327 – What Are Wizards?
This week, we’re talking about wizards. Or at least, we were going to, but then we asked what “wizard” means anyway. Naturally, there were some strong opinions. Must wizards arrive precisely when they mean to? Are they defined by staves and point hats? Do they need book-based magic? The great debate rages on this week’s episode of the Mythcreant Podcast, plus plenty of pontificating about how this is all Tolkien and D&D’s fault anyway.
Generously transcribed by Raillery. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Wes: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is…
Wes: Today we’re talking about wizards. Yeah! Which is, I realized, an unhelpful catch-all word for magic users. By honing in on what I mean by that, I’m inviting Oren to get into a terminology war.
Chris: It’s like a wizards’ duel, but about wizards instead of by wizards. Or is it? Maybe you both qualify as wizards by your definitions?
Wes: I want to state for the record that I would like us to have the foundation be: what the word most strongly connotes, for better or worse. So those magical users who arrive precisely when they mean to, wear big hats, and have a great fondness for the halflings’ leaf, which is basically Gandalf. You cannot get away from Gandalf when you say wizard.
Chris: And in the other corner we have…
Oren: I’m going to counter Wes a gandalficus centerus with my spell, which is usefulnus definitionus. This is to say that we should have a definition of wizard that makes it useful in that it is different from others, because there’s all these different kinds of terms we can use for magic users and they’re all the same. They’re all interchangeable because magic is not real.
Wes: What? I quit.
Oren: Technically we can call any kind of magic user any term if we want to. They’re all equally correct. But I would argue that if we want the term to be useful and mean something- and I think this is how it typically gets used in fiction- it defines a magic user whose magic is academic; they learn through books, they write spells down, they’ve researched spells, they go to wizard school, and that sort of thing. That’s the useful working definition of a wizard. And by that definition, Gandalf’s not a wizard, which I will fight you on. Gandalf’s an angel.
Chris: Wes, again, what is your definition of a wizard?
Wes: A wizard is just a skilled magic user who’s clever. By clever, I mean rigorously intellectual. There’s the study element of the spell casting, so there’s no innate ability.
If someone’s ‘a wizard at something,’ like we’re praising them for their knowledge and skill and acumen. I am on board with Oren’s point about that being a job class. We’re battling Tolkien’s connotations here, which the whole world has gobbled up. It’s important to talk about that in contrast to what we really would like it to be.
Chris: A third challenger appears! I disagree with both of you.
I agree with Wes in that I think that the associations are important, but I would say that a wizard is best defined by the aesthetics or the theming. And so what matters is that they have pointy hats, robes, they’re often carrying books, pens and papers, and a staff.
Oren: That right there is like one of the strongest characteristics of wizards: they have to have a staff, they have to have books, they have to have robes. If you don’t have those things…sure, you could be a wizard.
Chris: It’s sandwich theory. Maybe if they have all the stuff but they don’t have a hat, they could still have enough components to qualify as a wizard.
Oren: Is a wizard a sandwich? I don’t know.
Wes: It could be a very wise sandwich.
Chris: Associating wizards with learned magic casters is a very logical way to define them, but people aren’t that logical when thinking about wizards and writing about wizards.
Wes: There’s something about a role-playing game, like Dungeons & Dragons, that makes the distinction between someone who learns magic through study and someone who can just do magic. It puts wizards in the former category.
Oren: It’s funny because in Dungeons & Dragons it basically feels the same, even though it makes this big claim about how wizards have to work hard for their magic but sorcerers get it naturally. You can say that ‘Your wizard does a bunch of studying.’ Do they though? I play a wizard and I don’t really do any studying. I can occasionally describe that I’m doing that, but I also can just not and my wizard will play the same way.
The only thing that’s noticeably different about playing a wizard is the way in which I choose spells, which isn’t particularly academic. There is scroll scribing, which makes a wizard mechanically different from a sorcerer in most editions of D&D.
Wes: And you need to learn new spells by putting them in your spell book.
Oren: Yeah. I can steal new spells from wizards I’ve killed. The best part of being a wizard is that you can Highlander their spell book. Every time I defeat a spellcaster when I’m playing wizard, I’m like ‘Do they have a spell book?’ I always feel cheated when they don’t. ‘Give me your spell book, man!”
Wes: To bring Gandalf back into it- I know Oren has reasons for why he’s not a wizard- Tolkien definitely used him in the etymological sense of the word. Wizard literally means ‘wise person.’ I learned that -ard is a suffix that basically turns adjectives into nouns. You’re saying ‘wiseness’ or something like that. Gandalf is like a sage advisor, so that’s basically it.
