Wizards, yo. With the (possible) exception of dragons, there's nothing more archetypically fantasy than a good old fashioned robed spell-slinger. They're mysterious, wise and, when the going gets tough, they blow stuff up. What's not to love?
We're joined this week by David Thomas Moore. Mr. Moore is an editor at Abaddon and Solaris, and, if you follow his various social media presences, you'll know he's pretty much the ultimate fantasy pub quiz team member. Last year, we hosted his original Pax Britannia short story, "Masques and Lies" during our V Days of Rome special. This year, we're doubly delighted: he's in Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke not once but twice.
Our favorite wizards follow below, and we look forward to seeing which ones you summon forth in the comments. (Special bonus fun: David explains Harry Potter, Jared confesses his many insecurities and Anne's... well... Anne.)
Jonathan Strange: “Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.”
Strange makes the top of the list for a bunch of reasons, but that’s the big one. I shall probably never read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, because – with all respect to an idea which has moved millions of units and apparently has some kind of movie in the works – hacking a zombie story onto the back of an existing period novel seems a bit... crap. Nevertheless, it’s the perfect setting for a story of magic. Magic as the hobby of the idle rich is a brilliant idea, and the sort of genteel, cultured, fashionable world that Strange operates in creates the opportunity for what a wizard is supposed to be: someone who does magic for the sake of magic. He uses it, because that’s sort of expected, but that’s not why he studies it. Add to that that Strange is dry, witty, distractible, bored, superior, charming and ironic, and you have exactly the sort of wizard I’d want to be if I could be a real wizard. Exactly.
John Constantine: How magic works is massively important in any story about wizards, and the same-again combination of some sort of inborn gift and “channelling the raw power of the cosmos” is both unrelatable and boring. Magic should involve study, and be something you apply to best effect; just sometimes, the guy who walks away at the end shouldn’t be the more powerful wizard, but the smarter one. For Moore’s most obnoxious invention, magic is mostly about being well-connected, thinking on your feet, and getting yourself into just less trouble than you cause the other guy. This is the guy who’d sell his soul to the Devil to get out of trouble, and then sell his soul to the Devil’s two business partners to get him out of that. And, unusually for comics, he loses things and people that he cares about, makes terrible decisions, has long bouts of depression, and, you know, ages. Also, he’s an obnoxious, sweary, chain-smoking, bisexual little Brummie bastard. Quality wizard material.
Ged: Apparently, according to my esteemed colleague, Roke is “boring.” Whatevs. I love Earthsea, I love the School of Roke, and I love the magic of Earthsea (even though it’s basically a same-again combination of some sort of inborn gift and “channelling the raw power of the cosmos”). LeGuin’s magic system, based on the names of things in the Old Tongue, is brilliantly described, and the world is rich and mystical.
And none of that is why Ged’s on this list. The first reason is that Ged and Kingsley Shacklebolt are, like, the only two black wizards in genre fiction. If you’re thinking, “hey wait, that’s not right, Shawn Ashmore played him in that TV series,” all I can say is the reason you cast a blond, blue-eyed manchild as Ged the Sorcerer is because you’re an adult elephant seal who was made a casting director by accident. Everyone on Earthsea is black, or reddish-brown, or brownish, except for this one island full of white-skinned barbarians that everyone else kind of fears and looks down on. And the reason you don’t remember that from when you read the books is that LeGuin didn’t make a big deal out of it. It was just how her world worked. And that’s pretty awesome, and a pretty important part of the books to me.
The second reason is that he straight summoned an eldritch horror from the dawn of time on his first week at school. As a prank. Yeah, he did.
Severus Snape: Alright, do you know what? To hell with Rowling. I know what really happened. Snape’s an actual bad guy. He was actually working for Voldemort the whole time; no ethical tension, no divided loyalties, he was Team Evil. Check it out: Snape’s behaviour, throughout the books, is consistent with a double agent who’s loyal to Voldemort but who has to tread carefully so as not to tip his hand to Dumbledore. He’s keeping under the radar at the beginning, then he’s feeding information about Potter to his master once Voldemort returns; he torments the child, who he despises, undermines him at every turn, and murders his protector. When the Order of the Phoenix successfully move Harry’s moving day at the beginning of Book 7 without tipping off the bad guys, and he could easily let it slide and claim he didn’t know because the Order didn’t trust him anymore, he totally tips Voldemort off.
Witness for the defence? He... loves Lily Potter... and so... he... loves Harry... but kind of hates him as well, because of James? And... he... doesn’t want anyone to know he’s a good guy, because of his street cred? So the whole thing where he’s a total shit... is kind of... cover? Do you know what, none of this makes sense, I’m going back to my other idea.
So when Voldemort finally sacrifices him, and he’s dying, and crappy Harry bloody Potter finds him near death, the wizard generally recognised as being the best in the world at tricking people as to what he thinks – in a world where, we’ve established, it’s possible to fake your own memories – gives Harry a memory that proves he was really a good guy all along, and Dumbledore actually wanted him to kill him. Riiiight. Well, played, Snape. Right at the last minute, you get to be a posthumous hero. Basically, if Voldemort hadn’t been such a useless fuck-up, Team Evil would have won. Because of Snape.
