You don’t know how hard it was to resist adding “…Oh My!” to the end of that title. But this is planned to be a (relatively) serious series of articles, so resist I did.
So in this, the first in a brand new series entitled “Elements of Fantasy”, I want to explore one of the most defining elements of fantasy: magic users. I’m starting with perhaps one of the most expansive topics, probably because I’m a masochist, so this may very well end up becoming “Part 1” of an article on magic users.
A magician is someone who uses or practices magic that derives from supernatural or occult sources.
Wikipedia: Magician (fantasy)
Good old Wikipedia. Have you ever failed us? Well, yes, many times, but I’m pretty confident the above snippet is accurate.
OK, but we’re not here to go through the Wikipedia definition. What is a wizard/magician/mage to the fantasy genre? Why are they important and how have they changed over the years? Let’s find out!
To this fantasy fan, the dictionary begins with “magic”. Without magic, we don’t have a genre – fantasy is magic. Without magic there’s no Narnia, no Middle-earth and no Wonderland. But in a fantasy world in which magic is a very real and potent thing, how is that mysterious force leveraged? How does it interact with the world and with our best loved fictional characters? And to that, I answer… magic users. Wizards. Warlocks. Witches.
Indeed, magic users are more than just people in worn old robes with big beards invoking the power of fire – they are the conduits through which we (the readers/viewers/gamers) are allowed to explore this whole concept of “magic”. And because of that, they become extremely important to many fantasy stories, whether they play a direct part in the plot or not. So, wizards as guides, then? I’m sure I’ve seen that done before…
Of course – we all have! In fact, the word wizard is pretty much synonymous with an elderly, guiding figure who will help the hero on their journey. Even in Harry Potter, where the whole world is full of wizards and witches of all descriptions, we have Dumbledore, who is Harry’s (and our) “guide” to the wizarding world. Dumbledore may not do that much hand-holding early on, but his importance slowly grows throughout the series and he is soon revealed to be what we always knew he was: the architect of Harry’s destiny.
Gandalf – perhaps the most famous wizard of all. He plays the consummate guiding role in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In both, he does so because he is aware of some wider, more important struggle at play. That struggle is essentially between two magical forces (that of Sauron and that of the Valar). Without Gandalf there to assist our plucky Hobbit heroes – if, say, Bilbo was only persuaded to set off on his adventure by the Dwarves – we may never have experienced the truly magical side of Middle-earth. We certainly wouldn’t have witnessed the intervention of giant eagles, or visited Rivendell, or realised the importance of the One Ring. Indeed, we may never have even set off on the journey to Erebor in the first place, because Gandalf possessed the map and the key to the hidden door.
So magic users are important, because they can act as guides, not just for the protagonists, but also for the audience. But what about works like A Wizard of Earthsea or The Dresden Files, where the protagonist is a magic user? Well, in these situations we don’t get a small window into the world of magic that underlies the story – we get an entire experience, in which the protagonists themselves spend the entire story immersed in that magic: learning it, using it, battling it. We get that too in Harry Potter and also a great series (a personal favourite of mine) called the Abhorsen/Old Kingdom Trilogy, in which our heroes are magic users, but this time we also get the element of the “magic user guide”. This is a great combination, as it helps introduce magical concepts and elements of the world to the reader without overwhelming them – almost as if they were learning from the guide themselves – but with the promise of becoming even more immersed in magic and the magical world, because the heroes themselves possess magic/are able to wield it.
But it’s not just as elements of plot or as literary techniques that wizards, warlocks and witches find their way into a story. A huge part of their importance is in worldbuilding and in simply being an element of the fantasy world. Our protagonist may never encounter a wizard in his journey, but what he may do is read about them, or hear whispered rumours about them, or even think them non-existent and merely part of folklore. They may not play a part in the story at all, but the mere fact that they exist in the story world gives that sense of scale and “epicness” that makes fantasy so exciting to read and experience.
So magic users can be guides, heroes, simple plot elements, or an intrinsic part of the world and its history. If we now turn our attention to the sub-genre of Sword & Sorcery, we can see magic users in another role – one which is perhaps as important and well loved as the “guide” role. What about the magic-wielding villain? The bane of just about every S&S hero, every band of plucky heroes in an RPG and every wise mentor to a young, destiny-bound farmhand. There’s always a creepy, goatee-sporting, decrepit sorcerer lurking in some dingy old castle, just waiting for a chance to f*** with the good guys. It’s a part of classic fantasy stories, but it’s also something that still defines the genre to this day. You only have to look at the works of Joe Abercrombie to witness a wizard who truly screws with everybody in an entirely new, unexpected way.
Wizards, warlocks, witches, mages, sorcerers, sages, seers, druids, enchanters, spellcasters. A crucial element of fantasy tales, both new and old, and often one of the most important characters in a fresh-faced cast of brave young adventurers.