Magician (fantasy)

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For other uses, see Magician.
"Warlock" redirects here. For other uses, see Warlock (disambiguation).
For other uses of Magi and Magus, see Magi (disambiguation).
The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo by Marie Spartali Stillman: a magician makes a garden bear fruit and flowers in winter because Messer Ansaldo hopes thereby to win the heart of a married lady.[1]

A magician, wizard, witch, or mage is someone who uses or practices magic derived from supernatural or occult sources.[2] Magicians are common figures in works of fantasy, such as fantasy literature and role-playing games, and enjoy a rich history in mythology, legends, fiction, and folklore.

Character function[edit]

The Enchanter Merlin, by Howard Pyle, from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903)

Fantasy magicians usually gain their ability through one of three usual methods: possessing it as an innate talent, gaining it through study and practice, or receiving it from another being, often a god, spirit, or demon of some sort.[citation needed] Some wizards are depicted as having a special gift which sets them apart from the vast majority of characters in fantasy worlds who are unable to learn magic.

Magicians, sorcerers, witches, wizards, magi, and sorceresses of magic by other titles have appeared in myths, folktales, and literature throughout recorded history, with fantasy works drawing from this background.[citation needed]

In medieval chivalric romance, the wizard often appears as a wise old man and acts as a mentor, with Merlin from the King Arthur stories representing a prime example.[3] Other magicians can appear as villains, hostile to the hero.[4]

Both these roles have been used in fantasy. Wizards such as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books are featured as mentors, and Merlin remains prominent as both an educative force and mentor in modern works of Arthuriana.[5][6] Evil sorcerers, acting as villains, were so crucial to pulp fantasy that the genre in which they appeared was dubbed "sword and sorcery".[7]

Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea explored the question of how wizards learned their art, introducing to modern fantasy the role of the wizard as protagonist.[8] This theme has been further developed in modern fantasy, often leading to wizards as heroes on their own quests.[9] A work with a wizard hero may give him a wizard mentor as well, as in Earthsea.[5]

Wizards can act the part of the absent-minded professor, being foolish, prone to misconjuring, and generally less than dangerous; they can also be terrible forces, capable of great magic, both good or evil.[10] Even comic wizards are often capable of great feats, such as those of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride; although a washed-up wizard fired by the villain, he saves the mostly dead hero.[11]

Although often portrayed as wielding great powers, the role of wizards in shaping the fantasy world they inhabit varies; much of fantasy literature depicts medieval worlds with wizards in fairly limited roles as guardians or advisers.[citation needed]


Illustration by Arthur Rackham: Wōden visiting Mime

The appearance of wizards in fantasy art, and description in literature, is uniform to a great extent, from the appearance of Merlin in Arthurian-related texts to those of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. The association with age means that wizards are often depicted as old, white-haired, and with long white beards so majestic as to occasionally become host to lurking woodland creatures. It predates the modern fantasy genre, being derived from the traditional image of wizards such as Merlin.[12][13] Some theorize the look of the wizard is modeled after the Germanic god Wōden or Odin, who was described in his wanderer guise as being an old man with a long gray beard, baggy robes, a wide-brimmed hat and walking with the aid of a staff; Odin has been postulated as the main influence for Tolkien's Gandalf.[14] Women, especially those termed "enchantresses," are the more likely to appear young, though often through the use of magic to make them so.[15]

A wizard or magician's clothing is often typical as well. Both witches and wizards commonly wear robes or cloaks and pointed hats. These are often brightly colored and spangled with stars and moons, astrological symbols, or magical sigils. They may also be of gold.[16] The coloring may have significance within the fantasy worlds; in The Lord of the Rings, the wizards have colors assigned to them, indicative of rank.[citation needed] When Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White, it is a major ascension of status; whereas in the Dragonlance Dungeons and Dragons setting, the wizards show their moral alignment by their robes.[17] Terry Pratchett described this common attire as a way of establishing to those they meet that the person is capable of practicing magic.[18]

Wizards may accessorize their wardrobe with magical props, such as crystal balls, wands, staves, books, potions, scrolls or tinkling bells, while often rounding out their appearance with ever-present animal companions, which may act as familiars.[citation needed] Stories in contemporary settings resembling the real world, such as those of Harry Potter, sometimes eschew some or all of these trappings for more conventional attire.[citation needed]


To introduce conflict, writers of fantasy fiction often place limits on the magical abilities of wizards to prevent them from solving problems too easily via arbitrary magic.[19] One of the most common techniques used by writers is that the character has a limited amount of magical ability inside of them.[citation needed] In Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away, once an area's mana is exhausted, no one can use magic.[20] A common limit used in role-playing games is that a person can only cast a specific number of spells in a day.[21]

Magic can also require various sacrifices or the use of certain materials, such as gemstones.[citation needed] Blood or a life sacrifice can be required, and even if the magician has no scruples, obtaining the material may be difficult.[22] A.K. Moonfire combines these limits in his book The Aubrey Stalking Portal. The magician expends power to fuel his spells, but does not replenish that power naturally; therefore, he must make sacrifices (virtually any sacrifice will do) to generate more magical power.

