They stand in the shadows of kings, point the way to questing heroes, and shelter the dispossessed and help them regain their birthright. They teach valuable lessons to those willing to learn, and inflict punishment upon the stubborn and steadfastly ignorant. Sometimes, they are gods or fairies in disguise. They are the wise man and wise woman, and the importance of their role in story cannot be overlooked.
Every hero or heroine setting forth on a quest needs guidance. Most traditional heroes step out into the world with only a vague idea of their goals and an even less distinct notion of how to attain them.
A prince seeks the water of life for his dying father or a young wife must travel to the ends of the earth to find her vanished husband. Sometimes, they are thrust out into the world with no goal other than survival.
|Help for the Hero|
These heroes are armed with courage, optimism, beauty (usually), and the strength of a noble heart. Yet they cannot accomplish their goals without specific knowledge about their quests and the obstacles that must be overcome.
Help for the Hero
The source of this crucial knowledge is often the archetypal wise man or woman. The wise man or woman appears to the hero early in the quest, often just as the hero rides forth or when his or her plight seems hopeless. The wise man or woman may be in the guise of an animal, elderly beggar, dwarf, or crone.
The wise man or woman asks the hero where he or she is headed or pleads for a bit of food. How the questing hero responds to the wretched figure by the path often determines whether the journey will succeed or end in disaster.
The wise man or woman knows the hero’s goal and can offer specific instructions on what to avoid, what signs to look for, what tasks will be required, and the one hidden weakness of the demon, monster, or evil king that stands in the hero’s way.
|The Water of Life|
The young prince in "The Water of Life" shares his meager meal with a dwarf. In return, he is given detailed instructions on how to ﬁnd the precious water.
The abandoned wife who seeks her husband in the Norwegian fairy tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" encounters three old women in succession; none of them helps her directly, but each gives her a token that eventually proves useful and then sends her on to the next helper. Step by step the young woman makes her way to the place where her husband lies hidden.
In the tale "Eros and Psyche", also known in the Roman form as "Cupid and Psyche", a jealous Aphrodite gives the mortal girl Psyche the seemingly impossible task of descending to the underworld and bringing back a box of Persephone’s beauty.
Psyche is about to give up in despair, when she is given instructions on how to safely pass through the underworld by, of all things, a sentient tower. In some versions, the nature deity Pan instructs Psyche.
Heroes often receive help from completely unexpected sources. Many of the terrible giants, ogres, and demons that menace fairy tale heroes have mothers and wives who are much more sympathetic. Explanation is never given as to why the female companions of these monsters are sympathetic to the heroes.
The wife of Grandfather Wisdom, in the Czech tale “The Ogre with the Three Golden Hairs,” not only hides the hero from her maneating spouse, but actually plucks out the three golden hairs the hero needs from her spouse’s head or chin.
She teases out of Grandfather Wisdom the answers to the three puzzles the hero had promised to solve and sends the young man on his way while her husband is safely asleep. In other variants, Grandfather Wisdom is a giant, a man-eating ogre, or the devil himself.
Testing the Hero
Sometimes there is no quest, and the role of the wise man or woman is simply to test the protagonist and offer a reward or punishment.
One of the most familiar of these morality tales is the Grimm Brothers’ “Toads and Diamonds.” A typically abused and overworked stepdaughter is fetching water for her ungrateful family when an elderly woman asks her for a drink.
|Testing the hero|
Unhesitatingly, the girl fills the old woman’s cup and gives it to her with a gracious word. The old lady, who is a fairy in disguise, rewards the girl by causing a flower or gemstone to drop from her lips with every word she speaks.
When the stepmother discovers the girl’s newfound treasure, she sends her own daughter to the well with strict instructions to be nice to any old woman she might meet there. Unfortunately for the daughter, the fairy is disguised not as a hag but as an elegant lady.
She asks for a drink. The daughter, who had only been instructed to be kind to old hags (the girl being apparently as dim as she is rude and ugly), insolently tells her she can fetch her own drink. Displeased, the fairy curses the girl to spit out a toad or serpent with every word.
In another Grimm Brothers fairy tale, “Mother Holle,” the eponymous wise woman is a powerful earth spirit who controls the weather. She is able to send snowstorms across the world with a shake of her featherbed.
The virtuous girl who works for Mother Holle diligently and without complaint for an entire season is rewarded with a shower of gold. Her lazy stepsister is sent home covered in sticky black tar.
The figure of the fairy godmother has been made famous by the many versions of the Cinderella story. She is either the spirit of the heroine’s dead mother or a kindly fairy.
The fairy godmother is less a tester of virtue than a supernatural matchmaker. She magically erases the worst obstacles between the heroine and her prince. She even attempts to act as a chaperone by setting up the spells so that all the magical implements she has provided will vanish at midnight.
Some wise figures wield great power. The myths of ancient Greece, Rome, and India are filled with gods that wander in the guise of helpless old mortals.
Hera, the Greek queen of the gods, approached the hero Jason in disguise as an old crone who was unable to cross a river. Jason carried her over, losing one of his sandals in the process. Hera blessed him in his quest to regain his kingdom and continued to watch over his journeys.
In the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata, the god Krishna offered Prince Arjuna spiritual advice along with his services as charioteer.
Hags and Wizards
In British fairy tales, handsome young knights were often approached by hideous hags. These repulsive creatures demanded a kiss, lovemaking, or marriage. The rare knight of quality who accepted this challenge received an unexpected reward when the crone turned into a beautiful maiden and, in some cases, conferred kingship upon him.
This tale was told in the late fourteenth century by Geoffrey Chaucer in “The Wife of Bath,” one of the stories in The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387–1400). The Arthurian story of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell has a similar plot.
|Hags and Wizards|
In some of the oldest, pre-Christian versions, joining with the hag symbolized the king’s marriage to his land, and the crone’s transformation into a maiden represented the rejuvenation of the earth in the wake of this divine marriage.
Wizards, powerful magic users of folklore and fiction, sometimes appear in the role of the wise old man. The most famous of these helper wizards, at least in the West, is King Arthur’s aide, Merlin. Another well-known wizard is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf, who is both a hero and a wise helper.
A common theme in ﬁction that utilizes wise characters such as wizards is the realization that there is more to the universe than what is obvious. This theme also encompasses the idea that the desire for power is not enough for an individual to become part of this otherworld.
Ambition must be tempered with wisdom. In the role-playing game “Mage: The Ascension,” for example, the potential for magic and a greater understanding of the universe lies sleeping in every human.
Wisdom in the Modern Age
In many ways, but not universally, modern Western culture values youth and vitality over age and wisdom. Nevertheless, wise elders still are considered by many to be people of authority whose insight is sought in solving community problems.
Native American tribal elders; the shamans still found in a few tribal cultures, particularly in South America and parts of Russia; the patriarchs and matriarchs of extended Asian and European families; and even, in a more humorous form, the imperious Jewish mothers and grandmothers of folklore are treated with deference and respect.
It is also true that age and wisdom are not always connected. Wisdom can also be found in the young, and the aged do not always possess it.