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New Models for Magicians

The alchemist by ChrisRaIn 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

Sorceresses Magic by LeoNealThe 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.

Mambabarang by PervandrIn 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

2013 APR Magician - Kalku by Carolina-EadeThe final example is the magician as champion. Sometimes, instead of two warriors meeting in single combat, two magicians could meet on behalf of rival villages and conduct a sort of wizard’s duel.

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.

Title image by aditya777.

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9 Comments

  1. Rob. says:

    Very informative, nicely researched. Will have to incorporate some of those elements in future writing projects.

  2. Vincent Quill says:

    Great article! My W.I.P. features an insane but incredibly powerful wizard with a really morbid sense of humour (personality wise, I’ve intentionally made him the opposite of gandalf. When i give him an obstacle, I think “what would gandalf do?” and make him do the opposite. He also has shades of mr. Wednesday (American Gods)) I think I’ll make him a bit of a mercenary/gangster type, because I was having trouble thinking of a motivation for this incredibly selfish hardened war veteran and a bit of a magnificent bastard.

  3. A.E. Marling says:

    The magicians as gangsters is delightful. “Nice prince you have there. It’d be a shame if he turned into an amphibian.” Also all too believable that people would learn the dark arts so they could get the fine comforts.

    May I humbly offer Magiican as Plumber, and Magician as Entertainer? Perhaps the most unsavory tasks would be left to wizards, which would seen more as a working class and something of the mundane. Or the wizard jester might be a delight, in a world which expected its casting classes to provoke laughter, not screams.

    • A.E. Marling says:

      Curses! Why did I share those? I should have hoarded them to use later in my own writing. Maybe I still will.

      • Shadowkat says:

        Hey, more than one person can use the same idea. I already have one in a gang of sorts in my story. Though she doesn’t really go for transfiguring. More like “You know, I have something here I’ve been meaning to test. Might end up with a bit of a stain…but want to volunteer later?”

  4. Pedro says:

    Definitly Bayaz from Abercrombie´s First Law is a striking contrast to the mythical wizard,he plays on our assumption fo the bearded robed figure an turns it on its head

  5. Shadowkat says:

    I have magic users in dozens of positions. I’ve always found it unbelievable and a waste of potential to just keep such talents constrained to one or two jobs. Soldiers, performers, doctors, scientists, defenders, mercenaries, magical archeologists, they could be members of gangs, create illegal potions, builders, all kinds of things. Magical cooks, anyone? How about breeders of magical animals? Enchanters of the royal armory! Designers for new architectural structures by making magical models of what’s being designed?

    There’s no end to the possibilities here!

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