The extent of a wizard's knowledge may also limit which spells a wizard knows and can cast.[23] In A Wizard of Earthsea, the changing of names weakens wizards as they travel; they must learn the true names of things in their new location to be powerful again.[23]

Magic may also be limited, not so much inherently, but by its danger; if a powerful spell can cause equally grave harm if miscast, wizards are likely to be wary of using it.[24] Other forms of magic are limited by consequences that, while not inherently dangerous, are at least undesirable. In A Wizard of Earthsea, every act of magic distorts the equilibrium of the world, which in turn has far-reaching consequences that can affect the entire world and everything in it. As a result, competent wizards do not reach for their spells at the first opportunity.

Names and terminology[edit]

People who work magic are called by several names in fantasy works, and the terminology differs widely from one fantasy world to another. While derived from real world vocabulary, the terms "wizard," "witch," "warlock," "enchanter," "enchantress," "sorcerer," "sorceress," "druid," "druidess," "magician," "mage," and "magus" have different meanings depending upon context and the story in question.[25]

The term archmage, with "arch" (from the Greek arché, "first") indicating "preeminent," is used in fantasy works as a title for a powerful magician or a leader of magicians.[26] One of the first uses of the word in modern fantasy was in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea fantasy setting (1964).[citation needed]

Reasons for distinguishing magicians[edit]

The Love Potion by Evelyn De Morgan

When a writer uses more than one term for reasons other than gender-based titles, it may be to sharply distinguish between two types of magic.[citation needed] The precise nature of what the distinction is differs from writer to writer, and the usage can vary between works.[citation needed] In the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Patricia Wrede depicts wizards who use magic based on their staves and magicians who practice several kinds of magic, including wizard magic; in the Regency fantasies, she and Caroline Stevermer depict magicians as identical to wizards, though inferior in skill and training.

Within a given work, such distinctions are important, depending on how the writer defines them.[citation needed] Steve Pemberton's The Times & Life of Lucifer Jones describes the distinction thus: "The difference between a wizard and a sorcerer is comparable to that between, say, a lion and a tiger, but wizards are acutely status-conscious, and to them, it's more like the difference between a lion and a dead kitten." In David Eddings's The Belgariad and The Malloreon series, several protagonists refer to their abilities powered by sheer will as "sorcery" and look down on the term "magician" which specifically refers to summoners of demonic agents.

In role-playing games, the types of magic-users are far more clearly delineated and named, in order that the players and game masters may know the rules by which they are played.[21] In the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson invented the term "magic-user" as a generic term for a practitioner of magic (in order to avoid cultural connotations of terms such as "wizard" or "warlock"); this lasted until the second edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, where it was replaced with "mage" (later to become "wizard"). The exact rules vary from game to game.

In Dungeons and Dragons, wizard or mage is a character class, distinguished by the ability to cast certain kinds of magic and possessing weak combat skills; subclasses are distinguished by strengths in some areas of magic and weakness in others.[27] Sorcerers are distinguished from wizards as having an innate gift with magic, as well as possessing blood of a mystical or magical origin.[28] Warlocks are distinguished from wizards as creating forbidden "pacts" with powerful creatures to harnessing their innate magical gifts. In GURPS, magic is a skill that can be combined with others, such as combat, though in most campaigns, the ability "magery" is required to cast spells.[29]

Some names, distinctions, or aspects may have a more negative connotation than others, depending upon setting and context.[citation needed] (See also Magic and Magic and religion for some examples).

