Tough Travelling: Wizards and Mages
Welcome intrepid adventurers to Tough Travelling with the Tough Guide to Fantasyland!
That’s right, we’ve dusted it down and brought back this feature (created by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn, revived by our friends over on Fantasy Faction, then dragged kicking and screaming to the Hive).
It is a monthly feature in which we rack our brains for popular (and not so popular) examples of fantasy tropes.
Tough Travelling is inspired by the informative and hilarious Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Fellow bloggers are absolutely welcome to join in – just make your own list, publish it on your site, and then comment with the link on this article!
This month, we’re recalling our favourite WIZARDS and MAGES in Fantasy. DWJ had a lot to say about Wizards, so we’ll just look at a snippet…
WIZARDS are normally intensely old. They live solitary lives, mostly in TOWERS or CITADELS, or in a special CITY which has facilities for study. They will have been studying MAGIC for centuries and, alas, the great majority have been seriously dehumanized by those studies. Two-thirds have become EVIL, possibly agents of the DARK LORD. The remaining GOOD one-third have become eccentrics or drunks or just very hard to understand. Evil or Good, Wizards are the strongest MAGIC USERS of all except for the DARK LORD and GODDESSES AND GODS, and can usually be distinguished by the fact that they have long beards and wear ROBES.
A big thank you to James, Nils, Beth, Theo, Graeme, Filip, and Dorian for their recommendations…
I also don’t really like mages.
In that respect, I suppose my “favourite” is Bayaz, from The First Law, because that’s about how I’d expect a mage/wizard to be! I mean, Gandalf is great – and Barbara Hambly’s Ingold Inglorion a great imitation – but, well, you’ve got to be realistic about these things sometimes…
Sorry James I’m stealing Gandalf!
I can’t help but talk about my favourite grumpy wizard of all time – Gandalf. He’s powerful, wise, and always striving to do his very best for the survival of Middle-Earth. He may disappear a fair few times but you can be sure he’ll be there when it really counts. He’s also mostly fair to all the races of Middle-Earth. Unless your name’s Peregrin Took that is!
“Fool of a Took! This is a serious journey, not a hobbit walking-party. Throw yourself in next time, and then you will be of no further nuisance. Now be quiet!”
Harmodius from The Red Knight by Miles Cameron. He’s an eccentric, quirky and ambiguous mage, whose experiments were often questionable. He seemed to be more interested in seeking to prolong his own life and finding other magically powerful mages than he cared for the welfare of the Kingdom. Harmodius was supposed to support the King, but his infatuation with the Queen made his loyalties lie elsewhere.
There are many retellings of the story of Merlin but I found the depiction of him in Giles Kristian’s Lancelot to be really interesting. He doesn’t make big appearances in the book as it’s not his story being told, but during his scenes he’s shown to be a much more manipulative and devious character than he was portrayed in say the BBC tv series, Merlin, where he is young and naive.
Oh I am absolutely here for Merlin representations! I mean, we could do a feature just on him alone. I’d argue that Mary Stewart wrote the definitive Merlin series, her Crystal Cave trilogy focusing specifically on him. I particularly love her trilogy as she seems to try to cover as much of the ‘Merlin myth bases’ as possible, incorporating the various places around the country who lay claim to him – including my own. In Carmarthenshire, the county town is named after him – Caerfyrddin Fort Myrddin (in Welsh, his name was Myrddin and ‘merlin’ is the Welsh word for ‘wizard’). The Crystal Cave trilogy is similar to Kristian’s Lancelot in that it reads like a historical-fiction biopic.
Whereas Liam Perrin’s Merlin, from Sir Thomas the Hesitant and the Table of Less Valued Knights and Faycalibur, is much more eccentric, speaks in riddles, and finds him hilarious. He closely resembles DWJ’s description of a wizard who has spent far too much time in his own company.
Of course, we can’t talk wizards and not mention our very own Ulesorin the Green! Magic manipulator, scorched lover, and agony aunt, following Ulesorin’s exploits as he helps our readers with their more mundane issues in Ask The Wizard is my favourite part of the month.
James mentioned Bayaz and I think the reason that particular character resonated so well with me, was because another favourite wizard of mine is Belgarath, from David Eddings’ The Belgariad and The Mallorean series of books, as well as of course Belgarath the Sorcerer. He calls him a sorcerer, but he seems exactly like the kinds of wizards we’ve already been discussing, complete with Tower. Over centuries he involves himself with the line of a royal family, manipulating various countries’ leaders and pulling strings behind the scenes. With this foundation, I was completely fooled by Bayaz.
The final wizard I wanted to mention was D. P. Wooliscroft’s Jyuth from Kingshold; he’s the perfect amalgamation of a meddling Belgarath and a twisted bastard Bayaz.
