The wizard has a rich history in legend, harkening back to Odin as the gray-bearded, floppy-hat-and-robe-wearing wise man. Merlin, advisor to king and country (Coghlan 1993), follows Odin. And that leads to Gandalf.
The term wizard appears in 1440, meaning “philosopher.” It is derived from the Middle English “wys” which means wise. Wizards, then, have great wisdom, from which the term “wizened” has its roots. The association of the term wizard with magic was not in evidence until 1550 (Ayto 1990).
Tolkien was unhappy with the appellation of “wizard” to Gandalf but felt it was the closest approximation to his powers (Tracy). In Middle-earth, Gandalf is a member of the Istari, himself a Maiar. The Maiar’s task was to redress the imbalance createdd by the Dark Lord Sauron. The Istari were cloaked in the forms of old men, limited in their powers as a result (Day 2001). Wizards were not something humanity can become – it was a power tied exclusively to the divine. As Tolkien referenced in one of his letters, “… the use of `magic’ in this story is that it is not to be come by `lore’ or spells; but is in an inherent power not possessed by Men as such” (Tracy 1998). He divided magic into magia, which uses power to quickly achieve its ends, and goeteia, used to create illusions and enchantments (Ozment, 2007).
Still, there are special cases of magic used by others, particularly Aragorn, that Tolkien admits could be regarded as magical. This divergence is what allows The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game to create a “Magician Order” that encompasses the powers attributed to other races as magic – elven songs and dwarven runes (Long 2002). Only when they achieve higher levels of power can they become wizards, who are tutored by the original five Istari.
The Middle-earth Roleplaying Game quantifies the use of magic through the divine guidance of the creator, Eru, who emphasizes the balance of all things. Using magic in a way that is not sanctioned is a means of offending Eru’s grace and thereby falling into corruption (Coleman 1993). The computer role-playing game JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I reinforced this same restriction by inflicting damage to the caster’s life points when casting a spell (Barton 2008). These rules conventions contradict the typical wizard of later role-playing games who wantonly blast enemies with fireballs (Ozment 2007).
Where did the archetypical fantasy wizard come from? The Dungeons & Dragons wizard is actually inspired by the wizards of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series. Gygax explained the four cardinal types of magic in literature: those systems which require long conjuration with much paraphernalia as visualized by Shakespeare in Macbeth and Robert E. Howard in Conan, those which require short spoken spells (like Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series), ultra-powerful magic typical of DeCamp and Pratt in the “Harold Shea” stories, and “generally weak and relatively ineffectual magic (as found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work).” Taking into account the need for speed and balance, Gygax chose the most expedient form of spell casting, Vancian magic. (1976).
To Gygax’s way of thinking, the concept of a spell itself being magical, a 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,” said Gygax in an article for ProFantasy. “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.”
In Chainmail, the wizard could turn invisible, see in darkness, improve morale, and was capable of firing two kinds of projectiles: a fire ball that exploded in a radius like a catapult or a lightning bolt that blasted in a straight line like a field gun (Gygax 1978). As portrayed later in Dungeons & Dragons, the wizard offered the “indirect, possibly intellectual approach- a sort of mixture of artillery and superscience.”
In earlier versions of Dungeons & Dragons, the wizard was referred to by the unwieldy term “magic-user.” This phrase was eventually replaced with the title “mage” in the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The 3rd Edition restored the archetypical wizard title. The notion of power from a hereditary source rather than a learned one is evident in the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons with the sorcerer class, who has more flexibility in choosing which spells to cast in exchange for less spells overall (Aeon 2001).
It’s worth mentioning that although the Vancian spell system has become an iconic Dungeons & Dragons trope, psionics (a spell point magic system) were also introduced in the Original Dungeons & Dragons set in Eldritch Wizardry (Gygax and Blume 1976). This spell point system would be revisited by MUDs and CRPGs.
This description is a rough draft from my upcoming book, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games.