Chris: Oren, why exactly is Gandalf not a wizard?
Oren: Because this power is inborn. He’s an angel.
Chris: But why can’t he be both? Why can’t he be both an angel and a wizard?
Oren: Because he doesn’t do the thing that actually makes wizards distinct. Any kind of magic user can be wise and know a lot of stuff. Half the characters in Lord of the Rings are like that. By this definition, Elrond is a wizard. Elrond knows all kinds of stuff, but we don’t call him a wizard.
Chris: Well, that’s because he doesn’t have the aesthetics of a wizard and Gandalf does.
Oren: But aesthetics are meaningless and can be tossed into the void.
Chris: No, they’re not! No! Maybe this means that instead of declaring that one of the classic wizards is not a wizard, maybe you should rework your definition a little bit.
Oren: The data doesn’t speak for itself, Chris.
Wes: What few spells he casts, he still casts spells. Elrond is really good with blades.
Oren: Does Gandalf cast spells? He has some kind of innate ability. He makes light shine out of his staff.
Wes: In The Hobbit he magic-missiles a bunch of goblins because I remember being stunned by that on a reread. Right before they get into the Misty Mountains, they get jumped by goblins and Gandalf just like ‘Brrrat!’ and drops four of them. But then, of course, he doesn’t join them after that and reappears later.
Chris: Since anytime he uses any kind of magic, like a…, it could be spell casting depending on how spells work in the setting. His whole fight with a Balrog could be spell casting.
Wes: And he exorcises Saruman from Theoden.
Oren: Yeah, he did the whole ‘Hey, I got white robes under here.’ It was really surprising and that made King Crusty no longer crusty.
Wes: It’s an interesting thing with the wizard being the wise sage who offers counsel in a king’s court. I know both of you have talked at length to this. If the wizard’s thing is that they’re very wise and incredibly smart, that’s very hard to portray. How is Gandalf any better at giving advice than most of the other people in the Lord of the Rings? He just runs away and shows up to say the thing and then leaves again.
Chris: He has authorial endorsement.
Wes: Yes, there it is.
Oren: Let me put it this way: a wizard who knows a bunch of stuff because he’s read a lot of books is way easier to describe than someone who is super smart. Because like a wizard might not be more intelligent than anybody else, but they’ve read more and have more academic knowledge. That’s a lot easier to portray than like a character who’s supposed to be a super-genius.
Chris: It’s not just learned knowledge that wizards have. It’s also pretty common for them to have observed knowledge or other kinds of arcane knowledge, maybe even from talking to creatures. Radagast would be a good template for this. He’s also an Earthsea mentor who’s very Gandalf-like. He just wanders the world and almost never does spells, but just observes things and learns their names.
Oren: Yeah. Honestly, when I hear those characters described I’m like ‘That’s what a witch is.’ If I was going to start dividing these magic caster names among the ways that modern writers actually use them, I agree that my definition doesn’t necessarily meet with the Old Masters, as it were. But I would argue that we have moved on from them.
Wes: I will offer a defining characteristic that I’ve been trying to suss out with wizards: even though Gandalf is part of an order and there are wizard schools and such, wizards tend to be solitary and do their own thing when they want to, regardless of anyone else. There’s not a lot of community focus that I think you get with witches.
Chris: Maybe. Witches are pretty varied in that aspect. There’s a lot of witches that are community-focused, but also a lot of witches that are alone, especially if they’re portrayed as evil.
Wes: An evil wizard usually doesn’t have a coven of evil wizards.
Chris: Unless there’s a university or school, I think you’re right, like in Terry Pratchett.
Oren: Nowadays, if you call your magic-type person a wizard, I think you are creating the expectation that they learn their magic from books. That is an expectation you are creating in the story. Of course, this is all arbitrary and none of it means anything in reality, so you can call your magic users whatever you want. But if you call them wizards, they should probably do that, otherwise call them something else.
Chris: I think that might depend on how much D&D your readers have played.
Oren: That’s a fair point.
Chris: I’ve played D&D, but I generally don’t think of things in terms of how D&D defines them, because I haven’t played enough.
