May 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The closest I can think of is Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown, but that doesn't actually answer your question. Sadly I think one can assume that generally European wizards were as directly or indirectly implicated in colonialism and colonial encounters as their non-wizarding peers; there is no reason to think otherwise. The role of colonialism in creating the world we inhabit (and that wizards inhabit in various fantasy worlds) is just not something that writers have grappled with.
posted by tavegyl at 9:19 PM on May 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Tim Powers goes into this a bit in On Stranger Tides and in The Anubis Gates-- Magic used to be worldwide and powerful, but has become weakened by the rise of 'civilization'. Different cultures had different traditions (I think there's a bit where two sorcerers doing a spell together start chanting, one in French and one in some regional dialect, and after a short time they're both speaking the same arcane syllables). Anubis Gates starts with an attempt by magicians to restore magic to the world so that colonials can be destroyed by wizards.
posted by The otter lady at 9:20 PM on May 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: John Crowley's "Great Work of Time" is about -- well, they're not really described as wizards, but time-travellers are basically wizards, aren't they? -- who explicitly try to prevent the horrors of mass slaughter (there is more about European war than about colonialism IIRC) and ... well, it doesn't go as planned, you can read it, it's good. But the point is it definitely strikes head on your question of "why would people with cosmic power do anything except try to head off atrocities they know they can prevent?"
posted by escabeche at 9:23 PM on May 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure that it ticks all your boxes but The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts by Louis de Bernières has magic, colonialism, and is a book I couldn't put down.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:28 PM on May 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

B seems a bit drastic -- it's certainly possible to lose a fight without it meaning that you are in fact completely powerless. You may lose a fight that you didn't realize you were fighting until it was too late. You may lose a fight because you are ill or otherwise hurt by something else before the fight even began. And so on.

Off the top of my head, Vietnamese/French writer Aliette de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen series does look at this, with the underlying approach that what happens among mundane mortals may happen just as well between more fantastical factions, but although it takes place in an urban setting, it definitely isn't the "hidden magical community" kind of thing -- and anyway she has the magical wars effectively act as a pre-series apocalypse.

I'm a bit frustrated that I can't remember any of the short fiction that I feel has addressed this -- I read up to 10-15 short stories a week and don't document them as assiduously as I do the longform fiction. Perhaps I will be able to remember something tomorrow after some more mulling.
posted by inconstant at 9:33 PM on May 21, 2018

Best answer: Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence tackles this bigtime. Most visibly, since gods and magic are real, the Aztec empire is still around (though their gods were overthrown around 1940). Two Serpents Rising has the distinction of being a book set in roughly Los Angeles with a single white character with more than one line in the entire novel, and she's a third line character at that (protagonist's best friend's girlfriend). Ruin of Angels, the latest in the sequence, takes on colonialism head-on (roughly Maghreb situation, with not-France taking control of a war-torn city with its own deep cultural heritage), while Four Fathoms Deep, which you really need to read before, is not!Hawaii, run by natives, also adapting to tourists and modern economy.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 9:45 PM on May 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Alexandra Quick series is Harry Potter fanfiction set in the U.S. The overall plot arc heavily involves hidden/lost/suppressed Native American magic and magical creatures, and some side plots involve tensions between different ethnic enclaves (e.g., Japanese vs Chinese Americans) and their distinct styles of magic. A black Muggle-born wizard is used to make an extremely explicit comparison between Muggle white supremacy and wizarding blood purity. And the writing is good, too!

Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence is set in the aftermath of a war between the gods and magical lawyers. The lawyers won. One of the books is set in a recently fallen Aztec empire, where one of the last priests has to try to talk his followers and his gods both out of a largely futile last stand.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:50 PM on May 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I claim sanctuary: Curse you!
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:51 PM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, also: The Poppy War is pretty explicitly "Harry Potter and the Rape of Nanjing."
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:56 PM on May 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts by Louis de Bernières

nb there are 2 other books in this trilogy and they are similarly gr8
posted by poffin boffin at 12:35 AM on May 22, 2018

Oh, also: The Poppy War is pretty explicitly "Harry Potter and the Rape of Nanjing." (stunned silence) I think I must now read that book. Thank you, Meaty Shoe Puppet!

While I appreciate the sincerity of the original question, it presupposes something that I do not believe in-- The fact that a person has a great power does not make them more moral.

In fact, history (and my own experience) shows that that opposite is often true. In my headcannon, the 18th and 19th century Hogwartians, led by a Malfoy ancestor, enthusiastically took part in the great race for empire, gleefully plundering the Indian subcontinent and other new possessions, perhaps aided by their magical powers. It gives all sorts of unpleasant ideas for books with titles like "Ephigenia Thatcher: The Hope Diamond and the Curse of Cromwell" or "Harvey Peters and the Sorcerous Sepoy Mutiny".

