Two Sides of Magic – World Building and Fantasy

AVATAR+-+THE+LAST+AIRBENDER cover_The-Lord-of-the-Rings

This post was originally going to be just a follow-up on my recent post about internal consistency and the use of detail. In most ways, it still is. But where that post was about using those tools for the essentially defensive purpose of establishing plausibility, this post is about using them for the proactive purpose of world-building.

Once again, I’m going to use works from the fantasy genre as examples, because, once again, fantasy gives the most freedom when choosing what kind of world you want to build. Science fiction must give at least the pretense of being science-based, and horror must at least look like a familiar world, if only so the horrific revelation that that world is a lie has that much more impact. In contrast, a fantasy world – as Terry Pratchet’s Discworld and the world of the Exalted role-playing game, as discussed in the previous post prove – doesn’t even have to be a round planet.

The two works I’m going to use are both set on round planets (…I’m pretty sure. We only see one hemisphere of each, but one is supposedly set on our own world and the other has a standard scientific version of outer space), but are otherwise extreme ends of the spectrum in terms of fantasy world-building: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Tolkien’s works are an example of extremely conservative fantasy world-building. This may seem strange to say about a world that includes magic – not only magic spells, but magic rings, magic swords, magic doors, magic battering rams – and no less than eight non-human sapient species (and that’s before you even count the spirits and undead!). But if you look again, you’ll notice that all of the fantastic elements are so distant from the everyday life of human society that many residents of Middle-Earth consider them as fantastic as we would. Magic is rare, usually subtle, and can only be used by a select few…none of whom are ordinary members of the Race of Men. The closest thing we see to a human using magic is Aragorn (member of a not-entirely-human super race) call upon the oaths of the Dead Men Of Dunharrow (which involved no personal power) and using athelas to treat Black Breath exposure, which may have been a simple case of herbal knowledge (or may not; rightful kings having healing powers are established parts of European lore).

But then, we don’t see many members of other races using magic, either. Even among the elves, the only confirmed magic-users we see are Elrond and Galadriel. The dwarves of the Lonely Mountain sing of the “dwarves of yore” weaving “mighty spells” with their smithcraft, but that knowledge may be lost. Certainly, it wasn’t Gimli who figured out how to open the door into Moria. Similarly, while the orcs inscribe Black Speech runes into various equipment, the actual spells laid on, say, Grond probably came from the Nazgul.

What’s more, magic is so slow and subtle that those who use it often don’t depend on it. Even such powerful magic-users as Gandalf, Sauron and the Witch-King carry and use what amount to enhanced melee weapons.

A magic-using angelic being with a magic sword.  Hacking people to pieces with it.

A magic-using angelic being with a magic sword. Hacking people to pieces with it.

Indeed, it’s implied that one of the things that’s wrong with Saruman is his dependence on magic – and even he recognizes the need to put Uruk-hai boots on the ground, and brings down the walls of Helm’s Deep with chemistry instead of sorcery!

Similarly, the non-human sapient races are kept carefully segregated from humanity. Elves – the ones who aren’t leaving for the Grey Havens – are largely limited to Rivendell, Lothlorien and Mirkwood. Of those, humans are only allowed into Rivendell, where few of them go because it’s on the very edge of the Wild. The Dwarves come out of their mountain-halls less and less by the year. Orcs and trolls are in a war of extinction with every other race, and without their supernatural patron, they’re losing. The Eagles, the Ents, and dragons are all simply rare. The Hobbits, tucked away in the Shire as they are, still have the most interaction with humans of any non-human race…which is how they eventually join us.

While many of these things have become defaults for the fantasy genre in the decades since Tolkien wrote them, for Tolkien himself they were deliberate stylistic choices. Middle Earth was intended to be our world in a mythic prehistory, and the theme of the story was that the world was decaying from “the bright and the beautiful” down into the bleak and mundane. In other words, the departure (or assimilation) of the non-human sapients and the fading of magic was the whole point.

By contrast, Avatar: The Last Airbender takes advantage of the freedom of the fantasy genre to build a world that is more…well, fantastic. Granted, there is exactly one non-human sapient species (again, not counting the spirits), and they’re nearly extinct. On the other hand, magic is sufficiently commonplace and dependable that it’s indistinguishable from technology.

For those unfamiliar with Avatar, it’s set in a world where approximately 25% of the population has the ability to control – or “bend” – one of the four classic elements. There are four different nations, each apparently based on the element that its citizens can control: the Water Tribes, the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads.


It’s not entirely clear why the division of elemental bending is so well-defined. Whether each people’s national character determines which element they bend or whether their national character has been shaped by their element is something of a chicken-or-the-egg question.

In any case, the everyday availability of magic has – as it did in The One Rose Trilogy – replaced, or precluded the development of, certain technologies. On the other hand, some magic-based technologies take the world to a more advanced level than one might expect for a world that’s at a medieval tech level overall.

