The Role of Wizards in Fantasy Literature

Justin Fike '07, English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

owerful and mysterious, the wizard has been a compelling figure in fantasy literature for as long as the genre itself has existed. Their pointed hats, mysterious ways, and great deeds are familiar to any reader of fantasy literature. They are our childhood heroes and nightmares, and many of us grew up on stories fraught with their adventures. Within the fantasy text, these complex personalities can serve several important roles, taking the part of either the hero, counselor, or menacing villain. Regardless of the actual role they play within a given story, wizards have several common elements and characteristics that typify them.

Wizards, in essence, are any characters able to manipulate the world around them through superhuman or magical means. The worlds they inhabit -- and the rules the bind them -- vary greatly from novel to novel, but the important characteristics of the character type itself remain more or less the same. One of the great strengths of the wizard figure is that nearly any type of character can be one. Authors have created wizards out of men and women of all personalities, backgrounds, temperaments, and abilities, but although almost any type of person or character in fantasy literature can be a wizard, those who are have several important characteristics in common.

Wizards are first and foremost a concentration of the fantastic world in a relatable form. Though their powers and abilities vary based on the fantasy world in which they exist, they are wizards precisely because of their control of fantastic powers beyond our conception of reality. Great magic and access to wisdom and knowledge beyond that of normal men are their stock in trade, and they exist in a fantastic setting that we appreciate, but cannot always relate to. However, their humanity allows us to understand them to some extent, giving us some insight into their motives, desires, and actions and enabling us to relate to them to a greater degree than we would be able to in the case of another kind of fantastic creature, such as a dragon or unicorn, whose personality and motives are intentionally inhuman. In many subtle ways, this combination of fantastic and relatable elements allows wizards to serve as a bridge between the world we understand and the fantastic world we are trying to enter.

Wizards in fantasy literature are rarely static figures. They are almost always driven by some quest or desire that they utilize their power to achieve. This is one of the primary distinctions between wizards in fantasy literature and those in the older fairy tales and knightly epics that preceded the fantasy genre. In folk and fairy tales, which are more focused on the adventures of knightly heroes, the wizards often serve as no more than a plot-furthering device, giving the hero a quest to pursue and equipping them for the trials they eventually face. Anodos' fairy grandmother is a good example of the fairy tale type of wizard-figure. Suddenly appearing to him, she sets him off on his adventure.

"Now, to the point. Your little sister was reading a fairy tale to you last night." "She was." "When she had finished, she said, as she closed the book, "Is there a fairy-country, brother?" You replied with a sigh, "I suppose there is, if one could find the way into it." "I did, but I meant something quite different from what you seem to think." "Never mind what I seem to think. You shall find the way into Fairy Land tomorrow." [Phantastes, p. 8]

With these words Anodos' adventures began. Fairy tale wizards rarely serve any greater purpose than this kind of plot furthering, but not so their fantasy cousins.

In fantasy literature, the wizards themselves can play the role of hero, and even those who are not actively heroic characters have goals and desires which drive them, and are generally much more dynamic figures than those of the preceding fairy tales. Wizards in our course texts have been involved in many widely varied pursuits, from the search for greater knowledge or wisdom to the quest to destroy a great evil, or an attempt to gain greater personal wealth or power. It is not so much what they are pursuing that is important, as the fact that they are pursuing anything at all. With the emergence of the fantasy genre, the wizard became a distinct individual with goals and desires of their own, an individual whose personality almost inevitably undergoes a transformation of some kind throughout the course of the story, as with any good character.

In dealing with the mysterious powers of magic, wizards also provide the author with an opportunity to address important issues of morality. The force of magic with which they work, while a fantastic element, is at least relatable to other forms of great power in the world today, like money or political control. In fact, magic can in some ways be seen as a metaphor for power itself. Both allow those who posses them to alter their circumstances and the world around them, either for good or ill. The wizard with his spells often faces the same kind of challenges and choices as a modern day politician or CEO, only in a more controllable setting. Thus, wizards in fantasy literature often serve a very didactic purpose for the reader, allowing them to question and consider, in an indirect way, what they might not otherwise have had the perspective to see.

