Magician (fantasy)

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For other uses, see Magician.
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, mage, sorcerer, sorceress, warlock, witch, witcher, wizard or wizardess is someone who uses or practices magic derived from supernatural or occult sources.[2]:54 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 archetypes[edit]

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

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]:195 Other magicians, such as Saruman, from Lord of the Rings series, can appear as villains who are hostile to the heroes.[3]:193

Both of 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.[4]:637[5] Evil sorcerers, acting as villains, were so crucial to pulp fantasy that the genre in which they appeared was dubbed "sword and sorcery".[4]:885

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.[6] This theme has been further developed in modern fantasy, often leading to wizards as heroes on their own quests.[7] A work with a wizard hero may give him a wizard mentor as well, as in Earthsea.[4]:637

Wizards can act the part of the absent-minded professor, being foolish, prone to misconjuring, and generally less than dangerous. Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series is a prime example. They can also be terrible forces, capable of great magic, both good or evil.[2]:140-141 Even comical 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 dying hero.[8]


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.[5][9] Some[who?] 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.[10][page needed] Women, especially those termed "enchantresses," are the more likely to appear young, though often through the use of magic to make them so.[4]:318

In the Dragonlance Dungeons and Dragons setting, the wizards show their moral alignment by their robes.[11][page needed] Terry Pratchett described this common attire as a way of establishing to those they meet that the person is capable of practicing magic.[12]


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.[4]:616 In Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away, once an area's mana is exhausted, no one can use magic.[4]:942 A common limit used in role-playing games is that a person can only cast a specific number of spells in a day.[4]:385

Magic can also require various sacrifices or the use of certain materials, such as gemstones, blood or a life sacrifice can be required, and even if the magician has no scruples, obtaining the material may be difficult.[13] 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.[citation needed]

The extent of a wizard's knowledge may also limit which spells a wizard knows and can cast.[14] In A Wizard of Earthsea, the changing of names weakens wizards as they travel, and they must learn the true names of things in their new location to be powerful again.[14]

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.[2]:142 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.[citation needed]

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.[4]:619

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.[4]:1027

Reasons for distinguishing magicians[edit]

The Love Potion by Evelyn De Morgan

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.

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."[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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.[4]:385 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.[citation needed]

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.[15] Sorcerers are distinguished from wizards as having an innate gift with magic, as well as possessing blood of a mystical or magical origin.[16] 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.[17]

Gender-based titles[edit]

The terms "wizard" and "warlock" are more often applied to a male magic-user, just as "witch" is more often applied to a female.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.[4]:1027

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.[4]:318 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.[18]

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.[4]:885

Witch also carries evil connotations.[citation needed] 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, Baum referred to her as a sorceress rather than a witch to avoid the term that was more regarded as evil.[19]

In certain East Asian fantasies, the practice of Wuxia is used to achieve superhuman feats, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.[20] 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.[4]:616 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).[citation needed] In many writers' works, it is reserved for a select group of humans,[citation needed] as in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels, or Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy universe.


The Alchemist by William Fettes Douglas: studying for arcane knowledge

Wizards normally learn spells by reading ancient tomes called grimoires, which may have magical properties of their own.[4]:126 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 about new and/or invent spells and items/beings/objects or rediscover old ones that were lost to time,[citation needed] 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.

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;[4]:617 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.[21]

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;[4]:458 richer ones may own more valuable materials, such as crystal balls for scrying purposes.[4]:846

Wands and staves are common tools, long used in tales involving wizards.[3]:152 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.[22] 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.[14] 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.[23]

Use of magic[edit]

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,[4]:1027 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.[24]

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.[2]:8 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.[2]:142

Also, sometimes wizards 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 or they would want them to fix all of their problems instead of doing it themselves.[citation needed] An example of this is when Hagrid explains the latter to Harry in Philosopher's Stone.[citation needed]

In other works, developing magic is difficult.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.

The powers ascribed to wizards often affect their roles in society.[citation needed] 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.[4]:1027 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.[4]:745

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.[citation needed]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo by Marie Spartali Stillman". Retrieved 2013-10-16. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Martin, Philip (2002). The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest: How to Write Fantasy Stories of Lasting Value (1st ed.). Waukesha, WI: Writer Books. ISBN 0-87116-195-8. 
  3. ^ a b c Frye, Northrop (1971). Anatomy of Criticism; Four Essays. (2. print. ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01298-9. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Clute, John; Westfahl (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1st St. Martin's Griffin ed.). New York: St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0-312-19869-8. 
  5. ^ a b Driver, Martha W. (2004). The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy. Jefferson, NC [u.a.]: McFarland. pp. 167–191. ISBN 0-7864-1926-1. 
  6. ^ Wood, Susan (1982). The Language of the Night: Essays On Fantasy and Science Fiction (Reprinted ed.). New York: Berkley Books. p. 41. ISBN 0-425-05205-2. 
  7. ^ "The Role of Wizards in Fantasy Literature". Retrieved 2013-10-16. 
  8. ^ Card, Orson Scott (1999). Characters and Viewpoint (1st paperback ed.). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. p. 100. ISBN 0-89879-927-9. 
  9. ^ Colbert, David (2001). The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter: A Treasury of Myths, Legends, and Fascinating Facts (1st ed.). Wrightsville Beach (NC): Lumina Press. p. 70. ISBN 0-9708442-0-4. 
  10. ^ Day, David (1994). Tolkien's Ring. New York: MetroBooks. ISBN 1586635271. 
  11. ^ Hickman, Tracy; Weis, Margaret (1987). DragonLance Adventures. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR. ISBN 0880384522. 
  12. ^ "The L-Space Web: Analysis". 1948-04-28. Retrieved 2013-10-16. 
  13. ^ Card, Orson Scott (1990). How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (1st ed.). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. pp. 47–49. ISBN 0-89879-416-1. 
  14. ^ a b c "The Limits of Magic". Retrieved 2013-10-16. [dead link]
  15. ^ Cook, David "Zed" (1989). Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd edition, Player's Handbook. (2. edition, revised and updated ed.). Lake Geneva, WI, USA: TSR. pp. 30–31. ISBN 088-03-8716-5. 
  16. ^ Williams, Skip (2003). Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook. (Special ed.). Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast. p. 51. ISBN 0-7869-2886-7. 
  17. ^ Jackson, Steve (1989). GURPS Basic Set (3rd ed.). Austine, TX: Steve Jackson Games. p. 147. ISBN 1-55634-127-X. 
  18. ^ Bassham, Gregory (2005). The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy: the Lion, the Witch, and the Worldview (1. print. ed.). Chicago [u.a.]: Open Court. p. 171. ISBN 0-8126-9588-7. 
  19. ^ Riley, Michael O. (1997). Oz and Beyond: The Fantasy World of L. Frank Baum. Lawrence, Kan.: Univ. Press of Kansas. p. 104. ISBN 0-7006-0832-X. 
  20. ^ "An Introduction to the Wuxia Genre". Retrieved 2013-10-16. 
  21. ^ Woolsey, Doug; Olson, Donald (2004). Battleaxe Rpg: Reforged Edition. pp. 167–173. ISBN 9781442105935. Retrieved 19 February 2016. 
  22. ^ "Italian Fairies by Raffaella Benvenuto: Journal of Mythic Arts, Summer/Autumn, 2006, Endicott Studio". Retrieved 2013-10-16. 
  23. ^ "2001: Accio Quote!, the largest archive of J.K. Rowling interviews on the web". Retrieved 2013-10-16. 
  24. ^ Brin, David (1994). Otherness. New York: Bantam Books. p. 261. ISBN 0-553-29528-4. 

Further reading[edit]