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Great Wizards: From Merlin to Harry Potter

By Kimberly Trew

Great Wizards: From Merlin to Harry Potter

“Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.” Is this beautiful quote from John F. Kennedy? Gandhi? Mother Theresa? None of the above. Surprisingly enough, it comes from a fictional wizard named Albus Dumbledore, by way of the immensely talented author J.K. Rowling. Dumbledore is one of the most well known fictional wizards of modern times. He serves as the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry during a time in which the unfortunate return of Lord Voldemort spells imminent disaster for the world. Dumbledore’s most famous pupil is another world-renowned wizard, Harry Potter, aka “The Boy Who Lived.”

In Rowling’s famous series, Potter’s lightning-shaped scar serves as a powerful reminder of the damage that can be done when evil wizards such as Voldemort are able to exert their lethal power unchecked – leaving him to discover his role in battling “he who shall not be named.”

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the wildly popular Potter books is Rowling’s depiction of a wizard’s induction and instruction. Traditionally, wizards have been portrayed as old and wise. In the tale of Harry Potter, the reader is guided into a world in which young wizards are fallible and sometimes misguided. Though Harry Potter and his cohorts are clearly gifted and wise beyond their years, they still make mistakes as they learn to cast spells, play wizard sports, and attempt to conquer teen angst. Their world is populated by older wizards who are immensely talented but may or may not be trustworthy – Professor Snape and all the Defense of the Dark Arts teachers. Though the Harry Potter books are extremely imaginative and a “new take” on the genre, Rowling is certainly not the first (or last) writer to chronicle the life and times of wizards.

Rowling’s popular Potter yarns have brought much attention to the wizard realm. Suddenly, wizards were everywhere! Since they are so popular with children, it is not surprising that the Disney show “Wizards of Waverly Place” fared extremely well. In this series, Alex (played by Selena Gomez) and her siblings also coped with completing wizard training while being normal kids. Alex often struggled with not using her magical powers to assist her in normal tasks, and would suffer the strange consequences when she did. It is interesting to note that most of the episodes are educational in some form, sneaking in bits about art and other subjects. Involving the wizarding world creates an exciting environment in which children can learn more readily, and this has not gone unnoticed by those creating entertainment. In fact, the presence of wizards usually encourages both children and adults to become engaged in stories which often contain a moral message of sorts.

Throughout history, wizards have been a staple of folklore in many different cultures. Since they represent a classic story archetype of what Psychiatrist Carl Jung referred to as the collective unconscious, most of us are first exposed to the concept of wizards when we are very young. For decades, entertainment for children has employed the use of a wizard to illustrate life lessons. For instance, during an epic scene in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Mickey Mouse becomes overwhelmed when he violates professional boundaries while working as a sorcerer’s assistant. In The Wizard of Oz, children become familiar with the consequences of blind trust when the “Great and Powerful Oz” is revealed to be a mere man behind a curtain.

Unlike Oz, the classic wizard, Merlin, does not require the use of a curtain. Possibly the most well-known wizard of fiction, Merlin has served as a sort of “stock wizard” for centuries and has appeared throughout many different works of art, films, and books. He first materialized in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae around 1136 and was so well loved that other storytellers quickly expanded upon the story. Merlin became most well known for his role as a wizard/senior advisor in the Arthurian tales. Nowadays, Merlin has become so ingrained in our culture that several current television shows feature the character. In addition, there even exists an asteroid named after Merlin. Discovered in 1980, asteroid 2598 Merlin is described as dark and “carbonaceous.” If it’s anything like its namesake, Merlin the asteroid should be around for a considerable amount of time.

Also in the tradition of Merlin comes Gandalf, who reigns as one of the most well beloved characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Tolkien considered Gandalf both an “Odinic wanderer” (referencing the powerful mythological Norse god) and an angelic being. Throughout the series, he travels in search of the truth, a fatherly figure who shepherds Frodo throughout his journey in some ways. He even comes back from the dead, transitioning from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White.

READ: How JRR Tolkien Came to Create The Lord of the Rings

Another memorable and hilarious wizard is Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. The character of Tim is definitely a pointed joke, which mocks the wizard archetype. His name is shockingly simple for a wizard, he wears a ridiculous horn headdress, a wizardly beard, and speaks authoritatively in a distinct and strange Scottish accent. Tim is able to give King Arthur some important guidance whilst creating random fires and explosions.

Whether they are serious like Albus Dumbledore or comical like Tim the Enchanter, there can be no doubt that wizards have had a huge impact upon our popular culture. It seems that their popularity will only rise in the future, as we seek comfort, wisdom, and a little bit of magic, in a rapidly changing world. They will serve to enlighten and entertain us, in novels, films, and television shows. Does it matter that they’re fictional? According to Dumbledore, it does not. The lessons still apply.

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

KIMBERLY TREW is a writer and actress living in Los Angeles. She stars as Shoshanna in the hit webseries “Self Storage,” has a degree in Theatre from Loyola Marymount University, and was in National Lampoon’s Lost Reality. She speaks French and her favorite person is her grandmother Agnes. Kim is hopeful that an eccentric billionaire will read this blog and make her an “unlikely astronaut” – as long as it only involves pushing buttons and no math. Actually, computational math would be fine, just no algebra or calculus.

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