Finally, the great power of wizards requires some form of opposition and limitation within the text. A wizard with unlimited power would in fact be a god. In many ways wizards are best defined by what they cannot do, rather than what they can. Often this limitation is achieved through the nature of the magic they use. Usually the magic of a world is restricted in application, or there is some sort of cost associated with its practice that limits its use. Ursula LeGuin for example, limits the use of magic in her world of Earthsea in two ways. First, through the nature of the magic itself; that is, the fact that all magic in her world is based on true names, and therefore the magic a wizard can work is limited by his knowledge of the true names of the things around him. As LeGuin herself explains:

No one knows a man's true name but himself and his namer. He may choose at length to tell it to his brother, or his wife, or his friend, yet even those few will never use it where any third person may hear it. . . . Who knows a man's name, holds that man's life in his keeping. [A Wizard of Earthsea, p. 69]

The converse of this limitation of magic on Earthsea, is that you cannot affect that whose name you do not know. This kind of plausible, clearly defined system of magic is an important element of a fantasy world.

The second form of limitation comes through the nature of the world of Earthsea. LeGuin's world exists in a natural balance or equilibrium, and in order for the world to prosper, wizards must attempt to remain within the bound of this equilibrium as much as possible. Even if they had the knowledge to work a massive, world-changing spell, they should understand how foolish that would be. As Ged himself explains:

An act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that's the end of it. . .On every act the balance of the whole depends. The winds and seas, the powers of water and earth and light, all that these do, and all that the beasts and green things do, is well done, and rightly done. All these act within the Equilibrium. . .we must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility. [The Farthest Shore, p. 87]

This is just one example of the many ways authors limit the power of the wizards in their world.

All of our other course texts in which humans can practice magic also have some sort of practical limitation placed upon its use. In The Lord of the Rings, magic is a very subtle force. The story is focused much more upon the growth and development of the various characters through their experiences, and while the whole world is imbued with great wonder and mystery, and fantastic creatures abound, the active use of magic is rare. Additionally, what little magic is practiced carries a great and dangerous price. The One Ring, though useful in many ways, is exceedingly dangerous, and Sarumon's use of the Palantir corrupts him and turns him to an evil alliance with Sauron.

In addition to practical limitation of their power, a wizard almost inevitably must face some sort of opposition from a being of equal or at least significant strength. Gandalf had Saruman and the Nazgul, the White Witch was challenged by the four children and Aslan, and Schmendrick of The Last Unicorn faced several opponents, including Mommy Fortuna, King Haggard, and the ferocious Red Bull, though his greatest challenge was discovering and unlocking his own power. The challenge posed by opposition is an important form of limitation on the power of wizards. In order to retain their humanity, they, like other character types, must face some opposition which tests their ability and character, continuing to allow them to function as both creatures of the fantastic world and relatable characters at the same time. As in the case of Schmendrick however, a wizard's greatest and most dangerous enemy might actually himself rather than an external force.

In fantasy literature, wizards can and do play many different roles. Though in some texts they serve different purposes at different times, for the most part they fall into the category of either active hero, counselor, or villain. The role of an active hero is a common position for a wizard to fill, though often the wizard in question is either young or is somehow just beginning to learn how to control and utilize his powers. As with all other types of heroes, a wizard should learn and grow through the course of their adventure. However, due to the internal and mental nature of their power, their challenge often becomes much more focused on morality or character development than on actual skill or power. As they grow in knowledge and character through their experiences, they equivalently grow in power and ability.

