On beyond Gandalf

First, a thing that I wish more people knew: ‘wizard’ is not a male term.  It’s not gendered.  The Harry Potter convention of ‘wizards and witches’ is an arbitrary distinction, not a set of complementary terms.  (There’s a similar case with ‘witches and warlocks’; I don’t know where people come up with this stuff.  A warlock is someone who breaks an oath, from waerloga, ‘vow-liar’.  For some reason, it became Scottish tradition to consider this the male equivalent of ‘witch’, but it’s also Scottish tradition to eschew pants and I don’t see everyone jumping on that bandwagon.)  Wizard, rather, is just built from Middle English wys, which unsurprisingly means ‘wise’, and ard, which was just an intensifier suffix that got used in a lot of names and other words (it’s also in ‘foolhardy’ and ‘braggart‘, for example).*

What I’m saying is: all y’all girls who think magic is cool, do not settle for being told only boys get to be wizards.  This is not the case.

I am, in basically all circumstances, pro-wizard.  And while Gandalf the Grey (Stormcrow, Mithrandir, et cetera) has informed and codified lots of people’s ideas of wizards in the current day, he’s been in my head for perhaps a larger part of my life than most – my father, in one of his more excellent practices, read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to me when I was very small, and to my brother before that.  I would have been two years old, perhaps younger, when I first took to climbing up on my parents’ bed and listening in to the adventures of Bilbo and Frodo.  I can’t think of a time when my imagination didn’t include bushy-eyebrowed Gandalf looming in the corners, playing the long game against the forces of evil and appearing at desperate moments to turn the tide or just crack wise.

To my adult eyes, of course, Gandalf is (especially in The Hobbit) less a character than a particularly enjoyable plot device, a deus ex machina with a sweet hat.  Tolkien is not the type to leave cracks unfilled, so in the end we do find out what Gandalf’s been up to when not on-page, but mostly he drifts in and out of sight depending on how much trouble the characters are in.  And this is in (and perpetuates) the noble tradition of wizards who appear unexpectedly at just the moment that a hero most needs them.

Now, me, I start to wonder: what would a story look like if a Gandalfy wizard was the main character?  What is he thinking in the moments before he reveals himself from the shadows to save the heroes?  What does the Wielder of the Flame of Anor’s dayplanner look like?  (“8 am: leisurely breakfast; toast with eggs.  8.45: meet with fellow wizards, force necromancer out of his grim tower and banish him from Rhovanion evermore.  6.50 pm: locate hobbit I shanghaied into cross-country dragonslaying venture, chuckle warmly at tales of his heroics.  8.20: win smoke-ring contest.”)  What is it like to have spectacularly awesome and ill-defined powers that could utterly change the lives of everyone in the world but might also wreak terrible harm by mistake?

Tolkien was also a fan of magic as a vague and vast thing, beyond the understanding of mere mundanes, rather than a straightforward tool, which is all well and in accordance with Sanderson’s First Law of Magic (which states “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”  Sanderson’s preferred style is to set lots of very clear rules and then treat magic as a toolbox; Tolkien didn’t tell us any of the rules except for Bilbo’s seemingly-user-friendly invisibility ring, which is the only magic that the heroes get to use freely.)

Like many amateur writers, my early fantastical characters tended to have outlandishly excessive magical powers that took all the challenge out of any task.  Bit by bit I realised how boring this was, and toned them down, set more limits, and started getting into characters’ heads rather than just showcasing how cool it was if they rode everywhere on a horse made of wind and juggled lightning.  (Very cool!  For about twenty seconds.)  And in thinking about the Middle-earth mythology from Gandalf’s perspective, I immediately ran into the tension – rather, lack of tension – that arose from his vague-but-vast powers that might, hypothetically, solve every problem with a bit of thought.  How could one tell that story in a way that wouldn’t be boring?

And then, a few years back, I realised that I had already started watching exactly such a story: the long-running, much-loved and occasionally intensely-derided Doctor Who.  I am a huge fan of the series (not that I can’t accept accurate criticisms thereof, which it does earn) and it is quite aware that it’s the story of the deus ex machina wizard from the wizard’s point of view.  Even within the story, every solution is effectively a deus ex machina: Doctor-Who-grade technobabble is perhaps even less scientific than Treknobabble, and so the only way a plot device is going to work for viewers is on an emotional level.  (Not that people haven’t complained about the degree of this going on, what with fans arguing that the sonic screwdriver of the new series is even more of a magic wand than it ever used to be.)

