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This question already has an answer here:

In fantasy, mages are commonly described to be vastly superior in terms of knowledge & power to the rest of the population. Typically, they live much longer, are able to kill in combat numerous non-mages at once, etc etc, and on top of that are typically the most educated caste of the society. And yet, while sometimes influential, they are the kings' advisors at best, but not kings themselves.

This seems odd to me. Given all of this the mages could easily take over the whole society and establish magocracy. Works of fiction often wave this issue by claiming that mages are too focused on studying to look to gain political power; an explanation that doesn't seem compelling to me.

How can this be really explained?

Perhaps we could look at our society and draw parallels between fantasy magic and science. Could Einstain or Hawking take over the society? No, but not only because they wouldn't want to try - they would be clearly not able to do so. And yet Einstein helped to devise one of the most terrific weapons the world has seen - the nuke.

Maybe, then , the key is to say that those who study theoretical magic and are responsible for advancements in the field (Einstein, Hawking, etc) are not those who apply magic, whether for combat or civil purposes? We would therefore see at least 3 different sorts of mages: Those who, shut within towers & universities, faciliate theoretical advancements; those who craft magic artifacts ("factory workers"); and those who apply magic for practical purposes (battle mages ~= irl soldiers, as well as other civillain, non-warfare occupations). Seems to make sense: A soldier neither crafts his rifle (= wand / other artifacts) nor is able to invent more technically advanced rifles; but works of fantasy usually forget this distinction and make the same people responsible for theoretical advancements, production of artifacts and practical applications.

Yet this still doesn't seem too correct... Eg even irl scientists are able to found start-ups and start applying their science for practical purposes! So there is not such a sharp distinction as I would hope for.

How to have mages that will plausibly not be able to take over the society?

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marked as duplicate by dot_Sp0T, StephenG, AlexP, Frostfyre, Cyn Jun 21 at 15:05

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking for a world you are building or just in general? If the first - its not clear from the question why you could just say the mages are kings & all the reasons for it would be story based (I know of several stories, games, and shows where a mage is King as well so not sure why their situations could not be applied without knowing your world). If the second - this is not within the scope of this site $\endgroup$ – JGreenwell Jun 21 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ English mage "wizard", from Latin magus "wizard, Zoroastrian priest", from Greek magos with the same meaning, from Persian mayu- with unknown meaning, probably from Proto-Indo-European *meh₂gʰ- "to be able"; from the same PIE root comes the word main. English king "hereditary head of state" from Proto-Germanic *kuningaz, from *kunją "kin, family", from Proto-Indo-European *ǵenh₁- "to beget, to produce"; the words genius and gonad come from the same PIE root. The distinction is very very old. And people with actual skills do not want to work for the government. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 21 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ Possibly the royal dynasty(s) were founded by mages ages ago in the Mage Age. And possibly various powerful spells are handed down in the royal families so that kings would be hard to magically overthrow. And maybe the official ideology of those kingdoms is that the dynasties were founded by gods or demigods and the mages believe it. Or maybe all mages respect the great mages of the past who founded dynasties and think it would be disrespectful to depose the descendants of those great mages. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Jun 21 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ Not really worth a proper answer, but mages are usually many (leaving the question of which one is gonna be king subject to attendant infighting), and often described as, um, quite independent so an organization or consensus of mages to claim rulership may not work that well either, thus more infighting (whisper has it that getting an agreement of mages would be like herding cats). So maybe the real answer is, each other. $\endgroup$ – Megha Jun 23 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ This is closed but... Mages don't have time to mess around ruling people. They're happy to leave that rubbish to kings... as long as the kings don't try to order them around too much. Kings on the other hand know that mages need certain things like expensive spell components, quite places to study and such, so since they control the cash they can sway the mages into cooperating. Or just threaten the less powerful ones. Kings know when to apply stick and carrot, and mages are happy to let them do so as long as they get some good books and artifacts to play with. $\endgroup$ – Corey Jun 25 at 13:09
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When you can sling fireballs and lightning with a flick of the wrist, what use is an army?

When you can move things with your mind, or summon spirits from another realm, what use is a thousand servants?

When you can raise the very ground and shape it to your will, what use is a palace?

When you can convert one material into another and transform it into any product you wish, what use is a treasury full of gold?

As a King, you must manage people, settle disputes, deal with unruly neighbours and hundreds of other things you don't have to do if you're not in charge.