Gender-based titles[edit]

The term "wizard" is more often applied to a male magic-user, as in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea, just as "witch" is more often female, as in Andre Norton's Witch World. In Witch World, a man who anomalously showed the same abilities as a witch was termed a warlock. The term "warlock" is sometimes used to indicate a male witch in fiction. However, either term may be used in a unisex manner, in which case there will be members of both sexes bearing that title. If both terms are used in the same setting, this can indicate a gender-based title for practitioners of identical magic, such as in Harry Potter, or it can indicate that the two sexes practice different types of magic, as in Discworld.[26]

While "enchantress" is the feminine of "enchanter", "sorceress" may be the feminine equivalent not only of "sorcerer", but also of "magician", which has no precise feminine equivalent.[citation needed]

The distinction between wizards and mages is that mages use their abilities for battle and fighting, whereas wizards use their abilities to aid themselves in completing tasks.[citation needed] However, the term "mage" has fallen out of use, with wizard and witch being the standard terms for any magic user.[citation needed] The term "mage" is gender neutral.[citation needed]

Types of magic[edit]

While the terms are used loosely, some naming patterns are more common than others.

Enchanters often practice a type of magic that produces no physical effects on objects or people, but rather deceives the observer or target through the use of illusions. Enchantresses in particular practice this form of magic, often to seduce.[15] For instance, the Lady of the Green Kirtle in C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair enchants Rilian into forgetting his father and Narnia; when that enchantment is broken, she attempts further enchantments with a sweet-smelling smoke and a thrumming musical instrument to baffle him and his rescuers into forgetting them again.[30]

The term Sorcerer is more frequently used when the magician in question is evil. This may derive from its use in sword and sorcery, where the hero would be the sword-wielder, leaving the sorcery for his opponent.[31]

Witch also carries evil connotations. L. Frank Baum named Glinda as the "Good Witch of the South" in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In The Marvelous Land of Oz, he dubbed her "Glinda the Good," and from that point forward and in subsequent books, referred to her as a sorceress rather than a witch to avoid the term that was more regarded as evil.[32]

Hedge wizard or hedge witch is a widely used contemptuous term for a magician whose magic is unable to earn enough to keep him from poverty or even vagrancy. Herb witch is less contemptuous and generally indicates skill with plants (whether magically making them grow or using them magically) but generally also indicates a low level of education and possibly skill. Such characters are often taught informally by another hedge wizard rather than receiving a formal apprenticeship or education at a school.[33]

Terms derived from more specific magics — such as voodoo, alchemy, shaman, necromancy and psionics — generally remain closer to their real-world inspirations.[citation needed] Fantasy necromancers often work magic that has something to do with death, although the exact connections vary widely from work to work.

In certain East Asian fantasies, the practice of Wuxia is used to achieve superhuman feats, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.[34] Such martial artists attain these abilities through practice as much as, if not more than, studying to gain knowledge, making them in some respects like magicians, and in others not.[original research?]

Traits of magicians[edit]

White-haired and white-bearded wizard with robes and hat

A common motif in fictional magic is that the ability to use it is innate and often rare, or gained through a large amount of study and practice.[19] In J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, it was mostly limited to non-humans, though some people gained small amounts of the power to become known as "sorcerers" (wizards were actually powerful spirits, the Maiar, sent by the Valar to assist the good races of Middle-earth). In many writers' works, it is reserved for a select group of humans, as in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels, or Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy universe. Either way, magicians are often a secretive or persecuted group.[citation needed] In these settings, non-magician characters, no matter how learned, often cannot cast spells.[citation needed] In such instances, magic is either an inherited ability, a random skill appearing in some people, or the result of some other unique effect or situation.[citation needed] Inherited powers may be a simple genetic trait — such as a sex-linked trait in Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels — or appear at random in various bloodlines, as in Patricia A. McKillip's The Riddle Master trilogy, where the shapeshifting Earthmasters attempt to get their blood into the royal houses but fail because although one succeeds in getting the king's wife pregnant, the child's descendants rarely have the powers.[citation needed]

In worlds where Alchemy exists as a form of working magic, Alchemists are more likely than most magicians to gain their powers through study.[citation needed] For them, and most other practitioners of non-innate magic, the study is long and hard.[citation needed] This can produce a lack of magicians even in worlds where anyone could in theory learn the art.[citation needed]

Magical practitioners on the Disc (of the Discworld series) are rare and often innate (with exceptions - the eighth son of an eighth son must become a wizard, even if the son is a daughter) and require some form of training (again, with exceptions - see Sourcery). Also, magical practitioners on the Disc treat the use of magic not unlike the use of nuclear weaponry; it is acceptable for people to know that you possess such powers, but everyone will be in trouble if it is utilized.[citation needed]

