How Dungeons & Dragons Shaped Our Modern Idea Of Wizards

Before Harry Potter, There Was Gary Gygax

What does the word “wizard” mean to you? For many, it conjures an image of a wand-wielding, cloak-wearing boy with glasses on a mission to defeat the greatest evil known to his kind. But wizards weren’t always humans with special abilities sent to a school to learn magic. Throughout much of history, they were actually gods or demons who came to Earth to either help or wreak havoc on humanity. So, what changed? How did we get from Circe and Odin to Gandalf and Dumbledore? The answer is surely an unexpected one: Dungeons & Dragons.

When Dungeons & Dragons was first introduced in 1974, it featured a host of creatures fantasy fans were likely already familiar with. The original game included hobbits, orcs, and ents. D&D creator Gary Gygax used Tolkien’s creatures intentionally, hoping the familiar names would draw Lord of the Rings fans to his game - and it worked. But once players started getting involved in Gygax’s world, it became increasingly apparent that Tolkien’s influence began and ended with the familiar names. 

If Tolkien wasn’t the inspiration for wizards in Dungeons & Dragons, who - or what - was? To learn how our modern idea of the wizard came to be, we’ll need to go all the way back to the ancient world.

When Wizards Were Gods

The word “wizard” didn’t exist until the 15th century. Before that time, gods (and the priests who served them) were primarily considered the source of magic. In most mythology, the deities associated with magic - like Circe and Medea - have their powers because they are divine, though they use potions and spells to do their bidding, too. So if magic was reserved for gods, how did it become something that could be learned? Article Image

While the link between magic and knowledge was evident throughout the ancient world - specifically with the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek god Apollo - it’s actually the Norse god Odin who most closely resembles our modern idea of wizards. 

One tale claims Odin “hung himself on a tree for several days to gain knowledge of the mystical runes,” which gives us one of the earliest instances of a person actively working to learn magical abilities - even though the "person," in this case, is already a god. Even more influential than Odin’s pursuit of knowledge is the disguise he chose to travel the world: an old man wearing a cloak and large hat. Sound familiar? 

Merlin And Magic In The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, people regarded magic as a work of evil that went against their Christian values. That said, Merlin, arguably the most influential wizard in pop culture, was a supernatural being with prophetic abilities. The writers who shaped the myth of Merlin had to somehow reconcile the wizard’s origins with the Christian values of the time. Article Image

According to one researcher, the original iteration of Merlin received the gift of “exceptional knowledge” from his supernatural father and therefore, “bases his scientific principles on intellect, using his knowledge of the world rather than rituals with baseless principles.” Throughout most of the medieval era, stories featuring Merlin find some way to excuse his affiliation with the devil and position him as a center of morality and truth. 

Merlin’s abilities were bestowed upon him as part of his other-worldly heritage. He did not have to learn spells or brew potions; those tasks were reserved for the special humans we would eventually associate with the word wizard.

Tolkien And The Angelic Sorcerer

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series introduced an entirely new type of wizard. While Merlin-esque figures reigned supreme, Tolkein’s istari were essentially angels, or a the very least, immortal puppet masters sent to influence the people of Middle-Earth. However, Gandalf and his counterparts are also far more human than Merlin. 

Tolkien's Unfinished Tales examines the Lord of the Rings wizards in great detail and reveals they’re essentially angels in human bodies. While their other-worldly origins offer them some protection, their human bodies are subject to humanity’s faults - which is why Saruman is swayed by the allure of absolute power. 

Rather than solve every problem with magic, Gandalf spends his time studying the Ring and passes on his knowledge to the people of Middle-Earth. Thus, he becomes a teacher for the people of Middle-Earth, helping them face evil with their own means. This emphasis on knowledge as magic rather than power sets the stage for the wand-wielders of today.

Dungeons & Dragons & The Dying Earth

As much as figures like Odin, Merlin, and Gandalf influenced the magic users of D&D's earliest incarnation, Gygax gives the most credit to author Jack Vance and his Dying Earth series. In a 2001 article for ProfantasyGygax writes, "Need I say that I am not merely a Jack Vance fan, but that he is in my opinion the very best of all the authors of imaginative fiction? Well I am, and he is!"

In The Dying Earth, magic is a limited resource, and spells must be prepared in advance and unleashed almost like bombs of supernatural power. The magic system in this world will be instantly familiar to any D&D player: spells serve distinct purposes and sport descriptive names like “the Excellent Prismatic Spray” and “Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth”; there are a finite number of spells that can be prepared at any one time; and a spell is eliminated from a magician's repertoire once it is used. This concept of magic is so unique to Jack Vance that similar systems are still referred to as "Vancian Magic" by fantasy fans.Article Image

Gygax saw Vancian Magic as the perfect way to game-ify wizards. As he explains in Profantasy:

To my way of thinking, the concept of a spell itself being magical, that its written form carried energy, seemed a perfect way to balance the mage against other types of characters in the game. The memorization of the spell required time and concentration so as to impart not merely the written content but also its magical energies. When subsequently cast - by speaking or some other means - the words or gestures, or whatever triggered the magical force of the spell, leaving a blank place in the brain where the previously memorized spell had been held.

When Dungeons & Dragons was released in 1974, wizards were not gods, angels, or innately supernatural. Instead, they were students who studied extensively to perfect their craft. Whereas, historically, the ability to use magic was reserved for people of divine origin, Dungeons & Dragons changed the game by making magic accesible to humans willing to learn it. 

In the decades since, the immense popularity of the roleplaying game - along with that of Harry Potter - has permeated pop culture to the point that it’s hard to imagine wizards as anything other than humans learning spells.