When you can get everything you want for yourself without needing subjects to provide it, why on earth would you ever want all that extra hassle?

Hyperbole aside, magic gives the user a lot of power. Being a monarch also gives the user a lot of power. But they both require a lot of investment to maintain, as a mage, you must study hard to achieve the skill you need, even before having to source components for your spells. As a king you must be an active leader, managing situations, holding meetings and dealing with issues.

A powerful wizard and a petty king will likely have similar levels of power and influence, as well as similar work loads. Being both at once will double your work load, but will not double your power and influence due to the sheer amount of overlap involved.

Quite simply, the amount of extra power a wizard would gain by usurping a throne is just not worth it compared to all the extra work they'll have to do to keep it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Still, typically, while powerful, mages are nonetheless not omnipotent. They are an elite caste of the society but not gods. $\endgroup$ – gaazkam Jun 21 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ I may have lent on hyperbole a little, but I feel the point still stands. I'll expand this to cover less powerful wizards as well. $\endgroup$ – Kyyshak Jun 21 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe as a mage you can sling fireballs and lightning, but you can only do that near where you happen to be. OTOH, if you're a king, you have an army which follows orders (if it doesn't, you don't stay king very long :-)), and you can send army detachments to multiple places within the country. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 21 at 16:33
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People don't trust wizards to be kings. Maybe it was the last big war a thousand years ago, or maybe it was the time the dark sorceror tried to enslave all the known realms, or maybe some prophet wrote it in a book ages ago. It doesn't matter, really. There is a cultural and social legitimacy to a non-wizard king that a wizard will simply never have.

So why not rule by force? Because it's hard. Sure, you can threaten to fireball Joe the peasant every time he gets uppity, but at a certain point he's going to call your bluff and then you have all the wrong options. If you don't go through with your threats, you lose your throne. If you do, but with insufficient fervor, the people rise up against you and your really lose your throne (and probably your head). If you enact retribution, you're weakening your own realm, leaving it vulnerable to invasion - and if you go far enough, you're going to end up killing the very people who make your realm worth ruling in the first place. It's no good being a wizard-king if you need to go around tilling your own fields and milking your own cows, even by magic. (For one thing, you could've just skipped straight to the hermit-mage-in-a-tower stage and saved yourself a lot of trouble.)

And remember, no kingdom exists in a vacuum. If your neighboring rulers see you as a threat - possibly because they've been led to believe their whole lives that a wizard-king will inevitably turn out to be a ruthless conqueror - they're going to turn on you in a real hurry. Maybe you can destroy their armies at a single stroke, but those royal assassins can be tricky. Do you really want to check your pillow for scorpions every night for the rest of your life? And how many neighbors do you have, anyway? If you ride out and give the armies of Northtopia a good what-for, only to come back and discover that Southistan went over the border and burned your fields, knocked down your tower, and stole your favorite tomes, your rule won't last long.

And of course there are your fellow mages. In a world where a wizard-king is looked upon with suspicion and fear, what happens to the wizards who side with one - or who don't speak up loudly enough when one arises? Mages are tolerated because they don't do this sort of thing, and failing to express sufficient displeasure of a budding wizard-king could be seen as wanting to end that status quo. The mages could end up at war with... well, everybody. Even if that's a war they could win, it's probably more trouble than express mailing you a dozen fireballs and having done with it.

To be king, and stay king, you need somebody on your side: the army, the magistrates, the petty nobles, the common folk, or ideally a combination. No king can hold a kingdom entirely by their own strength, if only because they need to sleep sometimes. If no one is willing to be the first one to stand up for the new king against a hostile world, then they won't get very far at all.

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Beware of the "Advisor" title... "Palace Guard", "Queen Dowager", "Eunuch", "Advisor", "Interest Groups"... all these titles don't have power themselves, but as history has shown so many times in the past, they can be the real "king-maker" and play the whole show behind the curtain.. So why don't mages take power themselves? There are two main reasons: They can't and they don't want to..

  1. Maybe they don't have the legitimacy to become king: All the royalty are descendants of a great Demigod, and so lowborn don't have the right blood to rule.

  2. Maybe the mages aren't that united: Maybe there're many rival mage factions, and after a long and brutal conflict, they came to an agreement that none of them can become king..