In David Eddings' Elenium and Tamuli series, spells must be performed in the language of the Styric people.[citation needed] The Styrics are highly secretive and distrustful of outsiders, and only a few non-Styrics, such as the Church Knights, are permitted to be trained in magic. Theoretically, any person who knew the spell, correctly pronounced the Styric language, and performed the gestures correctly could work magic (as demonstrated by Stragen in The Hidden City), so it is not exclusively an innate ability, but rather a cultural phenomenon.[citation needed] However, most people in the worlds of Eosia and Daresia cannot speak the Styric language.[citation needed]


The Alchemist by William Fettes Douglas: studying for arcane knowledge

A common trait of magicians is that, no matter how spontaneously their abilities manifest, they must learn to use them.[citation needed] Occasionally this is reserved for people with innate abilities, but the typical magician is surrounded by books in his tower obtained through his studies.[citation needed] Fictionally, it provides a way for the writer to ensure that his wizard characters cannot do everything, thus eliminating conflict from the story.[23]

When the magician is not the main character, this may not be visible, but magician protagonists, including Ursula K. Le Guin's Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea and Harry Potter, have gone to wizardry schools. Others have taken on the roles of apprentices, such as Haku in the movie Spirited Away. In the movie Willow, Willow receives a magical wand but has great difficulty learning to use it; only with the tutoring of Fin Raziel is he able to master magic. Harry Potter, like many young wizards in his universe, accidentally casts spells before he is taught to do so properly.[35]

Another means of learning can be books; weighty, ancient tomes, often called grimoires, which may have magical properties of their own.[36] Conan the Barbarian's sorcerer foes often gained powers from such books, whose strangeness was often underscored by their strange bindings. In worlds where wizardry is not an innate trait, the scarcity of these strange books may be a factor; in Poul Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest, Prince Rupert seeks out the books of the magician Prospero to learn magic. The same occurs in the Dungeons and Dragons-based novel series Dragonlance Chronicles, wherein Raistlin Majere seeks out the books of the sorcerer Fistandantilus.

Some wizards, even after training, continue to learn new and/or invent spells and items/beings/objects or rediscover old ones that were lost to time, such as in the case of Marvel Comics' Dr. Strange, who continued to learn about magic in the Marvel Universe even after being named Sorcerer Supreme. He often encountered creatures that hadn't been seen in the world for centuries or longer. Likewise, Dr. Doom, who would combine magic with science, also continued to pursue magical knowledge long after becoming an accomplished master of the magical arts. Fred and George Weasley, of the Harry Potter universe, were notorious pranksters, but also had the capability of inventing new items based on the education they received during their tenure in Hogwarts, with so much success that by the time of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, they had created a line of defensive items that was being bought in bulk by the Ministry of Magic foremost among other clients.

It may be impossible in a given work to determine whether a given practice of magic is innate, because the length of time needed for the study, the scarcity of the books or teachers, or the preciousness of the materials required means that most characters are necessarily excluded.[citation needed] In some fictional worlds, such as David Eddings' The Belgariad, magic is inherently dangerous, and many of those who develop the talent for magic destroy themselves in learning how to use it, thus limiting their numbers even further.

Magical materials[edit]

The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse: using material for magical purposes; besides the crystal, a book and a wand

Historically, many magicians have required rare and precious materials for their spells. Crystal balls, rare herbs (often picked by prescribed rituals), and chemicals such as mercury are common. This is less common in fantasy. Many magicians require no materials at all;[37] those that do may require only simple and easily obtained materials. Role-playing games are more likely to require such materials for at least some spells to prevent characters from casting them too easily.

One factor in this development has been that wizards in fantasy more frequently go on quests; the wizard who is merely consulted in his tower may be surrounded by useful equipment and substances, even in a fantasy work, but the questing wizard must carry what he needs. Wizards who remain in one place, such as those a hero consults, often own many magical items. One who lives in a cottage may have it filled with drying herbs for their magical properties, fantasy herbs being particularly noted for their healing powers;[38] richer ones may own more valuable materials, such as crystal balls for scrying purposes.[39]

