In world folklore, a wizard is a usually male, often aged figure of immense magical power. In Western folk tradition, wizards are usually portrayed with flowing robes, a pointed hat, and a long white beard. A wizard can be on the side of either good or evil.
Wizards are found in many fantasy tales as well, sometimes as heroic figures and sometimes as frauds.
Merlin, the wizard of Arthurian legend, appears in numerous and varied forms. Authors have portrayed him as a magician, a conjurer, a student of alchemy, and a prophet.
T.H. White, in The Once and Future King (1958), described Merlin as living backward in time, which meant that he could remember the future. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist retelling of Arthur’s story, The Mists of Avalon (1982), makes Merlin a title that is held by high-ranking Druid priests, rather than the name of a single man.
Sometimes, Merlin directs and influences the events of the Arthurian tales (including the birth of the king). In other versions, he is swept along by events, helplessly able to foresee but not prevent them. Often, Merlin is too wise to try, and he merely passes along his visions, knowing that what will happen is what is meant to be.
Merlin arranged the tryst between Uther Pendragon and Igraine of Cornwall (in some versions using magical means) that resulted in Arthur’s conception. After the child’s birth, Merlin hid him away in Sir Ector’s court to grow up in anonymous safety until it was time for him to claim the throne. The Once and Future King begins with Merlin overseeing the education of the young Arthur, whom he nicknames Wart.
Long before Arthur’s time, Merlin had helped the warlord Vortigern discover why the castle he was building was continually unbuilt each night. Merlin directed Vortigern to dig underneath the foundation.
When he did so, a pair of dragons was discovered fighting in an underground cavern. Released, the dragons streaked off into the sky, symbolizing Uther and Arthur, the great kings to come. Vortigern finally was able to complete his fortress.
At the end of his life (or the beginning, in White’s version), Merlin was seduced by the sorceress Nimue (sometimes called Viviane). She cajoled the wizard into teaching her the secrets of his magic, and then trapped him inside a tree, a cave, or a hollow hill. In some retellings, Merlin was killed and sealed inside this tomb. In others, he lives on and will emerge upon King Arthur’s return.
It is difficult to understand why someone as wise and powerful as Merlin could not prevent such an untimely and undignified fate. The Nimue story could be interpreted as a warning against the treacherous wiles of women, but it seems unlikely that Merlin actually would let himself be tricked and imprisoned in this way.
Far more probable is the idea that he foresaw Nimue’s intentions, and either he resigned himself to retirement (knowing what was coming and that he could not avert it) or he actually was looking forward to getting some rest after centuries of advising the kings of Britain. Unfortunately for King Arthur, Merlin’s wisdom was not available during the darkest hours of Arthur’s reign.
In The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), British author J.R.R. Tolkien created a race of wizards, the Istari, for his world of Middle Earth. The Istari were a subgroup of demigod-like beings known as Maiar. The Maiar could take on human form and interact with living creatures. Their task was to defeat the evil Maia Sauron.
The two most important Istari are Saruman the White, whose task was to gather knowledge and whose name derives from the Old English word for knowledge, and Gandalf the Grey, whose task was the seeking of wisdom and whose name likewise derives from the Old English word for wisdom.
Aficionados of The Lord of the Rings know the fate that befalls each of the two wizards and which path Tolkien clearly preferred. That Tolkien was influenced, especially in the character of Gandalf, by the Finnish Kalevala can be seen through comparisons between Gandalf and the Finnish wizard Vainamoinen.
The Wizard of Oz
Created by American author L. Frank Baum and first introduced in his Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), the Wizard of Oz was the ruler of the land of Oz. He lived in the Emerald City.
|The Wizard of Oz|
Dorothy Gale and her three friends went to ask the wizard for help; he responded that they must first complete a dangerous mission, bring him an evil witch’s broom, before he would grant their requests.
Upon the friends’ successful completion of the task, they returned to the Emerald City. There, they discovered that Oz was not a wizard at all. He was just an ordinary man who had been using tricks to fool everyone into thinking he was "great and powerful".
A number of contemporary authors have envisioned entire worlds full of witches and wizards. In Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series (1983–), wizards can be cats, whales, and even humans; J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter books (1997–2007) describe a huge and intricate wizard world just out of sight of the mundane, with its own schools, government, and sports.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (1983–) features a university of wizards who are as arrogant, human, and bumbling as equivalent university professors.
Today, the term wizard does not necessarily imply magic. It is more often applied to someone particularly clever in a specific field, such as a computer or gaming wizard, or, as in Pete Townsend’s rock opera Tommy (1969), a pinball wizard. But, judging from the success of Harry Potter and his kind, the magicwielding wizard is likely to be with us for some time.