Archive

Grumpy Gamer's Troubling Tropes: The Meddlesome Wizard

Posted Fri, Jan 10, 2014 by gunky

Grumpy Gamer's Troubling Tropes: The Meddlesome Wizard

We've seen them everywhere: Gandalf the Grey involving himself in the affairs of kings and Hobbits; Merlin exerting his demonic, pagan influence on the court of Christian King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; the Aes Sedai insinuating themselves into powerful "advisory" positions throughout Andor (when they're not sitting on the throne in Caemlyn) and badgering Rand Al'Thor onto the path they think is the correct one; or the Bene Gesserit doing pretty much the exact same thing across the far reaches of outer space, getting their hooks into Paul Atreides from an early age. And while the Bene Gesserit might not be proper magic users in the strictest sense of the word, their role is very much the same as the others: that of the meddlesome wizard.

Real-world wise men with political juice have been around since Biblical times - the three magi who visited baby Jesus at the manger in Bethlehem are just three examples of many. Wizards in fantasy fiction - including the ones encountered in video games - get a lot of their heritage from these ancient Middle-Eastern sages, from the language ("alakazam" and "abracadabra," while not so common nowadays in the wizarding world, are bastardized versions of Arabic-sounding words) to the costumes (flowing robes and pointed hats embroidered with stars) to the symbology (pentagrams and other such "circles of power," derived at least in part from the seals of King Solomon). Many of them, like Merlin, also draw heavily on paganism as seen by the early Christians and pre-Christian Romans, who feared that the conjuring of nature spirits and other such invocations as practiced by the backwater Celts and Germanic people, was the work of the devil.

Grumpy Gamer's Troubling Tropes: Meddling Wizards - Odin

And loads of them - including Gandalf the Grey - find their roots with the Norse god Odin, who, when he wasn't busy being the all-father, god of war, the hunt, magic and poetry (among other things), planning for his fight against Fenrir at Ragnarok, and guiding the souls of slain warriors into Valhalla, often traveled the mortal world disguised as an old one-eyed, bearded man, "the Wanderer." He wore Gandalf-style robes, the traditional wide-brimmed hat, used his spear, Gungnir, as a staff, had a pair of ravens hanging around all the time, and got into some pretty serious shenanigans interfering in the lives of the Aesir, mortal humans, dwarves, frost giants and pretty much everyone else.

Wizards are the keepers of ancient, secret and often forbidden knowledge - sciences from beyond the physical universe that can be put to deadly use should they fall into the wrong hands. Wizards draw their power from external sources, learning secret and sometimes profane rites and rituals to contact other planes of existence, or gaining deeper understanding of supernatural forces via pseudoscientific inquiry. Wizards are beings of knowledge, and the knowledge they possess is often incredibly dangerous.

However, it is their wisdom - the ability to judge right from wrong, and to foresee and intuit - that keeps these terrible dangers at bay, and it is this wisdom that good kings and great, noble rulers generally seek. However, wizards are also champion manipulators - they use their arcane gifts as tools and weapons, perverting natural order for their own secretive purposes, and often taking advantage of those around them to achieve their own goals. It is this selfishness that separates them from divine magic-users who act as vessels channeling holy power, and from users of natural magic like druids, who usually seek to maintain natural order.

Meddlesome Wizards - Merlin

There are a few problems with this whole arrangement, however. Kings and rulers tend to hinge on a court wizard's every word, but often only want their advisors to use their powers of divination to predict future events. But that never works out well for anyone. The wizard will see something terrible, or he will phrase his predictions vaguely like the volcano-fume-huffing oracles of ancient Greece, or the future will be hazy and uncertain because it is clouded by the Dark Side or free will or whatever. In other cases, the wise wizard offers sage advice that the king the completely ignores because of his own hubris. This, too, tends to resolve itself rather miserably for everybody. But these particular court wizards are not meddlesome. They're certainly problematic, but their advice is usually solicited. Prophetic wizards generally have no interest in political power of their own.

Meddlesome wizards are a different breed altogether. These are the puppet-masters, ruling more or less in secret from behind the throne. Their motivations may be purely greedy and evil, or well-intentioned, but it's fairly clear that they want the power without all the responsibilities.

Meddling Wizards - Gandalf (LotRO)

Let's consider the case of Gandalf the Grey, because he's arguably the best-known and most archetypical wizard of the "meddlesome" variety, and is encountered many times by players in the Lord of the Rings Online. In Gandalf's capacity as a meddler, he:

  • badgers a trust-fund kid Hobbit into a life of crime
  • goads a party of Dwarves onto a path where they get captured and nearly killed and eaten by trolls, goblins, spiders, elves, a dragon, and then an army of angry humans
  • incites a brief but massive war between five armies by killing the king of the goblins...
  • with an artifact sword he stole from a group of trolls...
  • that he also killed by way of trickery
  • 50 years later, convinces the trust-fund Hobbit's nephew to follow in his wayward uncle's footsteps
  • convinces everyone everywhere that the only way to deal with a weapon of mass destruction is to destroy it utterly
  • injects himself into international politics - most notably, at Rivendell, Edoras and Minas Tirith - where he coerces world leaders to go along with his crusade, even though it is almost certain that they will all die horribly as a result. And Theoden and Denethor totally do.
  • convinces the rest of his party to run out of the Balrog instance in Moria after they help him past the trash mobs, so he can solo the Balrog for a new title, sweet new robes and an epic staff

The Jedi could also be considered wizards, to some extent - they wield supernatural powers under the guise of wise old men, and some of them fill the same Campbellian monomythic "wise elder" role as Gandalf. The Jedi maintain that they are a separate order from the actual government and have no official capacity in politics, but their actions tell a very different story. In reality, they just avoid the boring bottom of the political pyramid and play around with the movers and shakers up at the top. The Old Republic, Galactic Empire and New Republic were all shaped by the Jedi in one way or another, and guys like Yoda and that "crazy old wizard" Obi Wan Kenobi had very direct influences on the top leaders of those governments.