  3. Maybe the mages are feared and hated: The common folk may believe that mages are a mockery of their gods/ a servant of Satan.. Maybe the simpleton believe all the plagues/ natural disasters/ bad things only happen because of some evil mage.. Or simply because they are different from us.

And lastly, 4. Maybe because the mage don't want to. You can reap great benefits, without all the trouble just by puling the strings.. Maybe the mage don't have time to deal with the peasants, maybe they want to push all the responsibility for government's failings, unpopular tax policies, unfair laws to some poor guys while take most of the benefits for themselves - it's not like we don't have real life examples, you know..

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Even among the most basic fantasy tropes there are mages that seize power for themselves. A young and powerful mage decides he knows better how everyone should live, how to make society work better and seizes the power. This is how to Dark Lord is born. You see, political power is not about knowledge, neither it is about personal combat capability, it is about

Political legitimacy.

Even in medieval times - and that is where most 'standart' fantasy takes its inspiration - political legitimacy was a big thing. The proper bloodline, right to the throne, the explicit agreement of the nobles and implicit agreement of the commoners to be ruled by that person. A mage would be an intruder in that scheme. The only legitimacy he initially would have will be though fear. He may not face outright rebellion, but simmering resentment would be even worse. The mage will not be able to micromanage the whole kingdom, and it's hard to rule people if they do not want to be ruled. The orders will be misinterpreted, the taxes will go missing, etc.

Additional questions are stability and power transfer. Monarchy is relatively stable because people have a general idea who the next ruler is - and people love stability. If your mage captures power, he will have to answer the question of the stability as well. Who will be the next ruler when he dies. Will his son inherit him? Will his son inherit his magical power as well? It will people need to wait for the next strong mage come and capture power?

And at the moment we are speaking about a single powerful mage. Most likely, mages will have their own organisation, and they will be policing themselves.

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First, there are plenty examples of wizard kings or even sorcerer emperors in fantasy literature, including the Witch King of Angmar from LotR and Wally Wood's The Wizard King. So it is demonstrably wrong to say that wizards never become kings.

Second, there may be several good reasons why wizards, even if they have the power, refrain from choosing to become kings:

  • They have better things to do than handling the day-to-day business of running a kingdom, such as studying and practising magic.
  • There may be compact or tacit agreement among wizards that they should not use their power to become rulers. If one were to break this agreement, all the others would team up against the offender. This is similar to the common trope that wizards hace a compact against using magic for war.
  • Kings of old were often also military leaders who spent a lot of time studying strategy and tactics; subjects that wizards might not find terribly interesting or which require a different mindset than magic practitioners have.
  • It is common in fantasy that wizards need to be celibate (e.g. in Discworld). Celibate wizard-kings cannot enter into political marriages or father heirs.
  • In fantasy, magic is often disrupted by iron, steel or even leather armor. This prevents wizards from wearing arms and armor, making them more vulnerable to assassination. They hence prefer to stay secluded whenever possible, which is unsuitable for a king.
  • The people might be more likely to love and follow an earthly king than a strange and aloof wizard.
  • Wizards, being smart people, prefer to be the power behind the throne with a puppet king doing all the boring stuff and becoming target for assassination attempts.
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I answered a similar question a while ago: https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/115999/52286

Essentially though, mages are nerds. They like tinkering with their spells and poring over old tomes, they wouldn't get to their level otherwise. They might not be very good with people, they need a quiet lab/tower, the kings favour and sponsorship to support their projects. Ain't nobody got time for any kinging!

On the other hand, the mages that appear to be simple advisors might be the true dark hand that rules the country, the king merely a puppet.

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There are several answers, but here are a few

First, if Kings rule by divine right, then mages aren’t kings because the Gods don’t want it to be so.

Second, if all rulers govern with the consent of the governed, then nobody wants a mage for a king. And, mages are smart enough to know that because they scry the future and see their burned and mutilated corpses feeding the crows after the people revolted.

Third, a ruler is the ruler because the people are willing to do stuff for them. People do stuff for their rulers because the rulers show the people what needs to be done, and convinces the people they are the only ones to make it happen. But, since the mage is the most powerful and smartest person around, the people understand they are just taking care of the stuff the mage doesn’t want to deal with. I mean, “if the Mage-King wanted to conquer Gelderland, why isn’t he out here destroying their armies and castles instead of us. We are out here getting slaughtered to move the border of our kingdom a few feet further, while his worshipfulness is chasing tail and munching on Avocado toast.” This scenario ends like the second.

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