Secondly, I assume that the good wizards of the past (and there must have been some, it is not a completely evil world we live in) had their own problems. I just figure there was a Voldemort-equivalent in every generation (or every other generation if we are lucky). Voldemort-equivalents have always been with us, will always be with us. Once one is defeated, another arises. All we can ever do is seize a temporary victory, perhaps long enough to be able to drop our own children off on the train to Hogwarts.

And since people are recommending books, one which encompasses this worldview is Daniel O'Malley's The Rook (and its sequel). A supernatural bureaucratic organization defends Britain and the world from supernatural threats. It is also a really fun mystery about amnesia and having to impersonate the person who used to inhabit your body.
posted by seasparrow at 12:55 AM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Why would you think that a culture where house elves are the norm was not complicit in colonialism?
posted by DarlingBri at 4:21 AM on May 22, 2018 [15 favorites]

If you haven’t seen it, you may want to check out the movie Black Panther, as this is the question that it is built upon.
posted by ejs at 4:49 AM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Nisi Shawl, Everfair. An alternative history of the Congo, told mostly from the POV of the Congolese. There's a lot of magic and magic-technology hybrids.
posted by Weftage at 5:11 AM on May 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

it presupposes something that I do not believe in-- The fact that a person has a great power does not make them more moral.

The question as I read it does not seem to be asking why European wizards did not prevent the atrocities committed by their contemporaries - in fact, some of the suggested explanations include their enthusiastic participation. The question is why did the indigenous peoples not have similar access to magic that could better protect them? (Or rather, the question is where are the stories explaining that aspect?) A story about early Malfoys participating in colonialism, and how they succeeded in their mission to oppress native magic wielders, would be a great answer to this question.

I think there's a hand-wavy answer that European colonists were themselves outnumbered by the peoples they enslaved, so it's a pretty logical extension that we could suppose indigenous peoples with magic could have been faced by colonialists with magic without it necessarily tipping the scales in the other direction. Looking forward to reading some of these suggestions!
posted by solotoro at 5:14 AM on May 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Get thee to tumblr, where this discussion is ALWAYS ongoing. You could search for #harrypotter and #colonialism and find a lot of fascinating writing on the subject. (Also, fandom has essentially declared Harry to be Desi, which shapes a lot of that discourse, and shows up in a lot of fanart these days.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:24 AM on May 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts by Louis de Bernières

nb there are 2 other books in this trilogy and they are similarly gr8

They are indeed gr8, but the second one (Señor Vivo and the Coca Lords) includes some truly horrifying violence, which I thought was worth a content warning.
posted by Pallas Athena at 9:56 AM on May 22, 2018

Jim Butcher's "Dresden" books are about magic users, and one in particular, in the contemporary world. Butcher gets around this ethical problem by having his wizards' ruling body explicitly forbids using magic to interfere with muggle problems. At one point he has a Native American wizard expound on this to the Chicagoan protagonist, pointing out how he had to watch his own people exterminated.
posted by turkeybrain at 10:19 AM on May 22, 2018

Sorry, I did not read all the way to the end of your ask where you said you were familiar with Dresden.

Anyway good luck, and thanks for this question whose answers are interesting and include other books I think I want to read.
posted by turkeybrain at 10:37 AM on May 22, 2018

I read "California Bones" by Greg van Eekhout. It's set in California, and the magical people are sometimes crooks, sometimes rulers. The ability to do magic definitely affects the society around them, and not in positive ways.

I didn't read the second and third books yet; they may or may not venture farther afield. *shrug* Maybe something you would get some material from? :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 12:07 PM on May 22, 2018

Not 'colonial' in the sense you intend (and not even tangentially potteresque), but Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell immediately popped into my head when I read your question. Set during the Napoleonic wars in an England where magic exists but is not widely practised, this alternate history novel juxtaposes respectable and disreputable magic and inverts stereotypes and preconceptions (of reality, identity, power, marginalisation), describing the supernatural scientifically (with footnotes and a scholarly bibliography, even) and as a matter of course. The novel itself uses many 19th-century narrative staples and language. Quite an enjoyable read (not to mention BBC miniseries).
posted by fregoli at 1:11 PM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is waaaaaaay off of what you're looking for, but Christian missionary writing of a certain vintage regularly features the missionary demonstrating to the local "witch doctors" that Jesus is more powerful than their magic. It's basically your (b) option, but with the perspective that it's a good thing.
posted by clawsoon at 1:24 PM on May 22, 2018

In Tamora Pierce's Tortall universe (especially The Immortals), every country has mages, some with slightly different systems of either inherited power or training, and basically whoever has the strongest mages and perhaps the favor of the gods tends to win.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 2:04 AM on May 23, 2018

Response by poster: These are great. Thank you guys! If you have any more, please keep them coming. And I'll give Tim Powers another shot, I bounced off one his books before and haven't tried any of his other stuff.

Also, I am more than open to any fanfic suggestions.
posted by Hactar at 6:49 AM on May 25, 2018

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