New Models for Magicians
In many fantasy stories, magicians often follow one or two traditional models. Many are often portrayed as guides or teachers that assist the protagonist. Often this mentor is described as an old man, with a long, white beard. They wear robes and carry walking staffs. Merlin and Gandalf cast long shadows over the genre. Alternatively, magicians are portrayed as proto-scientists or alchemists, studying ancient lore and performing experiments high in a castle tower. Recall the legends surrounding Faust, John Dee, or even Nostradamus. These classic images have still found in many forms, including movies, role playing games, and recent books. For example, Harry Dresden is a modern take on these models, with his basement lab and his robe-like duster. But for the writer looking for a spark of inspiration, history offers a much larger selection of magician models.
Magician as Mercenary
The first model is that of the magician as a mercenary. Just as a mercenary could be called upon to assist in the defense of a kingdom, so would certain magicians be called upon to protect a village from black magic. And just as mercenaries sometimes had a less than honorable reputation, this sort of magician sometimes had a whiff of the conman.
The “Cunning Folk” were a combination of folk healers, diviners, and fortunetellers found in England. They were called upon to heal illness brought on by witchcraft, to find criminals or lost items, and to foretell a client’s love life. This was often a family business, passed down through the generations. There was little to no formal education. Although their practices had a magical air—sticking pins in dolls, using potions and tinctures, peering into crystal balls or pools of water, and using astrology—customers viewed the Cunning Folk as useful, not evil like witches.
However, by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Cunning Folk were seen less as helpers, and more as hustlers, taking money by taking advantage of superstition. For a more magical example, think along the lines of hedge witches, such as Maggy the Frog from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. For a more fraudulent example, recall the stories of snake oil salesmen.
Magician as Gangster
The second model is the magician as gangster. Just like the super villains of comics, sometimes magicians used their powers for personal gain, extorting wealth, food, and other comforts. Of course, considering the alternative was being executed in a horrific manner, acting selfishly to ensure a full wallet and a full stomach seems perfectly understandable.
In the Philippines, Mangkukulam are sorcerers who perform Kulam, a word used to mean witchcraft, hexes, and curses. Mangkukulam were known to inflict pain or illness on their victims. And Mambabarang, a subset of Mangkukulam, would get insects to burrow under their victim’s skin, multiply, and burst forth, killing their victims. In order to prevent such black magic, or to end it once it began, people would give bribes and gifts to the Mangkukulam. Call it insurance, call it extortion. To me, it seems to be the magical equivalent of: “Nice place you have here. Shame if something was to happen to it.”
In Sierra Leone, Mende witchfinders would try and convict suspected witches. However, unlike the witch trials of Salem, the witchfinder would not condemn the witch. Instead, once a witch was identified, the witchfinder would warn the villagers to feed, protect, and take care of those convicted of witchcraft. Otherwise the village might experience all manner of magical misfortune. Although one can imagine stories of corruption and kickbacks among witches and the witchfinders, history tells us that the witchfinders eventually used their position to convict the old and vulnerable of witchcraft in order to ensure their care and protection.
Magician as Champion
In the Chiloe Archipelago of Chile, good (the machis) and bad (the kalku) magicians of rival clans would spar. The kalku would cast spells and curses upon rivals, driving victims mad or inflicting incurable diseases. The machis would work to cure the afflicted and to protect them against black magic. Although the kalku would sometimes attack common villagers, there are also stories of villages calling upon a malchi to save them when a nefarious kalku threatened them. The two magicians would meet and engage in a magical battle until one admitted defeat. Just like a warrior champion, this duel prevented the infliction of harm upon many more villagers.
Not every wizard in your story must wear a rune-accented robe and spend time poring over dusty tomes. And not every magician must advise the protagonist. If we look beyond our familiar myths, we can find magicians who are just as heroic as any Chosen One and just as corrupt as any grimdark antihero. Such models can only make a story richer and more unique.
This article was originally published on April 20, 2013.