Great wizards (and witches) we have known

by Sarah Bryan Miller

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

19 November 2010


Wizards and witches have long appeared on both the pages of popular fiction and screens large and small. The appeal is obvious: Who hasn’t wanted to be able to simply wave a wand, recite a spell and effect a magical change on some person, object or situation?

Harry Potter and the other denizens of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world repopularized the genre with a clear-cut story of good versus evil and the chemistry of plain old human relationships: Kids will be kids, politics are politics and frequently dirty, and life does not always flow smoothly.

To mark the seventh film in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1” (“Part Two” will be released in the summer), we pay tribute to some of the significant sorcerers who have, in one way or another, enchanted us. Some of them are old-school necromancers who study spells and potions; some are frauds; some are wizards in other ways; and some are None of the Above.

—Merlin the Magician, and his opposite number in the world of the Round Table, King Arthur’s magical half-sister Morgan le Fay: Since Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his “Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain)” in the 1130s, the wizard Merlin and the witchy Morgan have been seen as the supernatural powers behind Arthur’s throne, contending on many levels. Merlin’s legend has had far more staying power than Morgan’s; perhaps the idea of a strong, beautiful enchantress was just too threatening to some people.

—Nicholas Flamel: In the world of Harry Potter and other fantasies (including Michael Scott’s six-book fantasy series “The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel”), he invented the philosopher’s stone, which changes lead into gold. In real life, from the early 1330s to about 1418, he was a scrivener and alchemist, and a devout churchgoer.

—Gandalf and colleagues from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”: These color-coded wizards — Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White and Radagast the Brown — have oversight duties in Middle Earth. Gandalf is (unaccountably, from Saruman’s perspective) fond of hobbits, and he and Saruman both move large chunks of plot, with and without the use of magic. Gandalf, rather like Tolkien himself, enjoys a pint and a pipe, and exhibits a puckish sense of humor.

—Harry Potter, Minerva McGonagall, Severus Snape et al: “The Boy Who Lived” and the characters who shelter him, attack him or befriend him are some of the liveliest and most distinctive ever penned. Lots of mystery surrounds most wizards, but not Harry and the other students at Hogwarts: talent isn’t worth much if you don’t work to develop it. Over the course of seven novels (and, soon, eight movies) Harry comes to grips with his parents’ deaths and their failings, faces down enormous evil and embraces amazing good, while growing up and finding his way in a world that’s unusually fraught.

—The Wizard of Oz: The man behind the curtain has superior technology and great PR, but he’s not magical at all — he’s from Kansas. His enemy, the Wicked Witch of the West, really is magical, but in the end a kid with a bucket of water brings her down.

—The Sorcerer in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: What did we say about doing your homework? First came Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “Der Zauberlehrling,” written in 1797; then came Paul Dukas’ 1987 tone poem “L’apprenti sorcier.” Then, in 1940, came “Fantasia,” with the star power of Mickey Mouse to make the music and story popular around the world. This sorcerer is definitely magical, and definitely scary.

—Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which from Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”: Are they witches or angels or what? No one knows exactly, but they can move across time and space. The ways in which they work and help Meg, her little brother Charles Wallace and Calvin are clearly magical — in a good way.

—Mr. Wizard: Don Herbert, host of the early TV show “Watch Mr. Wizard,” wasn’t a magician, but he performed simple science experiments that looked like wizardry and entertained a generation of American kids. Besides, as science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke postulated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

—“The Wizards of Waverly Place”: The Disney Channel show explores the lives of a wizard family with three children who live not in a remote hinterland but in New York City. In this version of a wizarding world, a magical contest eventually takes place between siblings. Only one will continue to be a wizard as an adult. For that reason, their father — who himself lost out to one of his sibs — tries to impress the same thing on his children that generations of parents have told their liberal arts-major offspring: You have to have a backup plan, because this magic thing may not work out.

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