Fortunately for me, I find the holistic science of the Whoniverse to be a perfectly acceptable form of magic.  Recent seasons have shown the potential limits of the Doctor’s power: absolutely Captain Jack-all.  Just in case the 2005 series’ finale didn’t make it clear enough to us, the Doctor later explicitly stated that if he chose to open up a particular wall panel and pour himself a big steaming mug of Time Vortex, he would effectively become a god.  That option is always on the table: when all else fails, he does have the option of forcibly rewriting the whole history of the universe to suit his whims.  He doesn’t do this because he fears the consequences, and much the same was implied for Gandalf as well.  These wizards fear their own impossible powers, and so every situation they run into is ultimately the same problem in different boots: ‘How far do I dare to go this time?  How little can I do and still win?’  The more they’re willing to exert themselves, the easier it will be to get out of a scrape, and the more they risk sliding down the slippery slope towards playing puppet master with reality.  Their magic has only one consistent rule: less is preferable to more.

This can work especially well, I think, because it makes failures deeply personal – if someone dies on the Doctor’s watch, it’s because he tried to squeak by this time with a little too little power in play.  If Bilbo got eaten by wargs on his quest, I don’t doubt that Gandalf would have berated himself endlessly for trying to be too hands-off.  (I do wonder how often Gandalf has prodded potential heroes off onto new quests, and how often they worked out well in the end, how often they barely made it home, and how often they managed to stumble through without really learning anything or changing for the better.)

I assume all of the above applies to Superman as well – I’ve never read his books, but I’ve heard fans make much of authors’ ongoing struggle to keep him interesting while realistically depicting an invincible immortal ubermensch.  Dr Manhattan of Watchmen deconstructed the Superman in broad strokes, but contained leaps of logic that never really gelled for me.

These are the things I think about when I think about my own story of Ifli, a boy who grows from baker’s apprentice to world-travelling wizardly superhero.  I skip back and forth in his life – a child with a magic tome and an adoptive pirate, a young scientist accidentally giving easy (if morally abhorrent) superpowers to a large part of the world, a mature parent trying to decide on the responsible and moral use of immortality while he repairs a war-torn planet – and know on the arc I have seen, he will become something that is not quite human anymore, not quite sympathetic.  His adventures as a boy are thrilling and exuberant; his exploits as an adult are disturbing and ultimately dissatisfying.  I don’t know if he’ll turn out differently if I write his life properly from start to pseudo-finish – if he and I will find a place for him to fit in the world that still looks like a person and not force majeure.  In the end, his problems are the problems of a god, and even I don’t want to see how much further he can go.  I try to imagine the things that could still threaten him, and the lengths he could and would go to in making everything right, and it begins to become a horror story.  And now I have his problems, because as the author I am his god, trying to find a way to save him.


Anyone who has read this far is more than welcome to ramble as long as they like in the comments, particularly regarding favourite wizards and how skilled storytellers make godlike beings into people, too.

*All etymology information here is as according to www.etymonline.com.  This is not so much a website as a trap for word wonks.  I could surf that sucker for days.


8 comments on “On beyond Gandalf

  1. Froborr says:

    This never clicked for me before, but you are completely right: The Doctor is the classic deus ex machina fantasy wizard as a main character! *mind is blown*

  2. hapax says:

    I have one word for you: Skylark.

    When both your “heroes” and your “villains” have progressed so far into godhood that relative morality ceases to have any meaning, and the only left to do is (rot 13) yrg gur ivyynvaf tb bss naq perngr gurve bja cevingr havirefr ncneg sebz gur urebrf, dramatic tension has pretty much gone out the window.

    Although I’ll admit that the Lensmen books managed to sustain interest even when protagonists got to the level of fznfuvat cynargf gbtrgure yvxr ovyyvneq onyyf — at least until those freaky kids showed up.