Meddling Wizards - Dumbledore

And since we can't have a discussion about wizards without mentioning Harry Potter and his crew, consider Albus Dumbledore. He is another classic meddler, with his own network of spies and operatives at every level of the clandestine world of wizardry. His position of authority at Hogwarts doesn't preclude his deep and constant interference with the lives of his favorite students, breaking laws for them whenever the whim takes him. He regularly inserts himself into Ministry of Magic affairs, and evidently even has some pull in the muggle world as well. Dumbledore has his fingers in a lot of pies.

We see meddling wizards in video games, as well. The Thalmor of the Elder Scrolls series are a great example - an elite caste of Altmer wizards pulling the strings in Cyrodiil and bossing around the Nords of Skyrim like they own the place. It is the Thalmor that are responsible for the Empire-wide ban on Talos worship, a key part of Nord society and one of the major reasons for the Stormcloak rebellion.

Meddlesome Wizards - Thalmor (Skyrim)

So yes, meddlesome wizards are indeed quite meddlesome. They don't screw around when it comes to meddling. But not all wizards are. Not by a long shot. In fact, in MMOs, it's only ever big, important NPC wizards who get to meddle - the one-percenters.

Player-controlled wizards are never given that kind of responsibility. Despite having mastered the same skills as the great and powerful, and having done countless thankless tasks for the good of the people on the way to endgame levels, player-controlled Wizards still get the same "kill 10 rats" and "go fetch some pig crap for my garden" chump quests that everyone else gets. The intellectual elite get the same poo-hauling quests that the big, dumb meat-shields and grungy forest-people get. Kings solicit no important advice from player-controlled wizards, regardless of how high that wizard's Wisdom or Intelligence score might be. 

That's probably for the best, though. There's a very good reason why there are so many more Neville Longbottoms than there are Albus Dubledores. The difference between a player-controlled Wizard and a NPC wizard is that the NPC has a team of writers backing up his wisdom and sagacity with story progression. The team knows where the game needs to go next, and powerful wizards make great tools of exposition because they know everything. Gandalf's decisions, if made by players who are not supernatural beings gifted with superhuman intelligence and insight and instead choose to give their characters names like "Ur'mom" or "Heywood Jablomi" when they can get away with it, would probably be a lot less effective but way more lulzy. 

This isn't to say that all players who play wizards are jerky trolls, or that they are incapable of making good decisions. In most games, pure casters are more challenging to play than melee classes, and require a deft hand and some degree of planning and adaptability. But that doesn't make them writers. And the way most MMOs work, the story always requires a figure of greater power and political significance at the top of the heap, passing orders down to his underlings and subordinates. 

Meddlesome Wizards - Darth Nox, Sith Inquisitor (SWTOR)

A few games manage to work around this basic mechanic and give their wizards the opportunity to be meddlesome, but only to a certain degree. For example, in Star Wars: The Old Republic, a Sith Inquisitor eventually attains the name of Darth Nox and is given a seat of importance on the Dark Council. When he gets to Makeb, the latest stage in the story, the NPCs address him as a person of great importance, and his decisions carry weight and have consequences. Unfortunately, Darth Nox is still a Dark Council n00b, and ends up doing all the bitch-work for Darth Marr, who can't be bothered to go down to this apparently critical planet to save the Empire because he has some starship windows to gaze out of while he keeps his hands folded behind his back. Being a high-ranking member of the Dark Council - normally, a position where one begin meddling in intergalactic politics as a powerful Force-using wizard of sorts - still involves gear-grind and poo-fetching errands. At least Darth Nox is given an entire strike team he can abuse and then send to their deaths. 

But as far as being a meddlesome wizard, Foxy Noxy has a long way to go until he reaches Gandalf status.

Got a beef with your neighborhood meddlesome wizard? Let us know in our comments!


Nice column. I'm one of the guys who always plays the "squishy wizard" class in whatever game I'm playing, from Wizard and Conjurer in EQ to Jedi Sage and Inquisitor in SWTOR and all the variants in between. Your insights are spot on in most areas.

You did miss the mark as to the Magi that visited baby Jesus, though. Despite what you have seen on your neighbor's lawn at Christmas, they never visited the Savior in his manger. By the time they arrived in Judea from the east (probably Persia), up to two years had passed and Jesus, Mary and Joseph were already living in a house. (Reference Matthew 2:1-16 for details on the house and the two year time frame.)

I also think that contrasting "divine" spellcasters from "selfish" ones is a bit off target. Rather, it is the source of their power that distinguishes "divine" casters from more traditional wizards. Wizards draw on arcane powers, usually defined as being sourced from a "mystical" power origin and these can certainly be used in a non-selfish manner. The source, not the motivation, compares better with druids (nature source) or clerics/shamans (divine/totem source). The fact that some wizards are stereotyped as selfish and self serving has little to do with why they contrast.

But as I said, good article, good insights overall. Especially that meddling Dumbledore. ;-)

Fair points, but a wizard's motivations are always suspect. Clerics are commanded by a divine imperative, druids by a need for natural balance and order, but wizards - whether they be Dumbledores or Gargamels - are following their own desires.

Dang, I should have mentioned Gargamel in this one...

News from around the 'Net