The wizard Ged from Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy is a prime example of the wizard as hero. He begins the novel more or less unaware of the realm of magic in his world or of his own latent ability. Lacking training, his power manifests itself when he works a spell to save his village from raiders, and he eventually is sent to the Isle of Roke to learn of magic from the masters there. Ged's greatest challenge in his early adventures is to grow up without destroying himself and others through his own arrogance and inexperience. The creature he unleashes in a misguided attempt to prove his power manifests of his own darker nature, and not until he comes to understand himself can he overcome it. His challenge, like that of many wizards, is a challenge of the mind and heart, rather than one of sheer power.

Ged begins his own story in the role of the hero, but in subsequent books in the series, his role shifts. By the time of his adventures in The Farthest Shore, Ged has moved into another category of wizards in fantasy literature, that of the counselor. Though he plays a very active role in the story, the true hero of the text is the future king, Arren. In many ways, Ged's most important role involves teaching Arren much of what he needs to know to be king, and though Ged overcame the evil that threatened to destroy the world, it was Arren who saved them both from death afterwards. Ged advises Arren in many ways and on many topics, for example, during their long journey Ged explains to him that:

If there were a king over us all again and he sought counsel of a mage, as in the days of old, and I were that mage, I would say to him: "My lord, do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way." [The Farthest Shore, p. 87]

It is sometimes difficult to separate the role of hero and counselor, as the two often bleed into one another. The clearest way to distinguish between these two roles is to examine how the wizard influences events. The wizard fulfilling the role of the hero intentionally exerts his power to directly affect events. However, although the wizard in the role of a counselor may at times directly affect events as well, he primarily influences the course of events by influencing others. His true role is that of a catalyst, as he provides insight, direction, and occasional intervention to others in an effort to facilitate their story.

Gandalf the Grey, and later the White, from the epic The Lord Of The Rings, is another example of a wizard who functions primarily as a counselor. Though at times he plays an active role in the unfolding events of the story, for the most part he serves as a catalyst, driving other characters to action and self-realization. Without Gandalf, neither Frodo nor Bilbo would ever have left the Shire, and Aragorn might never had taken his rightful place as the king of men. Until Gandalf discovered its true nature, no one knew what the Ring really was, and it was under his direction that they took up the quest to destroy it in the first place. With the words, "The Ring will not be able to stay hidden in the Shire much longer; and for our own sake, as well as for others, you will have to go, and leave the name of Baggins behind you" (The Lord of the Rings, p. 61), Gandalf set Frodo on the path to Mount Doom, and he continued on in this role for most of the story that followed.

Even at his most active, Gandalf still operates through a process of equipping others with knowledge, getting them to the right place at the right time, giving them what little extra help they might need, and letting them do the rest on their own. For example, when the massive Orc army of Saruman threatened to annihilate the men of Rohan, he didn't work a massive spell to wipe the threat from the face of Middle Earth. Rather, he gave council and direction and left the fight to the men themselves as he gathered help in the form of the deadly trees of Fangorn forest and Erkenbrand with his lost troops. Gandalf best described his role himself, saying "I have but given good counsel in peril, and made use of the speed of Shadowfax. Your own valour as done more, and the stout legs of the Westfold-men marching through the night" (The Lord of the Rings, p.532).

Another role that wizards often play is very different from the first two. Wizards in fantasy literature often take the role of the villain, a part they are particularly well suited for. Wizards often make excellent, believable villains. Their great power offers a solid, significant challenge to the heroes who oppose them, and their motives are often quite clear and understandable to the reader. Evil wizards act in attempt to gain something through their power, usually at the expense of others. Immortality, absolute power, great riches; all these and more have been the object of the evil intentions of wizards in fantasy literature countless times.

The White Witch from the Chronicles of Narnia provides an excellent example of the wizard as villain. Her power enslaved the whole realm of Narnia in an endless winter without Christmas, turning any who oppose her to stone. When the four children from our world enter Narnia through the wardrobe however, her rule was challenged, and when Aslan returned to Narnia she found herself in greater danger still. However, she seized the opportunity presented by Edmund's betrayal to invoke the Deep Magic, for as she said to Aslan, "You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill" (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, p.155). Here we see a wizard using her powers, not for good as was the case with our previous examples, but for her own ends -- in this case the complete domination of an entire world. Though wizards in the role of villain are a common sight, they are none the less compelling and effective for all their familiarity.