For example, many of the larger Earth Kingdom cities don’t have city gates. Why would they, when a guard can simply open the stone wall? What’s more, the city of Omashu uses earthbending to create a mail-delivery system (stone bins telekinetically pushed around a system of stone chutes), while the capital city of Ba Sing Se has a mass-transit system (stone trains pushed down stone tracks by earthbenders).

The Water Tribes live at the North and South Poles, with a smaller “lost” tribe in the Great Foggy Swamp. The Southern Water Tribe’s waterbenders have all been killed or captured in the ongoing war with the Fire Nation (thus largely killing the concept of women warriors in the tribe – see the Fire Nation for more on that topic), but the Northern Tribe waterbenders control virtually the entire environment. Not only do they provide the tribe’s defenses (meeting approaching Fire Nation ships with icebergs and water jets), they’ve constructed a great walled city out of ice, and they can act as propulsion systems for boats. They’ve even developed waterbending into a form of dance. Unfortunately, the tribe is extremely chauvinistic, and women are restricted to learning the aspects of waterbending that involve magical healing (it’s unclear if any men learn those skills so they can have battlefield medics, or if healing is considered women’s work).

Then we come to the Fire Nation. When I mentioned surprising levels of technological advancement, I was mostly thinking of them. In a world where the other peoples are still using human or animal muscle for most things, the Fire Nation has developed coal-driven tanks (which generally have a hatch through which soldiers can throw fire instead of cannon) and coal-fed iron ships. Over the course of the series, they even develop military-grade airships. This is why they’re winning the war. Well, that, and the fact that, unlike the Water Tribes, they long ago decided that you don’t tell a person who can shoot fire from their fingertips that they can’t fight just because they have a uterus.

The Air Nomads were pretty much wiped out by the Fire Nation’s first strike (thus the show’s name), so we only get a few glimpses of their culture. However, those glimpses include “Air Temples” that are extremely difficult to reach without the ability to fly, and doors within those temples that can only be opened with airbending.

Note that the airbenders’ own flight abilities – dependent on small gliders and controlled winds – are actually quite limited. For long-distance travel purposes, they would ride flying bison.


Yes. This world is so saturated with magic that creatures with natural magical ability are pack animals.

Other than the ubiquitous elemental bending, the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender has other, less common forms of magic. One town in the Earth Kingdom has made the local fortune teller their leader. The only problem is that the townsfolk then become dependent on her (real and effective) powers. Also, Chi and its flow within the body is as real and well-understood as, say, blood circulation. One of the non-bender characters has even developed a martial art that can knock out, paralyze, or disable bending with a touch at the right chi-flow pressure point.

In the sequel series, Avatar: The Legend of Korra, technology has advanced to a level comparable to the early Twentieth century on our world: cars, radios…electricity supplied by firebenders who can produce lightning, professional bending leagues, political movements condemning the unfairness of benders’ dominant position in society…

In other words, it’s a world that, based on one difference, has branched off to become completely unlike our own.  Completely…fantastic.  And yet you believe in it.  It feels real.  Because the creators built it from the ground up.  They imagined all the ways the presence of magic would change society – all the ways people would use it, because people are still people – all the ways it would change war, politics, design, art, and even sports.  And then they showed us.

Consistency.  And detail.





Filed under Writing Theory

6 responses to “Two Sides of Magic – World Building and Fantasy

  1. Thanks for the enjoyable read! I’m a fan of both of these works, but I hadn’t thought to compare the differences in their world-building. You’re right that they are equally effective in making it all real. 🙂

    • You’re welcome, and thank you. I think the trick – above and beyond consistency and detail, of course – is knowing what you want to say. Tolkien had a definite theme and message to get across, and the creators of Avatar were consciously creating a fantasy world of their own, rather than simply imitating what came before.

  2. Confusing Medical Science Since 1971

    Have you watched ‘Legend of Kora’ yet? It takes place decades after TLA, with the payoff of of the Fire Nation war being a huge advance in technology.. analogous to the post WW1 leap.

    Another thing to compare to Tolkein is the Star Wars. Technology is so advanced on some lines that major change hasn’t occurred over millennia.. yet the galaxy is so disconnected that quality and nature of life varies.

    • I’ve only seen a few episodes, though that was enough to tell me about the jump in technology. I hadn’t thought of the comparison to the post WWI leap, though.

      Nor had I thought of the comparison to Star Wars. It does work, but I think an even better comparison might be to Dune. The galaxy of Star Wars isn’t decaying because of an inevitable slide from the bright and the beautiful to the mundane, but because everyone has gotten too comfortable and decadent. The galaxy needs a period of chaos to awaken the sleeper.

  3. Confusing Medical Science Since 1971
  4. Pingback: Resumo da Semana #16 e #17-2014 - Cultura Pop Nerd Literária - O Nerd Escritor

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