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What Is the Magician Archetype?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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The magician archetype is one of many common archetypes found in fantasy fiction, art and films. It is often related to the mentor archetype found in other types of story, but with the added extra of magic. The magician is often known for great wisdom and kindness, but is not always reliable and may form the good guy, the bad guy or the ambiguous one no one trusts. Classic examples of the magician archetype include Gandalf, Pug, Dumbledore and, most of all, Merlin.

An archetype is a preconception of how a certain type of person acts. Carl Jung realized that archetypes are not based on actual human experience of other people, but on simplifications. These simplified characters perform roles that are essential to a human’s understanding of stories and of the world.

Gandalf and Dumbledore are classic examples of the magician-as-mentor archetype. Merlin can be seen as this to the young Arthur as well, but is far more ambiguous. This archetype takes the key protagonist(s) under his wing and nurtures him, protecting him if possible. The protagonist can be a wizard like Harry Potter, but does not have to be. In stories such as King Arthur and “Lord of the Rings,” the magician mentors a series of non-magical characters such as Frodo Baggins and Aragorn.

Saruman is a much tougher cookie to crumble. The magician archetype can also be more ambiguous, if not outright evil. This archetype, also shown by Morgan Le Fey in the Merlin/Arthur stories, demonstrates the corrupting nature of magic. This is also a metaphor for the absolute corruption that power brings.

Merlin is more ambiguous because he serves a higher purpose. This kind of magician archetype looks towards the greater picture. Gandalf does this to a certain extent, but is still essentially in favor of the good guys. Merlin demonstrated no loyalty to Uther when he proved unworthy, and is often absent when Arthur needs him. For the Merlin-style archetype, the higher duty takes over any duty to specific individuals. Such magicians are also more eternal.

Pug is a good example of a major flaw in the magician archetype. He is one of the major characters in Raimond E. Feist’s “Rift War Saga” and associated books. He is also the "Don’t worry, we have a magician who can solve any problem" archetype. Such paratrooper magicians brought in at the last moment to defeat the evil often undermine the threat of the antagonist and provide a less than satisfying conclusion to a story.

Other fantasy stories may define the magician archetype by what the magician does. This means a series of conventions have built up around how a necromancer, who raises and controls the dead, acts in comparison to an illusionist who provides ethereal distractions and images. These roles and abilities often control the magician’s personality, actions and motives.

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Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Feb 20, 2014

@Ana1234 - I think it's difficult to do that well though, because we identify so much with the protagonist in most works of fiction, if their mentor turns out to betray them, we might feel betrayed as well- by the author.

You'd have to walk a really fine line between letting the audience know something isn't right through foreshadowing and making them think that the main character is an idiot for not working it out.

By Ana1234 — On Feb 19, 2014

@browncoat - I quite liked the fact that she tried to flesh him out and make him into a three dimensional character. All too often these characters based around Jungian archetypes seem to just appear from nowhere with fully developed qualities and no background.

I'd love to see this trope turned on its head even more though. If the Gandalf character turned out to be evil or became corrupted, that would really push the protagonist into examining their own life and beliefs.

By browncoat — On Feb 18, 2014

I really hate it when a magician-type is used as an ex deus machina at the end of a story. I think that, as a classic feature of the archetypal mentor/magician, it's better for them to step back, or even be eliminated from the story, so that their protege can save the day.

This was one of the things that J.K. Rowling did well. For most of the books Harry always had Dumbledore to fall back on and in almost every story it was Dumbledore or one of his agents who ultimately saved the day, even if Harry did do a lot of the work.

But the books aren't supposed to be about Dumbledore, even if he is a vital character. The way it turned out, the final book managed to both flesh out his character and include it without taking any agency from Harry in the end.

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