Most fantasy stories need a wizard, mage, necromancer, bloke down the tavern who can provide the largely asexual wisdom glue that fills in the cracks in the hero’s conscience, not to mention the plot. Both require plenty of space for running around in pointless circles in order to pad out the book’s length and the reader needs to be distracted from the stupidity of this by a grandfatherly figure in a long white beard and large hat that points anywhere but in the direction of the bleedin’ obvious.
The last thing a writer needs is a character who can think for himself. If that was the case, Frodo might have come up with the idea that the eagles could have flown him and the ring to Mount Doom, not just from it, and thereby save himself a whole load of tramping through bogs and putting up with Sam going on about how what we need is a few good taters. (Incidentally, there are some wonderfully inventive explanations for why the eagles didn’t operate return flights on the internet, a phenomenon that I’ll cover in a later chapter called, ‘Always Let Your Fans Explain Away Your Plot Faults’.) But Gandalf is the wise direction-pointer and if he doesn’t mention the eagles then they simply aren’t an option.
But you have to be careful not to make your mage too clever. If you do that then you’re in danger of him pointing out the boneheaded stupidity required by your main characters in order to keep the story moving along (very, very slowly).
Hence, Gandalf needs to say: ‘Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.’
This sounds good, if not somewhat patronising, but when you look a little closer it’s actually damning hobbits with faint praise – the perfect kind of wisdom you need from your head mage because this is what will prevent the reader from thinking ‘WTF!’ when tiny, non-violent creatures with absolutely no military training are sent to fight against vicious creatures built solely to kill. ‘You can learn all there is know about their ways in a month’ – is not saying much for their intelligence and spirit of innovation (then again, such would be disastrous on most fantasy quests). And the next phrase is a perfect insult dressed as compliment: they can still surprise you (but probably won’t); however, you’ll have to wait a hundred years to find out.
What you don’t want Gandalf to say is what Carl Jung once said: ‘The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed. It is just these intense conflicts and their conflagration which are needed to produce valuable and lasting results.’ Apart from this making the reader think, which as said is the last thing you want to do, it also pretty much nails the fact that because the hobbit life is such a cosy one, without any intense conflict, there is absolutely nothing valuable or useful about their culture. Which not only blows out the notion that they should be carrying the weight of the quest to save the free world in the first place, it also raises the intelligence of the writer-mage-reader fulcrum and that means the writer is going to have to spend the next 3,000 pages actually thinking about his story, rather than letting it run around on its own for a while before the eagles save the day.
In other words, the mage must not have more intelligence than the reader, because the reader of course secretly thinks he is the mage, or at least can understand and direct the characters just as well as Gandalf can.
In this respect, here are some ideal sayings by fictional mages:
Dumbledore: ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live’. This sounds very profound, as long as you don’t look too closely; if you do you might notice that – as with most fantasy wisdoms – you can reverse it and it still sounds good: ‘It does not do to live and never dwell on dreams.’
Another from Dumbledore: ‘Time is making fools of us again.’ This can be reversed thusly (a word by the way that is seldom heard outside fantasy novels): ‘A fool is he who doth not take account of what time is making him to be.’
Or Yoda: ‘Already know you that which you need’ (yes, I know Yoda is technically a Science Fiction not a Fantasy mage but he appeals to the same audience) sounds just as deep as: ‘Need you that which you already you know.’ Which of course is not very.
Yoda again: ‘Always pass on what you have learned.’ Or: ‘Learn you must what you have always passed on.’
These are actually pretty similar to:
Del Trotter: ‘He who dares Rodney, he who dares.’
Dick Dastardly: ‘I’ll win this race fair and square, even if I have to cheat to do it!’
And really they serve the same purpose. Del, like Gandalf, is directing the reader’s attention away from his latest stupid idea and Dick Dastardly is giving us a laugh by actually stating the bleedin’ obvious.
Just as the point to David Beckham is not football, so the wisdom of the mage is nothing to do with intelligence. The point of the mage is to justify the enormous length of your fantasy novel by implying that there’s more going on in the story than the reader can ever dream of. In fact, your story can probably be summed up in a sentence (and might well be better off as one): good guy has something the bad guy wants and must destroy it to save the world. Or, the bad guy has something he will destroy the world with and the good guy must get it off him before it’s too late.
I’ll finish with a quote by someone who would have made the perfect mage in Game of Thrones – Alan Partridge: ‘Let me tell you something about the Titanic, people forget, people forget that on the Titanic’s maiden voyage there were over 1000 miles of uneventful, very pleasurable cruising before it hit the iceberg!’