Back to (Magic) School

Is it just me, or are there a lot of magical educational institutions in the fantasy genre? I mean, it makes sense – if you have a world where there’s a wizard in every town, they all have to learn their trade somewhere, right? What I find odd, though, is the extent to which we, the readers, always find ourselves there, going to classes, worrying about tests, and the rest of it. Now, while I do enjoy a well-rendered magic school scene as much as the next guy, I feel like this particular trope of the genre is getting worn out. I mean, consider all the magic schools out there:

  • Hogwarts (naturally)
  • The Jedi Academy
  • The University (Kingkiller Chronicles)
  • Brakebills (The Magicians)
  • The White Tower of Tar Valon (The Wheel of Time)
  • Roke (Earthsea Trilogy)

There are more than this, too, and there are also those other fantastic schools we see that, while they don’t teach magic, they do teach rather off-beat things like mutant powers (Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) or high-tech strategy (the Battle School in Ender’s Game) and so on and so forth. My own world, Alandar, has a magical school, too (the Arcanostrum of Saldor), and I’d bet there are at least a thousand other first novels out there all brandishing their own version of how to learn to throw fire from your hands and tell the future with a dish of water. And, while I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to figure that stuff out in their fantasy world, I am getting a little tired of having to take the curriculum myself.

Been there, done that--in both the real world and in fiction. Let's move on.

Been there, done that–in both the real world and in fiction. Let’s move on.

I don’t want to go to class with these kids. I don’t want to meet their teachers. I don’t want to see their tests or worry with them over their tuition or any of that. It’s becoming exhausting for me – I feel like I never get the chance to graduate from these places. Once I’m out of one, I’m enrolled in another. It’s starting to drive me crazy. I have now forsworn ever writing any further magic school scenes that deal with the troubles of students learning the mystical arts (I have done it in the past, but no more). Why? It’s done now. Beat to death.

Now, there are some very good reasons why this trope has infiltrated so much of the genre and, honestly, one of the reasons it bothers me is that I, myself, am a teacher and reading this stuff just makes me feel like I’m at work to some extent. Most simply, though, the primary reason we keep seeing magical schools is that so much of this genre is targeted at kids who are still in high school or college. Hell, the Young Adult Fantasy genre is almost exclusively concerned with an audience for whom a major (if not the major) source of conflict in their lives is their experiences in school. I would bet that adults like these things because they, themselves, enjoy the nostalgia that comes with being obsessed with the troubles that come with school (which, kids, if I may pull my Old Man Card here, are wonderfully simple problems compared to the Real World). Even beyond audience appeal, they also serve as excellent ways to introduce a reader to the magical scheme of the fantasy world in question – as they learn, so do you.

In all those senses, I get it; I understand why we keep going back to these places. Can we shake it up, though? Can we tell the story of a teacher instead of a student? Can we follow a student who finds school easy but their personal life hard (though I suppose Grossman does this in The Magicians to some extent)? Can we follow a student who is so terrible at school that he isn’t any good and he drops out and then finds something else to do with his life? What about not having a school, but just a master and apprentice? This has been done, yes, but hardly as often and not with as much detail. What about somebody who’s just plain old self-taught? What about somebody founding a school? What about a school that gets dissolved?

There’s a lot of stuff to be done here, but I feel like we keep running in the same circles. We got the same talented kid who has some trouble in school but overall does impressive stuff who has a teacher s/he likes, a teacher s/he hates, a group of plucky friends, and a headmaster who makes a good mentor. They go through their adventures, get their degree, and there the story stops. This I find deeply ironic to some extent since, as all adults know, that’s the point where the story really starts.

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on May 13, 2013, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. The funny part of this is the flipside to the weapon-users… who seemingly NEVER learn their abilities to fight in a school or class-based setting. Instead, they always seem to just practice their swordfighting on their own, or they get drafted into a war somewhere and only get a short crash course on how to fight before being thrown into the fray (and the plot) immediately.

    At some point… shouldn’t a war occur where soldiers of all types are needed pronto, and thus when you get drafted and tested they find out that, Hey! You have an affinity to casting spells just like someone else might have an affinity for paratrooping! Thus we’re going to put you through a quick eight weeks of Basic magical Training and then send you right out there on the battlefield to fight! Screw the whole “practice until you’re a master” crap… we need magical support dammit! Get out there with a wand of fireballs and start taking down those wyverns!

    We have all these stories of weapon fighters learning on the job… it’s about time these magicians had to deal with the same problems.

    • That’s a pretty cool idea, Fish. I like it!

    • Sounds a bit like the Black Tower in the Wheel of Time series, simply rounding up as many men as possible who can channel and then rapidly, under great duress, turn them into battle-mages for the ongoing wars (their lowest rank is even called ‘soldier’).

      • True – I stopped reading the Wheel of Time before any kind of real system had been established for the Black Tower, though. It was always kinda happening in the background, but didn’t get a lot of attention by Winter’s Heart (my stopping point). It is a good comparison, of course.

      • Well, it still follows the military design, with creating as powerful channellers as quickly as possible with a lot of risk-taking, by the end of the thirteenth book. I won’t say much else though due to spoilers.

      • Can I just say it makes me very sad that there are 13 of those books. There is no godly reason that series couldn’t have been wrapped up in 8 or 9.

      • *cough* 14 with the last book. *cough*

        While certain elements do indeed drag along for far too long, Crossroads of Twilight is probably the single worst offender with little to no actual progress (basically it is just a continuation of the state all the different stories where in in the previous books, in fact a lot of it happens at the same time as the previous book, with some changes at the very end of the 850 pages long book), I think the grandeur and interconnection that the complete series creates in Wheel of Time is staggering and quite impressive. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is lovingly immersive and it does give it epic proportions which is fitting.

        Could it been told in shorter strokes? Definitely but it might not have been interesting for the same reasons and certainly not as “world-building” as the the finished product is.

  2. You do have the faculty of the Unseen University in some of the Discworld novels where students are rarely mentioned and if they are it is usually in connection with them being lazy, stupid, strange etc. from the ancient faculty’s point of view, or how advanced methods different members of the faculty has developed to actually avoid having to teach any of them. There are a few characters who are students but their existence usually circles around other things (Victor in Moving Pictures for example). Might have to do with it being an “actual” university so the students are older and most we do encounter seem to focus on research so are probably candidate students or higher.

    But as you say it is a very useful tool for an author in the ways you mentioned and will probably never go away, just like non-fantastical teen stories usually have some school elements in them as well.

    • Also, I personally feel that Roke isn’t really that straight-played as the other examples you toss up and actually do some of the stuff you mention to the trope.

      • I mostly included Roke as it was, in many ways, the origin of the trope (I’m having trouble thinking of earlier examples of magic schools). The originators are often outside the stereotype that grows up later. Fair enough, though – Roke is not anywhere near as stock as the things that follow it.

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