Wes: I would agree with Oren, but this is coming from someone who’s also played plenty of D&D. As long as wizards continue to be depicted in folklore and tales as wizened old Dumbledors, there’s the knowledge association that we assume probably comes from reading a lot of books. Or they’re depicted in a library, or, as Chris said with aesthetics, they always have their tomes. It’s like ‘What are they doing with those things? Ah, they’re reading and that’s why they’re powerful. Because the more you know the better wizard you are.’
Chris: I think that they are aesthetically associated with books. But that’s different than actually getting their power by studying. When people react to an element of the story or genre associations, it’s almost that superficial Wizard In Book that is more iconic and means more than an in-depth explanation that would require them to stop and think about how Gandalf or Merlin acquired their magic.
Oren: Merlin gets his magic at the speed of plot. Let’s not beat around the bush here.
Wes: There are so many different versions of Merlin that it’s unclear what Merlin is.
Oren: If we’re going to get it to sandwich discourse, Merlin’s a sorcerer. Don’t try to convince me Merlin’s anything but a sourcer. He’s not very smart, but he’s very charismatic and that’s clearly where his magic comes from. I’m not really disproving Chris’s D&D theory here.
Wes: Nope. So we said books, but what about a staff? Does a wizard have to have a staff?
Oren: I think that you should be open to creative interpretations of the word staff. If they have a bunch of cleaning people on hire, I’m willing to consider that as a staff.
Chris: I don’t think it’s essential. I would expect in most cases, if they didn’t have a staff then they have a wand. The staff is very iconic.
Wes: They have a piece of wood that’s important to the craft.
Chris: And often it’s a piece of gnarled wood, but not always. This again goes back to the idea of Gandalf and his gnarled wood and his wandering wizard type.
Oren: If you’re going to wander around a lot, it’s helpful to have a walking stick.
Wes: Very practical. A wand is slightly less useful for that, unless you’re batting away branches. Actually, I can’t imagine that working.
Oren: Yeah. I don’t really know what use of a wand is if you’re not using it to cast magic. If you’re in a classroom, you could use it to point at stuff on the board and whap students who aren’t paying attention.
Chris: I think that of any one item, the hat is probably the most iconic. But even the hat can be removed if other elements are present. If you have a magic worker who has a robe and a book and a staff, it’s fine if they don’t have a hat. They will probably still come off as a wizard.
Oren: Or you could do the Dresden Files thing where everyone else does robes, hats, staves, and cauldrons. But Dresden is a hip young cool wizard and he does have a staff, but instead of a robe, he has a trench coat because he’s very noir. I think he has a bucket instead of a cauldron and a lot of his spells are in cheap notebooks he bought from the store. He’s like ‘Aha, now I’m a cool counterculture wizard. Deal with it.’
Chris: Yeah. Although looking at the covers of the Harry Dresden series, it’s almost like they’re using these noir aesthetics to mimic wizard aesthetics because in a lot of pictures he’s still wearing a brimmed hat, it just doesn’t have a pointy top. And his trench coat is meant to look long and flowing like a wizard robe.
Wes: Yes, the aesthetics are shining through.
Oren: In one of the versions of Dresden- I forget if this is the early books or if this was in the TV show, which was surprisingly good despite being canceled early- he has a hockey stick as a staff and I always thought that was great.
Wes: That’s kinda fun.
Oren: It was very distinctive.
Wes: I like that, a good ol’ hockey stick. But it needs to be like a proper gnarled old hockey stick.
Oren: I don’t know how you gnarl a hockey stick.
Wes: Chris brought up Radagast and how there’s something of primalness to the wizards and then Oren mentioned it might as well just be an angel. There are two quotes from Lord of the Rings that speak to what wizards are. ‘A wizard is never late and arrives precisely when he means to’ supports this idea that they just do what they want when they want, according to Tolkien.
Then Treebeard, upon seeing what Saruman has wrought at Isengard, says that ‘A wizard should know better’ and I like that sentiment for saying that what Saruman is doing and has become almost makes him not a wizard anymore.
Oren: I thought that was a very powerful phrase. The wizards in Lord of the Rings are, again, semi-divine beings and it’s literally their job to protect the world and keep the knowledge and do all these things. Saruman betraying that is really bad because a wizard should know better. I’m not sure if that means he’s not a wizard anymore, but it definitely means that something very bad has happened.
Wes: It also suggests to me that, at least according to Treebeard, wizards are good, or at the very least, they’re not bad. They don’t do bad things and ripping trees up is objectively bad, according to a sentient tree.
Chris: Going back to the idea that a character can be both an angel and a wizard, I would say that this is a very angel dynamic. Not many stories have fallen wizards, for instance.