I claim the entire Unseen University. Terry Pratchett always has an eye for subverting tropes, beginning from the very start with Rincewind the cowardly and incompetent protagonist of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic But the variegated academics of the Unseen University squabbling, arguing and politicking like Oxbridge dons are a delight. The blustering master Mistrum Ridcully, skilfully navigating the perils of high office in a way that mirrors Lord Vetinari’s seamless evasion of assassination (takes one to know one as they say). The Librarian, who – by virtue of profession and magical accident (transformation into an orangutan) could feature in a tough travelling catalogue of librarians and a bestiary of magical creatures, as well as a who’s who of wizardry. Then there is the anxiety stricken bursar forever popping dried frog pills, along with so many more – the whole effect is like a fantastic version of Tom Sharpe‘s ridicule of academia in Porterhouse Blue.
There is also Elodin, the enigmatic magician at another University in Name of the Wind. His teaching methods may not be up to OFSTED standards, but I enjoyed how he got Kvothe to break into a colleague’s chambers in the mistaken belief that he was helping Elodin into his own rooms.
Then there is “The Dragon” in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted where the innovation of an evil forest as antagonist is juxtaposed with a more conventional long-lived and cantankerous wizard whose efforts on behalf of his people are misunderstood by his new and fearful apprentice.
Then we have Zacharius Whythe – in Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown who has to confront prejudice against his humble origins and the colour of his skin in a re-imagined Hannoverian era with Zacharius fending off threats to his privileged position as some kind of magical Astronomer Royal.
And of course T.H.White’s eccentric but wise Merlin in The Once and Future King
Now at this point I might say – I have only male wizards and what about female wizard? For those who might say “isn’t that just a witch?” I would point you in the direction of Pratchett’s Esme Weatherwax who would surely explain how witches are far more and far different to being male wizards. Tolkien, however, didn’t draw much distinction by gender over his characters’ use of magic, such that one could argue his female magic users were just as much wizards as Gandalf or Saruman. So can I suggest Melian the Maia – wife of Thingol in the Silmarillion and Galadriel of Lothlorien as wizards.
Beth: Not to mention Esk from Equal Rites? Who was the seventh child of a seventh child, and so was escorted to the Unseen University by Granny Weatherwax!
I’d also offer, from a fantastic world that doesn’t use the word wizard, three more triumphs of the magic using class. That is to say Essun, Alabaster and Nassun the truly earth-moving Oregenes from N.Jemsin’s Shattered Earth trilogy, beginning with The Fifth Season. A brilliant and innovative series with some atypical heroes of all genders.
Howl, of Moving Castle fame, from Diana Wynn Jones’ book, is a self absorbed idiot manchild of a wizard, and that is why we love him.
Ged, AKA Sparrowhawk, from the Wizard of Earthsea is another favourite, if only because his journey is less about throwing balls of fire and more about confronting the philosophical nature of magic, reality and the self.
I’m also a big fan of the miscellaneous wizards in the Conan stories, since they hew more towards “trading your soul to a hideous monstrosity from beyond reality for some small smidgeon of power.” Thoth-Amon and his Stygian companions. Elric, of Moorcock’s books too, I suppose.
Finally, a list of wizards would hardly be complete without some mention of the chain-smoking arsehole himself; John Constantine. He’s a little more modern than the other folks on this list, but don’t let that fool you. He can wizard it up with the best of them.
Who knows not Circe, daughter of the sun…? Only a few sorceresses can boast the staying power of one of the two sea witches appearing in Homer’s Odyssey. Madelline Miller recently breathed new life into the character with her eponymous novel, which was hailed as a powerful feminist reimagining of a character largely treated as little more than a footnote to Odysseus’ story. Miller’s take was recently greenlit as an HBO Max mini-series–I am eager to see what comes of it!
Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont’s Malazan universe offer a smorgasbord of brilliant mages, wizards and sorcerers of every type of magic imaginable. Laura yelled out Quick Ben, and I’m as fond of him as the next guy but I can’t resist giving a shout-out to the ever-murderous children of Draconus, Ladies Envy and Spite, as liable to turn you into snails as they are of befriending you and challenging entire nations! But don’t bring these two together–that’s a disaster in the making.
One of my favorite wizards from recent years is Moog, the kindly, absent-minded, owlbear-raising star of Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld. A fellow like that deserves to be on a list of favorites.
The same can be said of old Dallben the Enchanter, the crotchety but wise old mentor of young Taran in Lloyd Alexander’s children’s classic The Chronicles of Prydain. Fewer characters in fantasy made me feel safer than Dallben whenever he was on the page.
Finally, because good things come in threes, I’ll mention Suri, the mystic from Michael J. Sullivan’s Legends of the First Empire. Her long and fraught journey of learning the Art across six books ranks among the finest character arcs I’ve read in the genre.
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