Jordan Jeffers

The Wizard Rules

In Fantasy on July 26, 2011 at 9:44 PM

Power, wisdom, and why Harry Potter is not a wizard.

A friend of mine recently sent me a TIME magazine list of the “Top 10 Most Beloved Wizards.” I guess I should give the magazine a pass since they called it “beloved” wizards and not “best” wizards, but I hated almost everyone on their list. (Not that they care what I think any way. And I probably read that list half a dozen times, so they certainly got plenty of traffic from someone who claims he doesn’t like their work. (Yes I just referred to myself in the third person. I couldn’t think of any better way to write that sentence. Plus it gave me an excuse to do a double parenthetical phrase)).

So I asked, why not make my own list? Why not come up with the ultimate, definitive, irreproachable roster of the ten greatest wizards in fictional history? Why not show that highly successful, multi-million dollar magazine how the real professionals do it? Why not ask yourself a number of rhetorical questions in order to introduce a really over thought and unnecessary essay? Why not talk to yourself?

What Makes a Wizard?

I’ll get to the list and the ranking system in a bit. First I want to deal with the two problems I had with the TIME list:

  1. Gandalf was not number one. (Did I just spoil the ending of this piece?)
  2. The list basically includes everyone who has some sort of magical association, even if only by name. Hence their list includes such greats as Mickey Mouse (from Fantasia‘s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) and Thomas Edison of all people, who was apparently referred to as the “Wizard of Melo Park” for all of his inventions.

But Thomas Edison is not a wizard, neither is Mickey Mouse or the Wizard of Oz or even Harry Potter. Yes you read that right – Harry Potter is not a wizard. He is a stupendous, short-sighted, brave, remarkable, frustrating hero who also happens to be able to do magic. But he is not a wizard.

The only real wizard at Hogwarts is Albus Dumbledore. In my opinion he is the only wizard in all of the wonderful magical world that Rowling created for us. And I don’t mean that he’s the coolest or most powerful, and so everyone else looks insignificant next to his greatness. I mean he is literally the only one that qualifies

Wizards have a very specific function in a story; they exist for very specific reasons, and it takes more than the word “wizard” to make you a real wizard. Otherwise we could put Michael Jordan on the top-ten list for his brief stint with a certain Washington DC basketball franchise that shall not be named (and coming in at number 6,385…Kwame Brown!). But of course that’s not at all what we mean by the title of “wizard.”

As a devoted reader of fantasy stories, and especially as someone who (cough) takes them seriously, I’ll take a little time to try to explain what I mean. Let’s try to answer the question: What makes a wizard?

There are two rules:

Rule #1

A wizard must have supernatural powers

OK, so this is the most obvious rule, the one that just about everyone outside of TIME will agree on. Shoot lightning, move swords with your mind, turn yourself into a badger, do something.

This immediately rules out the Thomas Edisons of the world, as well as the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz is clever and interesting and a great character, he just doesn’t qualify as a wizard. The whole point of his character, in fact, is that he’s masquerading as something he’s not. The fire and the booming voice are masques to cover who he really is, a lovable conman without any real power.

But a character needs more than magic to be a wizard. Consider the following characters:

  1. Tinkerbell
  2. Professor X
  3. Harry Potter

I think we would all agree that the first two characters are not wizards. Tinkerbell is a fairy, darting about, slinging dust on unsuspecting children, and generally being rather spiteful.

But she has magic correct? So why wouldn’t we call her a wizard?

“Well she’s not really even human is she?” you say. “A wizard at least has to be a human.”

“Aha!” I say in reply, smugly happy with myself. “But what about number 2 on our list, the great Professor X? He is human (even if everyone calls him a mutant, the bigots!) and yet he also has extreme super natural powers. He can take control of people’s minds and force them to do whatever he wants them to do.” I lean in very close, punctuating each word with a jab of my pale, bony finger into your shoulder. “Sounds an awful lot like an Imperio curse doesn’t it? A power which one Mr. Harry. Potter. also has, and which power you claim somehow gives him the title of wizard? Admit defeat!”

“I think I’ll have lunch with someone else now,” you say, as I feverishly turn back to my computer screen.

If magical power is the only thing that turns an ordinary human into a wizard, then the only difference between a super hero and a wizard is a relative tightness of clothing. Sure Harry can do a lot of different things with his power, but so can the Green Lantern.

My wife, Madelyn, (who is never going to agree with me on this) says that I’m being stupid and that no one is going to agree with me or like me. And I agree with some of her points, like, for example, that there is a difference between the power that Green Lantern has and the power that we usually refer to as “magic.” Her argument is that:

Wizard = Human + magic

It’s that word “magic” that throws me off. Magic comes in so many shapes and sizes and methods that it’s impossible to say with certainty what should be and what should not be considered magic. It is governed by hundreds if not thousands of different rules and regulations, depending on the world you happen to be inhabiting. Rowling treats it rather like a machine in many ways –  say certain words, flick your wrist just so, and (poof!) magic happens. Tolkien, on the other hand, is much more obscure about the mechanics of his wizards’ power; Gandalf uses his staff, many different languages and words, and what seems to be simply his will to accomplish all kinds of magic. Robert Jordan (late author of the Wheel of Time) calls his magic the One Power, his magic-wielders “Aes Sedai,” (which means “Servant to All” in the language he made up) and describes the use of magic as a kind of weaving. Ursula LeGuin’s Sparrowhawk uses words taken from the Making of the World, which have power in and of themselves.