Wes: That’s a good point. He’s betrayed everything that he was.
Oren: Also, hot take: Radagast is a druid. Boom.
Wes: Merlin’s probably a druid too.
Chris: More important than the idea of academics is the idea of arcane knowledge. Like really esoteric knowledge in that it can come from any source, but it will still be wizard knowledge. And that doesn’t mean that other magic workers can’t have that, but I think wizards are the most associated with that.
Oren: Yeah. Any kind of magic user can be mysterious, but I think wizards kind of have an edge there just because their knowledge is strange and hard to get a hold of. If anyone could learn it, then it wouldn’t really be wizard knowledge. It would just be Wikipedia.
Wes: They also get to use their wizard title in their favor. If someone else is a druid or enchanter or necromancer- what we might consider specialties of wizards- you get an idea what they’re about, but just a wizard? It’s just arcane magic. No one knows; it could be anything.
Oren: I would also say that when you use the term wizard, you imply that the position has some kind of social status. Again, this is all arbitrary and you can change things and put your own spin on it or whatever. But by default, if you say the word wizard that sounds like someone who is part of a power structure or has some clout, as opposed to if you said sorcerer, which sounds like they’re kind of wild, or warlock, which sounds vaguely sinister.
Chris: So from what I understand, the Discworld wizards are Terry Pratchett’s commentary on wizard tropes.
Oren: I would almost say they are Terry Pratchett’s commentary on academia or just powerful people. They are commentary on a lot of things.
Chris: They are commentary on whatever he wanted to comment on in that particular book.
Oren: The wizards in Terry Pratchett are basically useless because they have all this power, but they can’t or won’t use it. And so they’re kind of harmless, outside of a couple of exceptions. They mostly sit around and do nothing. The implication is that that’s actually for the best because they’re too powerful to be wandering around unduly influencing things.
In the book Equal Rites, he had to make the wizards way cooler, because that’s a book about Esk, a girl, wanting to be a wizard. Why would she want to be one of these lazy old guys who never does anything? I know I would want to be that, but why would she want that if she’s a cool plucky hero we’re supposed to like? In that book, the wizards are significantly more active and do more stuff. But most of the time, they just hang out.
In the early books, the wizards kill each other all the time and I think Pratchett got tired of that. So he semi-retconned it because he brought in a new arch-chancellor and was like ‘This guy put a stop to all the murdering.’ Sure, if that’s what you want, Terry.
Wes: We’ll let him have that one.
Chris: I always thought the fact that they never did anything to almost be a commentary on Gandalf because he supposedly has all of his powers, but he never seems to use them. Mostly he just walks around and so these wizards in Discworld are like, ‘I’m so powerful, but I don’t do anything and that makes me more wizardy.’
Oren: That’s what drove me up the wall about the Earthsea books, particularly the third one. It’s in all three of the original books because there’s a big time gap between when the next one was published. There’s this whole vague idea of balance and it’s deployed whenever a problem could be solved by wizardry and LeGuin didn’t want it to be solved by wizardry. And it’s like ‘I can’t do that because of The Balance.’ What does that mean? Why only now can you not do it because of the balance?
Earlier, Ged made a bunch of Fish Nets of +5 Fish-Catching for his village friends. Is that not upsetting the balance? What about this spring that he made for this old couple who were nice to him? That’s not upsetting? ‘No, those were all fine, but this is a plot point where I don’t want to have this story solved by magic. So now it’s The Balance.’
I have no idea what Terry Pratchett had in mind, but that’s really what it felt like it was commentary on, because at least Gandalf is out in the world doing stuff.
Chris: There does seem to be an extraordinarily long list of wizards that are supposedly really powerful but never do anything.
Oren: The more books I read that were published before 1990, the more wizards I run into who have exceptionally vague powers, and the story just expects you to go with that. The idea that we should have some understanding of what kind of magic this wizard can do and that he would use it in any kind of consistent manner doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of these authors.
Chris: I’m sure that’s true. I’m sure as people get more used to magic and speculative fiction becomes more popular, people expect more rigor than just the hand-wavy ‘Magic happened.’
Oren: That’s one of the things that’s weird about Earthsea compared to the other books of that era that I’ve read which, granted, is a small number. There are a lot of those books I haven’t read, but Earthsea is weird in that it really gets into how much wizards can do. They can do almost anything. They have such a wide range of powers that it’s odd that they don’t solve more problems. It feels like that’s where this whole balance idea comes from. It’s very like *funny voice* ‘I can’t do it ‘cause of The Balance.’ Sure.