Wands and staves are common tools, long used in tales involving wizards.[40] The first magical wand was featured in the Odyssey, used by Circe to transform Odysseus's men into animals. Italian fairy tales put wands into the hands of powerful fairies by the late Middle Ages.[41] These were transmitted to modern fantasy. Gandalf refused to surrender his staff in The Lord of the Rings, and breaking Saruman's staff broke his power. Magical wands are used from Andre Norton's Witch World to Harry Potter. One aspect of the use of wands is the need to limit a wizard, so that opposition to him (necessary for a story) is feasible; if the wizard loses his staff or wand (or other magical item upon which he is dependent), he is weakened if not magically helpless.[23] In the Harry Potter universe, a wizard must expend much greater effort and concentration to use magic without a wand, and only a few can control their wandless magic; taking away a wizard's wand in battle essentially disarms him.[42] Wands can come in many shapes and sizes. They can be made of wood, plastic, metal, or other types of materials. Generally a wizard uses a wand that he feels most comfortable with, and one that can become an extension of himself.[43] One of the main functions of the magic wand for a wizard or witch is to channel magical energy.[citation needed]

Use of magic[edit]

Larry Niven once mentioned, in a twist on Clarke's third law, that "any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology."[citation needed] Many fantasy writers have mentioned that functional magic could replace technology in many situations,[citation needed] with several works depicting a recognizable modern society in which various extensively used forms of magic largely or wholly replace modern technology.[citation needed]

Nevertheless, many magicians live in pseudo-medieval settings in which their magic is not put to practical use in society; they may serve as mentors (especially if they are wise old men), or act as quest companions, or even go on a quest themselves,[26] but their magic does not build roads or buildings, or provide immunizations, or construct indoor plumbing or printing presses, or any of the other functions served by machinery; their worlds remain at a medieval level of technology.[44] In many, perhaps most, high fantasy works, this is treated as an intrinsic feature of the world, requiring no explanation.[citation needed]

Sometimes this is justified by the use of magic bringing about worse things than it can alleviate, and the need for wizards to learn restraint.[45] In Barbara Hambley's Windrose Chronicles, wizards are precisely pledged not to interfere because of the terrible damage they can do. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld, the importance of wizards is that they actively do not do magic, because when wizards have access to lots of "thaumaturgic energy" they develop many psychotic attributes and would eventually destroy the world. This may be a direct effect or the danger of a miscast spell wreaking terrible harm.[24]

Also, sometimes they are in hiding, with normal people having no idea about them because the wizards and witches feel that if they revealed themselves, regular people would persecute them, a justified fear, or they would want them to fix all of their problems instead of doing it themselves. An example of this is when Hagrid explains the latter to Harry in Philosopher's Stone.[46]

In other works, developing magic is difficult. In Rick Cook's Wizardry series, the extreme danger of missteps with magic and the difficulty of analyzing the magic have stymied magic and left humanity at the mercy of the dangerous elves until a wizard summons a computer programmer from a parallel world — ours — to apply the skills he learned in our world to magic in the wizard's world.

At other times, a parallel development of magic does occur. This is most common in the alternate history genre. Patricia Wrede's Regency fantasies include a Royal Society of Wizards and a technological level equivalent to the actual Regency; Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series, Robert A. Heinlein's Magic, Incorporated, and Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos all depict modern societies with magic equivalent to twentieth-century technology. In Harry Potter, the wizards have magic equivalent or superior to Muggle technology; sometimes they duplicate it, as in the train that brings students to Hogwarts.

In the Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting Eberron, masses of relatively weak wizards mass-produce spells and magical items for public consumption.[citation needed]

The powers ascribed to wizards often affect their roles in society. In practical terms, their powers may give them authority in the social structure; wizards may advise kings, such as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, or Belgarath and Polgara the Sorceress in David Eddings's The Belgariad, or even be rulers themselves as in E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros where both the heroes and the villains, although kings and lords, supplement their physical power with magical knowledge, or Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy, where magicians are the governing class.[26] On the other hand, magicians often live like hermits, isolated in their towers and often in the wilderness, bringing no change to society. In some works, such as many of Barbara Hambly's, wizards are despised and outcast specifically because of their knowledge and powers.[47]

In the magic-noir world of the Dresden Files, although wizards generally keep a low profile, there is no specific prohibition against interacting openly with non-magical humanity. The protagonist of the series, Harry Dresden, openly advertises in the Yellow Pages under the heading "Wizard," as well as maintaining a business office, though other wizards tend to resent him for practicing his craft openly, among other things... His main source of income in the series is derived from acting as a "special consultant" to the Chicago Police Department in cases involving the supernatural. Dresden primarily uses his magic to make a living finding lost items and people, performing exorcisms, and providing protection against the supernatural for ordinary humanity.[48]

Wizards, magicians, and others specific to a work[edit]

See also[edit]


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  48. ^ Butcher, Jim, The Dresden Files

Further reading[edit]