Old, male and wise

Archetype: Gandalf (played by Ian McKellen) from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books fits the Jungian archetype of the wise old man

Archetype: Gandalf (played by Ian McKellen) from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books fits the Jungian archetype of the wise old man

Collateral to beauty: Emma Watson, playing Hermione Granger in the film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Granger grows up in the film to become very attractive, a shift from her previous identity as the school nerd.

Collateral to beauty: Emma Watson, playing Hermione Granger in the film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Granger grows up in the film to become very attractive, a shift from her previous identity as the school nerd.   -  Reuters

From the desexualised old man to a younger, desirable dandy, what does the changing figure of the male wizard say about the fantasy genre?

It is one of the oldest tenets of myth, and its bastard child fantasy, that what was once old becomes new again, and vice versa. Summer might sweep through the world, even linger on in some corners, but inevitably, winter will come. Conversely, when the winter king dies, he brings summer back to the world, and so the cycle goes on, the wheel of time never broken.

In that spirit, it is perhaps no wonder that a hoary, old figure, venerable and bearded, is no longer thought of exclusively in those terms. I’m speaking, of course, of the wizard.

Fantasy fiction has long romanced the wizard, and is probably especially indebted in this regard to the magician Merlin, who played such a formative role in the life of the genre’s (arguably) most famous king, Arthur Pendragon. Arthur’s guide and teacher, Merlin fused the mystical elements of Druidism with the Judeao-Christian mores that seeped into England, preparing the young squire for his kingly responsibilities by not only protecting him from potential enemies, but also imparting lessons of right and wrong; functioning as a guide rather than passing on the abilities that made him the most celebrated magician in the land. After all, witchcraft and wizardry were frowned upon by the Christian fathers; it wouldn’t do to have the land’s most revered king be a practitioner of those arts. Better they stay locked away with the bearded, venerable Merlin, safely past the threshold of virile manhood, not a figure to inspire passion in the hearts of men or women.

It is this understanding of Merlin, an asexual, revered mentor figure, that filters through in the portrayal of many wizards in the fantasy genre. No one in Tolkien’s Middle Earth is particularly sexually inclined, and the romance is largely of the tragic, ethereal variety (sort of a given when you have Elves as your main players), but even so, it is hard to think of Gandalf the Grey as anything but a wise old man. Indeed, Tolkien underlines his unattainability by clarifying, in his Appendices, that Gandalf is not human, or even Elven, but one of the Istari, spirits sent to guide the affairs of Middle Earth’s residents. A little hard to picture a literal angel as a figure of great desirability — maybe even a little sacrilegious to do so.

Gandalf and Merlin fit the archetype of the wise old man, one of the many identified by Carl Jung in his study of myths and dreams. This figure, also called the senex or sophos (which literally means ‘wisdom’), often appeared to knights or warrior figures, and explained to them the importance of (or meaning behind) the encounters they faced on their own quests. Jung pointed out the sophos’ appearance, in medieval and chivalric romances, as a wizard, a man who combines practical wisdom with the mysteries of the mystical — it’s not hard to see Gandalf in the same light, his tongue-in-cheek manner and fireworks sitting comfortably on top of the layers of power he can summon when the need arises.

Things change slightly when we come to Rowling. The Potterverse is remarkable for a number of reasons, and one of those is the manner in which the books grow to accommodate the increasing age of their target readers. Albus Dumbledore, who best fits the picture of the wise old man in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, with his long white beard and half-moon spectacles, is, by the end of the series, revealed to be a severely flawed figure, though Harry continues to view him as a mentor right through to the bitter end. Dumbledore seldom speaks plainly, preferring to cloak truth with humour and enigmatic statements as long as he can. Much like Gandalf, Dumbledore’s role is to point the hero, in this case, Harry, along the right path, without explicitly making the call on what’s right — that’s left to Harry.

But the thing about the Harry Potter books is, Dumbledore is far from the only wizard around. The hero himself, the young knight, is someone who is being trained in magic, and so are all his friends and enemies. Magic, the ‘mystical’ element of the wizard figure, is no longer restricted only to a few in the space of the novels, and as a result, the definition of what makes a wizard broadens: from the old, asexual mentor to literally just about any man you can visualise. Even the ‘knobbly-kneed’ Harry can blossom from an unsure orphan to a Quidditch star, as close to the conventional jock as you can probably get in Hogwarts. And with film deals and an older reader base comes a new outlook on the wizard: as a sex symbol.

