Friday, September 23, 2005

Why Harry Potter?

Why are children and young people so interested in Harry Potter? Why do so many people want to be wizards? Honestly I am very curious. What is it about those books that appeal to young people? The idea of making things fly or transform with a word? Or the idea of a world that is different and strange and full of adventure and possibilities? The same reason why people like D&D perhaps?

Then again, D&D and HP are so different. The appeal of D&D has much to do with the idea of growth. Characters in D&D games grow in level and in power. It gives you great satisfaction to transform a level 1 newbie into a level 40 demigod. HP has little to do with the growth of power. Yes Dumbledore and Voldemort are extremely powerful, but well, they are probably not the main attractions of HP.

Sometimes I wonder if HP and Hogwarts appeal so much because school in our real world is so dead boring. Some folks dream perhaps for a world where homework consist not of an endless series of mundane chores but assignments on making magic potions, casting spells and levitating various things. Teenagers may also wish to believe in a dream school where people learn genuinely interesting and empowering things (in this case, magic spells). How many things do students learn for the sake of interest anyway?

And for many students in the real world, stress and failure lurk at every corner and many are labelled as 'failures'. In HP, one who face a harsh and drab reality can dream of being a wizard, a special and powerful being. I guess it allows one to be like Bastian in 'Neverending Story'--a failure and weakling in the real world, but a mighty hero in the world of Fantasia.

Such escapism might seem ill-conceived to many. Yet perhaps the call of our deeper selves often manifest through it. After all, magical abiltiies by themselves certainly do not lead to happiness and fulfillment. Some may of course think so--just as some believe that if they were to have a billion dollars they will be happy at last. But even if nature were to be prone at one's feet, obeying the commands of one's supernaturally powerful mind, yet no doubt it will quickly or slowly (depending on the wisdom of the person ) prove to be quite an empty achievement. So much power...and in the end, for what?

I believe that deep within man lies enormous forces. The attraction towards the wizarding ideal is to me a sign that there is something in us that KNOWS that our feeble surface being is not truly our full selves. Our souls and deeper being is never called to be a mere slave to the forces of life, but ultimately its destiny is to become the master of circumstances and of nature. Perhaps in each of us lies a being very much like a 'wizard'.

Happiness comes when one becomes what one always is. Fundamentally I do not think we seek 'magical powers' for the sake of what it can bring--the little frills and thrills--but for what we can become--i.e. our truest selves. Perhaps it is NATURAL for man to command nature directly with the will and the word. Perhaps it is our narrow, selfish, ignorant and suffering state of consciousness that is unnatural.

In Christianity for instance, it is believed that Adam, the first man, was given dominion over creation. But he lost most of this authority at the Fall. The resurrected Christ, the New Adam, restored this dominion, and transmit this redemption to those who unite themselves to him.

Tossed helplessly in the sea of life and its endless troubles, perhaps our young people seek unconsciously in HP a vision of what they can become--free, fulfilled and strong. Perhaps fantasy is not merely fantasy, but on a deeper level, it is prophecy.

Blog Facelift


As is well known, I have tried to make my blog as unattractive as possible through a lethal combination of a boring color scheme and long/tedious posts.

While I shall endeavor to continue writing as tediously as possible, I am too sick of the horrible color scheme. Hence the change.


Monday, September 12, 2005

Dungeons and Dragons

I have been interested in roleplaying games since primary school days. It is always fun to take on an alter-ego, especially one engaged in much more interesting activities than mundane schoolwork. One of the most extensive and well developed RPG series is the D&D (forgotten realms) fantasy world. This game system has been around since the 1970s and even today, best-selling computer games like Neverwinter Nights and the classic Baldur's Gate series are D&D spinoffs.

The great attraction of D&D is that it offers an entire alternative civilization and world based not on science but on magic. Its magical system is quite simple: basically 'magic' is an energy (governed by a goddess called Mystra) that builds and upholds the universe. Clerics, mages and sorcerers draw on this 'weave' of energy in different ways (either through the gods, their own arcane training or natural gifts), and shape this energy using their wills to accomplish spectacular feats. Given the nature of the game, most of these feats are of a very lethal and damaging nature. Many of them would probably fall in the category of 'black magic'.