  3. Kirala says:

    I have one character who, in one sense, is nigh-limitless magically – there is no limit to what she can do when she can do it. Her restriction is quite literally that she cannot behave except in ways that enhance the plot. In her youth, she managed to produce a strong spell that managed to consistently produce bad luck for her enemies and good luck for her friends, and the effort of achieving that ambiguous spell (how does one get fuzzier than “luck”, anyhow?) bound her magic to behave in accordance with the laws of stories. Maybe I should have just gone full-on Pratchett and called it “narrativium”. She angsts a lot about the inability to help her chosen heroes and heroines because “the deus cannot arrive ex machina until the end of the story”. I’ve wondered if it would even be possible to write a proper story about her from her point of view when one of her essential characteristics is the inability to be the hero of her own story.

  4. wickedday says:

    Swiftly donning the linguist hat, I have to point out that “witch” is etymologically gender-neutral as well. Or rather, Old English/Anglo-Saxon had both wicca (m.) and wicce (f.), near-identical in both meaning and pronunciation. Wicc[a/e] started out as morally-neutral too: wicca was the OE gloss for Latin magus, and you find the Three Kings, the Magi, translated as wiccan (m.pl.) As the centuries wore on witch became both more pejorative in meaning and more consistently feminine, which most likely reinforced one another. Sigh.

    The god-like nature of Gandalf, and all the wizards and quasi-wizards who followed in his footsteps, was I think built in from the start. Grey Wanderer, with his broad-brimmed hat and gnarled staff, is after all one of the manifestations of Odin, and while the Norse gods are not omni/omni/omni the All-Father is pretty damn badass when he wants to be.

    I have more thoughts on this! But I also have to go print and hand in my dissertation. Mayhap I will return anon.

  5. Will Wildman says:

    Yay, etymology!

    I have known some men who identified as witches (although obviously it’s still usually considered female-only) whereas the only female wizard I can think of was in Equal Rites from Discworld. I have on occasion perhaps encountered terms like ‘wizardess’, but echoing Izzy back at the Slacktiverse, I want those people who obsessively slap ‘feminising’ suffixes on gender-neutral terms (‘druidess’) to be devoured by squirrels.

    You are of course encouraged to return anon with more thoughts. In the meantime, additional cheers for the dissertation?

  6. Base Delta Zero says:

    That option is always on the table: when all else fails, he does have the option of forcibly rewriting the whole history of the universe to suit his whims. He doesn’t do this because he fears the consequences, and much the same was implied for Gandalf as well.

    Hmm… this makes a lot of sense for the Doctor… and perhaps it’s not just that he fears the consequences (he knows better than to think he could be trusted with absolute power), but related to the reason he doesn’t use weapons? I mean, the Doctor will kill millions and barely blink, provided it isn’t done with something recognizable as a weapon. Likewise, he has a massive array of Time Lord technology at his disposal, yet he rarely and inconsistently uses it… my guess (I daren’t call it a theory) is that he disdains the idea of using weapons or consistently using his incredibly advanced devices not out of any particular moral objection (although ‘not wanting to cause any more interference than necessary’ is a factor), but because it wouldn’t be interesting. He’s all about the adventure, after all, and sure, he probably could solve most of his problems in five minutes with say, halting the local progression of time, or scanning the entire evil spaceship du-jour with the Tardis’ sensors, or teleporting the volcano alien to a desolate planet, or heck, disabling the guards with his sonic screwdriver’s ‘stun’ setting…
    But then, that would be boring.

  7. Will Wildman says:

    I think on that factor we get into a Watsonian/Doylist question. Obviously the show wouldn’t be interesting if the Doctor solved everything in five minutes via Gallifreyan technology while floating in the library swimming pool, so for the writers, ‘boring’ is definitely a problem. But from the Watsonian perspective, if the Doctor is casually letting people suffer and die around him all the time because doing things the fast and easy way is boring, that would seem to make him rather monstrous. “Voyage of the Damned” makes the counterclaim that if he could decide who lived and who died, that would make him a monster – again it all ends up complicated when godly powers are on the table.

  8. “Voyage of the Damned” makes the counterclaim that if he could decide who lived and who died, that would make him a monster

    So, for some reason, I suddenly flashed back to The Pretender:
    “I decide who lives or dies.”

    Which will mean nothing to anyone unfamiliar with Kyle, brother of Jarod.

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