This is not a new phenomenon for the witch, a figure who has always been enmeshed with female sexuality. Portrayed as a warty hag, or a succubus who uses her feminine wiles to ensnare men, or pawn herself to the Devil in exchange for powers, the female magic worker’s identity has long been inextricable from her perceived desirability, or lack thereof. While a wizard’s archetypal position relies on a cleaving from something so base as bodily functions and physicality, the witch is her body — it is the site of, and the reason for, her powers. A wizard’s, on the other hand, are a product of the mind, or something larger than humanity can conceive of.

But this is changing. Perhaps it’s because the knight himself, the symbol of the masculine ideal, is now a wizard-in-training in so many stories, Harry Potter being just one example. The wizard is now embodied, described, his desires laid out. A reader, or a film viewer, might ride along on his coattails if he’s Newt Scamander in the recent Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, or learn the intricacies of spell-casting and surrender with him, if he’s Cumberbatch’s Dr Strange. These are men who not only wield the powers magical, they are also human in ways that Gandalf and Merlin simply weren’t. Strange, a smart-talking, talented neurosurgeon, has obvious chemistry with his fellow doctor, Christine Palmer, and Harry dates not one but two girls in the course of his school career. Presented with these facts, you can’t help but see the wizard as not only a magic worker, but also as a man.

Perhaps this is the result of increased openness in discussions about sexuality. It’s impossible to conceive of Tolkien writing about desire, for instance — a mere seventy years have wrought a revolution in the genre he helped to establish, with explicit sex and gore becoming a staple of many fantasy books, most famously Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps it’s the result of the genre becoming mainstream, the turn toward Hollywood adaptations that demand a piece of eye candy alongside spectacular displays of power and action. Perhaps it’s the result of magic itself being no longer thought of by quite so many people (in the Western media’s mainstream audience) as something religious or mystical, but a more secular power which doesn’t carry with it connotations of being God-granted, or divinely inspired. While magic is still something that has to be worked towards, and often comes at great cost (as in Marvel’s Dr Strange), it can be accessed by those who choose to take that path, and that person can as easily be a Celtic woman, like the Ancient One, scrubbed clean of hair and all obvious indications of femininity, as it can be Stephen Strange, in all his Cumberbatchian glory.

It must also be noted though that while these men are now younger and more attractive, their sex appeal is still quite sanitised. Because the wizards discussed — Harry Potter, Strange, Newt Scamander — belong to franchises that are meant to be ‘kid friendly’, rarely even rising to the PG-13 rating, their attractiveness, while evident, is not made central to their narratives. Nor do we actually see them consummate the sexual tension that might be part of their equation with other characters. It’s easy to explain this in Harry’s case: he’s still a school kid in the Potter books. But Dr Strange is notable: here’s a man who must be in his late thirties/early forties, who has had a physical relationship with his colleague, but when sexual tension ratchets up to the roof, she merely kisses him on the cheek and leaves, choosing not to get too involved in his new life. Unlike the witch’s, even the new wizard’s power is not contingent to his sexuality. The latter may be a bonus, but it is just that — a shiny, pretty surface, and not something that is integral to him as a character. His powers have literally no bearing on it, or vice versa.

The movement to Hot Wizard has been an important one for fantasy films and books, but remains limited. We see very few wizards of colour being given the same treatment, which may have more to do with the limited number of such figures in pop culture than any lack of attractive actors. And unlike the wizard, a witch’s physical beauty still seems central to her portrayal. Just think of that moment when Hermione showed up for the Yule Ball, or the way Bellatrix Lestrange’s devotion to Voldemort is characterised as that of a ‘lover.’ Melisandre of Game of Thrones relies on seduction as much as she relies on the fires of her Lord of Light to see her mission through, while the Night’s King, the only comparable male ‘magic worker’ in the show, has a much more sterile approach to getting his work done. The wizard may come in prettier, shinier forms now, they do not limit or stereotype him the way beauty does a witch. Strange might be handsome, but he is a world-saving hero first and foremost; Harry may have turned ‘fanciable’, but it’s his mission that defines him in most people’s eyes. For all its wish fulfilment potential, and physics-defying powers, the fantasy genre is depressingly close to reality in many, many ways.

Achala Upendran is a writer and editor based in Hyderabad

Published on January 13, 2017

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