Then take Stephenson’s Thomas Covenant, who uses neither words nor spells to wield the wild magic contained within his white-gold ring. He just wills it to happen, in basically the same way that the Green Lantern does. So what is the difference between these two characters? That one calls his power “magic” (and thus must be a wizard) and the other calls it simply “power” (and thus must be a super hero)?

My point is that there lots of different kinds of supernatural power, and trying to determine which powers do and do not qualify as “magic” is impossible (though fun). At least, it’s impossible to do with any kind of consistency. So using the magic criteria is kind of like using an “I’ll know it when I see it” approach, which may work for Potter Stewart and hard-core pornography, but doesn’t work for me. That’s the kind of thinking that lands Mickey Mouse a spot at number 4 on the list, and I can’t deal with that emotionally. We need a much simpler, better defined system.

Now I admit that this is a hard case to make to most people, especially people whose first encounter with magic was in the pages of Harry Potter. It’s harder to unlearn something than it is to learn a new thing, so if you were introduced to the word “wizard” by Rowling’s books, than you’re probably going to have a natural inclination to agree with Rowling’s use of the word. Very respectfully, however, I would say that Rowling is misapplying the word in this case, that she is taking one of the most obvious aspects of the wizard archetype (magic), and assuming that this is the only thing that anyone needs in order to claim the wizard title.

The main difference between Rowling and I is that Rowling depicts “wizard” as a race, whereas I believe that wizard is more of a profession. The other main difference between us is that she’s sold about 450 million books.

I’m sure I haven’t convinced most of you, but I will go to my grave defending this, so if it makes you feel better, we can call the kind of wizard I’m insisting on a “true-wizard,” and you can substitute that word from now on whenever I use the word “wizard.” A true-wizard must have some sort of supernatural power, sure, but he (or she! – my particular brand of nerdishness is equal opportunity) also has to serve a particular function, have a specific role in a story.

Which bring us to…

Rule #2

A wizard must try to use their Wisdom to mentor a hero

Rule  #2 is really what separates the true-wizards from the faux-wizards. Tinker Bell or the Green Lantern may have power very similar to that of a wizard, but they lack Wisdom, as well as someone to give it to.

Rule #2 contains a couple of sub-rules:

  1. A wizard cannot be the hero.
  2. A wizard cannot exist without a hero.

This rule also helps us see the difference between faux-wizard Harry Potter and true-wizard Dumbledore. Dumbledore is there to guide Harry, to defend him from the things he’s not strong enough to handle, to correct him when he’s being selfish or obsessive, to give him the Wisdom that he will need to defeat the evil both outside and inside of himself, and, in the process, to help him grow into an adult (and all the power and responsibility that adulthood carries with it). In short, Dumbledore is the replacement for Harry’s parents, the father and mother that he was denied.

This is actually often the case with wizards – they step in to help heroes who parents have died or are otherwise unable to fulfill their roles. Gandalf is another good example of this. He is present in The Lord of the Rings to guide and protect Frodo, whose parents die when he is twelve, and whose adopted father leaves him as soon as he comes of age, and to a lesser extent, Aragorn, whose father dies when Aragorn is only two.

The Wisdom of a true-wizard is much like that which Solomon received from God – a discerning heart to see right from wrong, and the courage to choose what is right. It is much more than just directions to the next stage of the quest or advice on the latest evil-fighting spells. Wisdom is timeless and powerful. In fact, it is often more powerful and more important to the story than the wizard’s magic.

If you’re like me, you can quote some of these true-wizards by heart, or at the very least, you’ve absorbed some of their lessons:

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death and judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” – Gandalf the Grey

“It takes as much strength of heart to share in honor as to face shame.” – Dallben

“Great warrior, eh? Wars not make one great.” – Yoda

“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.” – The Master Summoner

“Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” – Albus Dumbledore

Rule #2 also allows evil characters to claim the title of wizard, though the guidance they give is demonic rather than holy, leading the hero on the path of destruction rather than salvation. Emperor Palpatine is a good example of this. (He’s the old, evil guy in the black cloak, from Star Wars, though, if you don’t know that, then I’m amazed that you made it this far. Perhaps you are my mother). His guidance turned a would-be hero (Anakin Skywalker) into a villain (Darth Vader), who then helped his new master bring evil to power rather than defeat it. Thus, in my informed and humble opinion:

Wizard = (Wisdom + Hero) x Magic

Such are the rules of wizards both good and evil. They use their wisdom and influence as much as their magical power, and they always use both to try to turn a hero towards the proper path…or else towards destruction. Where a good wizard will become a mentor and friend, an evil wizard will become a tyrannous master. Remember that, if the fate of the world is ever on your shoulders.

Other posts in this series:

Part 2 – The MERLINS – A Ranking System for all Wizards | Part 3 – The Ten Greatest Wizards (10-6)Part 4 – The Ten Greatest Wizards (5-1)

Jordan Jeffers is a graduate student and future famous novelist. If you want to offer him a book deal (or if you just want to chat), write to him at


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