Gandalf the Grey: Alright, check it out. Gandalf the Grey/White makes the cut for not being a wizard. His logged, verified acts of magic are: 1. Throws some burning pine cones at some wolves and scares them away; 2. Makes a rilly, rilly bright light and scares some Nazguls away. And both of these achievements must be considered in light of the fact that he’s a pyrotechnician as well as a wizard. The one unambiguous reference to spell-magic is where he casts a buttload of opening spells at Moria unsuccessfully, shortly before being pwned at magic-door-opening by a fat gardener. Good work, poindexter.
On the other hand, his verified acts of kicking ass with a sword, a staff, or his fists are too many to count. He basically lays waste throughout the books, mostly by hitting things. Arwen does more magic than him. Shit, Aragorn does more magic than him. And yet, no-one, at any point, questions that he’s a wizard. It’s because he’s got a pointy hat, see. Like Rincewind. You gotta give props to a man who pulls off such an epic con.
Just missed the cut: Aleister Crowley, John Dee, Archchancellor Ridcully.
William Gladstone (Jonathan Stroud). Not only was he a great Prime Minister, he was the greatest wizard to ever bring down the walls of Prague. The historical Gladstone apparently had a condition whereby he couldn't smile. Stroud's Gladstone probably wouldn't smile. Not for you. Not for anyone.
Is it totally cheating to call Obi-Wan Kenobi a wizard? He's got the beard, he's got the staff, he's got the gravitas and the robes... and he's got the Force. Yeah, he's a wizard and I won't hear any different.
I actually quite like fuddy-duddy old Merlin from Disney's The Sword in the Stone. He's a cutie, is what he is. Yes, yes; White and The Once and Future King, or Mary Stewart and the virginal, sensitive Merlin, or all the ridiculous Merlins that Hollywood and the BBC have thrown at us over the years. It's still Disney's sweet old Merlin for me.
I'm with David on Snape. I don't care whether he's a turncoat or a double-agent or triple-ripple rocky-road fudge ice cream. He's powerful, he's dangerous, and he's pretty much smarter than everyone else. More to the point, however, he inserted a welcome darkness and ambiguity to the entire HP series, especially in the otherwise twinkly first books.
Gandalf schmandalf. My money's on Saruman, every bloody time. Oh, Gandalf "won" - but only because he cheated.
I was always impressed by Raistlin, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's uber-emo anti-hero from the Dragonlance books, but the more we read about him, the less fun he got to be. Eventually he went from a god-battling evilmancer to a self-sacrificing family man. Boring. Dalamar, his apprentice, was much more my style. Dalamar epitomised AD&D Lawful Evil. He was ruthlessly ambitious, but followed the rules - working his way up through the regimented orders of sorcery by, well, being a political creature. (Also, he got the ladeez, and my 12 year old self is still curious what Kitiara wears under her dragonarmor.) Plus, he was the only "dark elf" in the setting of Krynn, and, any reader of RPG tie-in fiction can testify, that phrase is pure catnip.
The unnamed protagonist from K.J. Parker's "Amor Vincit Omnia" also gets a nod. Partially, I confess, because I read the story and went completely to pieces: ZOMG KJ DOEZ TEH MAGIK. But Parker's magic is like blacksmithing, finance and volcanoes - an excuse for a mind-bendingly extended metaphor. Still, it is hard not to love the metaphor at face value - a world filled with increasingly bureaucratic and neurotic wizards (although they'd never use that term), perpetually concerned about the political consequences of their theoretical studies.
Marco, from Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, makes my list not for his virtues but for his flaws. This is probably symbolic of The Night Circus as a whole - it is easy to be sucked in by its ethereal style, but the book has a core of (rather tragic) realism. Although Marco is a dashing, romantic figure - I like him for what makes him human. His magic, for example, is messy - a bespoke system involving hundreds of books with spidery handwriting and bits of string. He tries to be organised, but fails: spending less time on his ostensibly life goal of winning a competition than flirting with his rival and propping up his friends. He genuinely likes making amazing magic, and that passion shows through. Plus, he's an astoundingly powerful wizard and he uses that power to... make himself slightly better-looking. Who can blame him?
On the other end of the scale, Jeremy Irons' scene-stealing (and chewing) performance as Profion will forever elevate him in my estimation. Dungeons and Dragons is a godawful, nonsensical movie, filled with idiotic dialogue and piss-poor special effects. But that opening scene of Irons swooping majestically down the stairs, robe trailing behind him, shark-sized shit-eating grin on his face? It isn't just that he's in this festering abomination of a film, it is that he's clearly enjoying it. (By contrast, Thora Birch, whose pondering performance is screen hemlock. She misses the point twice: first, by not having fun; second, unlike Irons, she doesn't actually belong in anything better.)
Finally, a tip of the hat to Robert Asprin's scaly interdimensional businessdemon, Aahz. His finest hours are at the start of the Myth series. Aahz is a powerful, scary Pervect (green-skinned, big teeth, etc), who loses his powers and is stuck in a backwater dimension. His combination of pop culture references (which no one but the reader understands), burning sarcasm and (occasionally) sensitivity make him the book's true hero.
Just missed the cut: Zatanna, Doctor Doom, Saruman (I'm with Anne, Christopher Lee should've won.)
Your turn! Which wizards light your fire?