D&D of course does not offer a very sophisticated (or convincing) metaphysical system. What is much more interesting is not what D&D views magic to be, but the consideration of the socio-political and economic implications of a world where thousands of people wield magic. It is a very interesting attempt at the construction of an entire complex civilization based on magical and not physical technology.

Adding to its richness is its many nations with different cultures, proficiency in magic, races, wealth and morality/religion. To just give a quick overview: there are a few nations in Faerun (a kind of magical alternative Europe where most of the action take place) with vast knowledge of magic. These are the elven nations (underground drow cities and Evermeet) and the magocracies (rule by mages) of Halruaa, Thay and Shade.

Both Halruaa and Shade are descendants of an ancient magical empire called Netheril, which was destroyed--Atlantean fashion--by its own hubris. However Halruaa has a generally orderly and beneficent culture and despite its potential power, it is really no nuisance to its neighbors. However it is also quite isolationist, and its philosopher-mages (who rule benevolently over a peasant population) are much more interested in research than commerce or conquest. Shade on the other hand is an extremely ruthless and aggressive city state with armies of mages wielding shadow magic (never mind what it is). Much unlike Halruaa, it is bent on extermination and world domination. Being a cousin state to Halruaa, it is also seeking to corrupt the ruling class of Halruaa by luring them with the powers of shadow magic.

Thay, neighbor to Shade, is a vast evil empire ruled by a council of mages. Its nominal head (since the council is forever fighting for power) is one of Faerun's most powerful wizard and necromancer (Szass Tam) with legions of undead at his command. Thay is forever at war with its neighbors, but because of its internal divisions and very powerful neighbors (Aglarond and Rashemen) it has never managed to overrun Faerun. Instead it has embarked on a commercial program to sell magical artifacts. Something like a Thayvian 'to get rich is glorious' policy change...

Evermeet is one of the last surface Elven powers. It is located on the extreme west of Faerun, run by beneficent and magically powerful elves who insist on being left alone. Its main direct enemies are not humans, but the drows (the dark elves) who live underground. If united, these drows are probably much more numerous and powerful than the surface elves, but fortunately for Faerun, they are like the Thayvians and forever fight among themselves. Their cities too are concentrations of magical power and lore.

The other nations of Faerun (e.g. the Venice-like metropolis of Waterdeep, the more mundane nations of Sembia and Cormyr) all have mages and clerics, but none of them have a concentration of them comparable to the magocracies or the elven nations. It is therefore notable that D&D postulated such a variety of political and cultural adaptations in different magical nations to deal with the problems and gifts of magical ability. After all, if magic were to exist on our earth, its regulation and control would perhaps be the chief political and social issue.

Yet despite the variety, it is even more interesting that magic users dominate the political orders of almost all the human nations. There is strikingly no democracies or republics in Faerun. The most liberal regime will be an oligarchy, and that is usually dominated by magic users. Waterdeep for instance is no magocracy, but it is run by a secret council of Lords with some of the most powerful mages in Faerun. The same pattern holds for almost all nations. Rashemen for instance is a warrior and even barbarous power, but it too is run by its witches.

Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher, has based the equality of men not on some abstract or spiritual concept, but on the equal ability of each man to kill. Clearly in a world where magic users can unleash unspeakable violence on hapless 'muggles', even that primitive concept of equality cannot be sustained. D&D is being politically insightful in eliminating any semblance of democracy or liberalism in Faerun.

One then think about the myth of Atlantis and its magic. How then did Atlantis survive as a magical civilization? One would think only a totalitarian state or at least one of the autocratic D&D regimes can support such a civilization. Perhaps. Or is it because Faerun is populated by humans too much like us? Violent, quarrelsome and greedy creatures. Perhaps the Atlanteans were quite different, at least at first.

In any case, with some of the technologies coming to birth in the 21st century, one wonders whether we will end up with the chaos of the D&D world. After all, no one WEAK should ever want to live in Faerun. It is a world of adventure, darkness, heroism and general war. The strong and magically potent thrive there, but the rest play second or third fiddles at best and typically end up as undead corpses. And this is in large part thanks to the abundance of magical talent. In our 21st century world where 'transhumanist' technologies might one day empower large groups of people to become virtual wizards, will we too end up with autocratic 'magocracies'?