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Fantasy’s love affair with red tape

The inherent magic of bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy and magic don’t at all seem compatible. One is stringent, ordered, and cold, while the other is wild, chaotic, and glowing with an unknown warmth (or the warmth of the unknown). Or so I thought, until the day I noticed that fantasy literature hadn’t really got the memo. Throughout the canon, there are numerous examples of bureaucracies regulating magic and magical bureaucracies. They vary from efficient to horribly incompetent, but they’re all, in one way or another, some form of bureaucracy.

One of the most obvious examples of this might be the Ministry of Magic from the Harry Potter series. To this day, the Ministry remains one of the most magical pieces of worldbuilding to come from the franchise. The creaking flaws of the state are exaggerated and transformed to themselves become magical. If magic is an amplifier, then the Ministry of Magic is a truly amplified version of the British Civil Service. It is delightfully undemocratic, with a Minister for Magic selected by a body of unelected nobles. Enchanted paper aeroplanes carry memos from department to department. There’s an agency for everything, from the Ludicrous Patents Office to the Broom Regulatory Control. A ban on flying carpets exemplifies this marriage of magic and bureaucracy. Is there anything more magical than a world where magic carpets not only exist, but are banned for some arbitrary and nonsensical reason? Regulations make the Wizarding World less, and thus more, magical. The Ministry makes the world of Harry Potter more magical by allowing the reader to fathom how something as chaotic and powerful as magic can possibly be tamed by the traditional trappings of bureaucratic regulation.

A similar state of affairs exists in the Thursday Next saga. The BookWorld is where every single piece of literature exists. Their characters, settings, and plots are very real and while they present on the pages of books, magazines, and novellas, they inhabit a world of their very own. The series effortlessly weaves the conventions of literature and publishing into the bureaucracy of the BookWorld. The Council of Genres is the main governing body of the BookWorld and its rules and regulations are enforced by Jurisfiction. Their office is in the ballroom of Sense and Sensibility’s Norland Park and they work tirelessly, with the help of literature’s best investigative minds, to maintain the integrity of plots and narratives throughout the BookWorld. In Thursday Next, the bureaucracy is the very premise upon which it is built. This premise appeals to people because it makes a great deal of sense. A magical universe of books and their contents is a perfect fit for the micro-managing, bean counting precision of a heaving bureaucratic apparatus. There is something magical about imagining a hidden world filled with your favourite characters and settings, then logically concluding that, like any world, it needs something to hold it together.

In Discworld, the Auditors of Reality are semi-corporeal celestial bureaucrats, whose main aim is to bring absolute order to the universe. Their schemes are often foiled because they simply lack the imagination to be truly evil. Not only do they enforce the rules of the celestial dance (e.g. gravity and chemical reactions), but they ARE the rules: they are the living embodiment of order and bureaucratic red tape. Pratchett explores how mindless bureaucracy can be arbitrarily cruel and creatively effective as the ‘rules’ of the auditors collapse in a self-consuming, double negative bonanza.

Magic is not just flashing lights and powerful zaps, magic is whatever is unexplained, unnecessary, and uninhibited. A universe of myth and legend bound by the rules and regulations of contemporary bureaucracy is immensely magical. When bureaucracy is put in the context of the fantasy genre, it reveals to the reader the inherent impotence of such a system. The Ministry of Magic’s attempts to maintain a semblance of order, in a society which itself is inherently chaotic are a farce.

While it may not seem a perfect match for fantasy literature, bureaucracy is itself a fantasy. It relies on trust, faith, and absolute belief. Just like magic, its inner workings and final results are often a mystery. While we may not have magic in the real world, the magic of red tape may be the closest we get.