At first glance, an evil wizard intent on conquering the world is clearly a purely fantastic figure. Figures like Sauron and the White Witch belong firmly placed in the realm of fantasy fiction. Yet, the characteristics that make them villains are those that we the readers must face in our own lives in some form or another. The struggle against some force greater than ourselves is a common theme in life. A dictator oppressing his country, a corrupt multi-national corporation, crooked politicians, and many of the other great forces of life that work for their own ends at the expense of others have a striking amount in common with the wizardly villains we have encountered throughout our course reading.

This then is the familiar figure of the wizard, one of the more complex and dynamic literary archetypes, spanning various textual roles and being played by many different characters. This stereotypical wizard figure has in fact become so familiar, that in the post-Tolkien days, many authors attempt to find some kind of variation of the wizard figure, or even to achieve variation through satyr of the classic wizard figure. The wizard Schmendrick from The Last Unicorn is an excellent example of this trend. He is just similar enough for us to draw parallels and connections between him and other famous wizard figures, yet he and Gandalf for example are really nothing alike.

Schmendrick's primary skill is failure, and throughout the book he manages to fail spectacularly at almost every magical undertaking he attempts. For example, while trying to impress a band of outlaws with his power:

He pointed at the scarecrow crew grinning behind their leader and said something that rhymed. Instantly, his black hat snatched itself from the fingers of the man who held it and floated slowly through the darkening air. . . . Down the length of the square sailed the black hat, as far as a horse trough, where it dipped low and scooped itself full of water. Then, almost invisible in the shadows, it cam drifting back, apparently aiming straight for the unwashed head of Jack Jingly. . . . But as it neared the outlaw leader the hat's flight began to curve, gradually at first, and then much more sharply as it bent towards the Councilmen's table. The Mayor had just enough time to lunge to his feet before the hat settled itself comfortably on his head. [The Last Unicorn, p.51]

These and other humorous moments cast Schmendrick as an incredibly comic character, despite his magical ability. The few times he does succeed, right up to the end of the adventure, are usually mistakes or the results of a random expression of his power. Schmendrick is an intentionally comic figure, poking fun at the tradition figure of the somber, poised wizard always in control of himself and his surroundings. Yet even as he satirically mocks classic fantasy wizards, he strives to, and eventually succeeds at, becoming one of them. When the adventure is nearly over, Schmendrick is transformed from the comic failure to a great and powerful wizard, on par with Gandalf, or Ged, or any of the other great wizards of the fantasy tradition.

This time, there was too much of it for him to hold: it spilled through his skin, sprang from his fingers and toes, welled up equally in his eyes, and his hair, and the hollows of his shoulders. . . .Then Schmendrick stepped into the open and said a few words. They were short words, undistinguished either by melody or harshness. . .but he knew what they meant, and he knew exactly how to say them, and he knew that he could say them again when he wanted to, in the same way or in a different way. Now he spoke them gently and with joy, and as he did so he felt his immortality fall from him like an armor, or a shroud. [The Last Unicorn, pp.184-185]

The fantasy genre is often misunderstood, even criticized, viewed as nice entertainment but little else. The complex, dynamic figure of the wizard is one among many examples of the strength and flexibility of the genre, however. The fictional setting and focus on imagination and creativity, which often frees the author to address whatever issues he or she desires, allows the creation of versatile character types, like the wizard, able to fill many roles and serve whatever purpose the author desires. The fantasy genre is in fact an incredibly strong and vibrant one, in which wizards have and will most likely continue to play an important role for as long as the genre itself exists.


Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: Roc/New American Library, 1991.

Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantom Books, 1968.

MacDonald, George. Phantastes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.

McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonsong. Simon Pulse, 1976.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Houghton Mifflin, Boston: 1966.

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Last modified 18 May 2004