Wes: So LeGuin’s wizards are jedis?
Wes: Obiwan Kenobi in A New Hope meets a lot of wizard qualities if we’re comparing him to someone like Gandalf.
Oren: They call him a wizard straight up.
Wes: They do call them a wizard! That’s right.
Oren: Owen Lars- who at that time was supposed to be his brother in George Lucas’s weird head canon of Star Wars- calls him a wizard and it’s like ‘I don’t know what that means.’ Then a couple of decades later in the prequels, apparently ‘wizard’ is a thing that kids on Tatooine say. Sure, George.
Chris: And then we can bring up the fact that wizards are obviously associated with men, but that’s just more reason to not have them only be men in your story.
Oren: Yeah, don’t. Please don’t.
Chris: Just make them all genders.
Wes: We probably know the exact answer to this. In Hogwarts, everybody could have been wizards.
Oren: You especially shouldn’t do a thing where you have the same kind of magic and then there’s a masculine word for it and a feminine word for it.
Wes: You should not.
Oren: There’s no reason to do that, unless you’re really interested in exploring sexism and how we need to have different names for the exact same thing based on gender. That’s not what most stories are about. If nothing else, it’s needlessly confusing. It’s like ‘Here’s another term you have to remember.’
Wes: Plus they’re old words that conjure quite a lot to our imaginations. And if you’re just saying, ‘Eh, this one’s just the same but for these people.’ No, it’s not and I refuse to think of it that way.
Oren: If you tell me that this is a witch and this guy is a sorcerer, I’m going to assume those are different kinds of magic. If you later have them doing the same kind of magic, I’m going to be confused. Then I’m going to have to go back and be like ‘Oh, you were just unnecessarily gendering everything. I get it.’
I have a few more hot takes about wizards. Willow and Giles are both wizards. Sam and Dean from Supernatural are both wizards.
Chris: Sam and Dean are not wizards!
Oren: They’re wizards!
Wes: How are they wizards?
Chris: No! They don’t have the pointy hat! They don’t have staves! They rarely use books. Technically they have some books that they look things up in, but most of the time Sam is on his laptop.
Oren: This is all correct, but they have the most important trait that I would say defines a wizard.
Chris: That you would say, personally.
Oren: They know tons of magic, which they never use! Every other episode, they’re learning some new spell and then they just forget about it because that spell would be kind of inconvenient to the plot of the next episode. I would argue that makes them more wizardy than anything else. I think that’s beautiful.
Wes, Chris: *laugh*
Wes: Except that there’s no arcana to them. There’s divine and devilish stuff going on there and it’s not that wizards are incompatible, but…
Chris: By that definition, there is an extraordinary number of wizards in our stories. They’re like all wizards.
Oren: Yes, that’s my point: everyone’s a wizard now. We don’t have to argue about it because if everyone’s a wizard, we don’t have to discuss the definition of it.
Wes: If you were wizards and had to have a color association, what would you pick?
Oren: I would definitely go with blue, but that’s because blue is my favorite color. I don’t really have any particular knowledge of what it would mean.
Wes: I don’t think it has to mean anything other than what you would pick.
Oren: I’ve always just been fascinated by how in the Lord of the Rings they briefly mentioned that there are some blue wizards and then never talk about that. I was like ‘What about those guys?’ And it’s like ‘You could read the Silmarillion.’ Absolutely not.
Wes: Hard pass.
Chris: I’d have to say blue just because of the iconic image of the blue hat and robe with the white moon and stars. It sticks with me. But there does seem to be division between those flashy wizards with their bright blue robes and the earthy wizards that are wearing earth tones and like gray and brown.
Wes: I’d like to be Wes the Red, but that would be like the opposite of who I actually am.
Chris: Wizards don’t really go with red. Maybe you’re a sorcerer at that point.
Wes: It’s a hard call. My favorite Final Fantasy class in the early games was the Red Mage, but he’s probably not a wizard. So it goes.
Oren: Well, now that we know what all of our colors are and we can close this episode out. Those of you at home, if you want to comment and mention how right I am about the definition of wizards-
Wes: *derisive booing*
Oren: -you can do that on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who’s a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel at thefantasywarrior.com. Finally, we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com and they all agree with me about wizards. Goodbye.
Chris, Wes: *laugh*