Grumpy Gamer's Troubling Tropes: The Meddlesome Wizard

The "meddlesome wizard" is a fairly significant fantasy trope that appears everywhere. But it's a pretty exclusive club.

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

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,

  • 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
, 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

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