Worlds Within Worlds – Part Four: Old Grey Beards
If you ask someone on the street to name the first three wizards that come to mind, you’ll probably hear the names Gandalf, Merlin, and Dumbledore (or Rincewind, if they’re trying to be clever). The image of the white-bearded old man with a staff is woven into modern fantasy, to the point that Pratchett filled his Unseen University with caricatures of it. But it’s not the beard that makes someone a wizard—what defines a mage is magic, and history is full of mages and magic that defy the usual image of a wizard. Still, it helps to learn where we got our predominantly white-bearded old sage with a staff.
The Kalevala, Tolkien, and Gandalf
Unless you’re a fan of mythology, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of the Finnish mage Vainamoinen or The Kalevala, the Finnish epic, which features him. What’s important is how both of them influenced Tolkien, who was a huge mythology buff. The Kalevala was one of his major sources of inspiration, to the point that he credits it with inspiring him to write The Silmarillion:
“The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala. It remains a major matter in the legends of the First Age (which I hope to publish as The Silmarillion).”
But Tolkien’s fascination didn’t stop with Kullervo. According to David Elton Gay in his essay “J.R.R. Tolkien and The Kalevala,” the Finnish epic was a strong influence on Tolkien’s worldbuilding and languages, especially the Elvish and Entish tongues. At the center of the Kalevala is the sage Vainamoinen, who functions as a universal hero and protector to the Finns, as well as a powerful mage and knower of secrets. There are a couple things that characterize him:
1. He’s an old, wise man with a long beard.
2. He performs magic using his voice and songs, especially poetry.
3. His power is rooted in nature, including water, snow, trees, and the weather.
4. He has a strong connection to sailing and travelling.
5. He’s a hero to the common people, and acts in their interest.
6. He fights other mages with magic.
7. Despite being old and wise, he still has flaws and personality.
Tolkien’s Gandalf fits all of these traits. Despite being inspired in part by stories of Odin the Wanderer and a painting called “Der Berggeist” by Josef Madlener, Gandalf bears a stronger resemblance to Vainamoinen: They’re both primordial hermits who call on nature and esoteric secrets to grant them power. Secrets and old, forgotten knowledge are their bread and butter here, and Gay gives a good insight into why:
“To have power over something in the mythology of Kalevala one must know its origins and be able to sing the appropriate songs and incantations concerning these origins. Great power in the world of the Kalevala requires great age and great knowledge, and Vainamoinen has both. A large part of his power comes from the fact that as the oldest of all living things, he saw the creation of things, heard their names, and knows the songs of their origins.”
An even better example of Vainamoinen’s influence, Gay argues, is Tom Bombadil, who is frequently called the oldest, the first, and the fatherless (and whose constant singing resembles Vainamoinen’s spell-songs). What’s important is power in The Kalevala comes from the knowledge of names and origins, meaning that the older something is, the more knowledge they’ve collected—hence the trope of wizards being old men with white beards.
Norse Magic in Other Fantasy Settings
We can see songs, words, names, and origins at play in the magic of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, which references Segoy singing the world up from the waters and features the use of ‘true names’ in Ged’s magical tutelage:
“Songs, poems, runes, spells—words matter a great deal in Earthsea, especially those in the ‘Old Speech’ now spoken only by dragons and wizards. To work a spell one must know an object or person’s ‘true name,’ which is nothing less than that object or person’s fundamental essence. In Earthsea, to know a person’s true name is to gain power over him or her. ‘A mage,’ we are told, ‘can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly.’”
It’s no coincidence that Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists, and Norse mythology was one of her inspirations. In fact, the inciting idea of the Earthsea series was exploring who a wizard was before they became the perennial old white-bearded archetypal figure we’re familiar with.
But Norse mythology’s influence doesn’t stop there—fantasy settings like The Elder Scrolls have focused more specifically on the magical qualities of a mage’s voice, with an early reference to magical Shouts found in Elder Scrolls IV: Morrowind. The shouting duel between Ulfric and King Torygg, as well as the battles between dragons, bear a direct resemblance to the famous contest between Vainamoinen and Joukhainen. The sage is challenged by a younger mage to a duel of songs. The duel ends with Vainamoinen turning the powers of nature against his opponent through the power of his voice alone.
Fittingly, the content of the songs isn’t “kill my opponent, destroy him with fire”—the songs are essentially boasting contests, where each participant claims to not only understand the ocean or the wind, but to be those things. Through the power of magic, they can back those claims up—a wizard can become the wind or the ocean through their knowledge of their essence. In effect, the winner is the one who is better able to merge themselves with the natural world and bend it to their will.
The history of European wizards and magic goes much deeper than The Kalevala or Vainamoinen, just as fantasy has deeper roots than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but the influence of the Finnish epic and its featured sage have become part of fantasy’s DNA. The underlying philosophy of Vainamoinen and his magic is that great age brings knowledge, knowledge is gained through the learning of names, and names give one power by allowing someone to evoke the essence of the names they speak. The voice is central to a mages’ power, as are incantations and ‘words of power.’
The most powerful mages are inevitably the oldest, and it goes without saying that old men have long, white beards.
Fun fact: The Kalevala mentions beards over thirty times.