Classically, the wizard – literally a “wise man”, a philosopher or sage – was a simply a scholar. One who knew things.
On the other hand, to some extent, knowledge really is power. If you’re the only one around who has some crude understanding of snake venom and the properties of herbs, it certainly looks like you have magical powers. If your engineer can topple fortress walls, or bring forth music from a tangle of pipes with no man near, will the tales of his deeds speak of pipes, winches, levers, and springs – or of amazing powers? Which makes a better tale, and which will the listeners want to buy you a few pints of ale to hear?
Thus men who would now be described as engineers, chemists, herbalists, or occultists were often surprised to find that they had developed reputations as magicians – and magicians were feared. They knew things that you did not, and could do things that you could not, through means that you could not detect or counter.
And so we have the Archaic Wizard – a scholar and engineer who knows a lot and is good at putting it all into practice. Any “magic” they practice is going to be based on building things, mixing up herbs and chemicals that have unusual properties, and otherwise exploiting their deep understanding of the natural world.
The next major variant had to wait until the middle ages, when local nobles were taking magic seriously – and wanted elder advisors with mystic wisdom.
Now that wasn’t uncommon; rulers have always wanted their astrologers, readers of entrails, and other diviners to give them information. The trouble was that – what with the mythologization of the “wizards” – the nobles had started expecting their advisors to actually accomplish something tangible with their mystic wisdom. And no, after those old tales had had many centuries to grow, basic herbalism and engineering no longer measured up to their patron’s expectations.
Whether you believed in yourself or were a conscious fraud, that was a problem. Most systems of magic are pretty notable for not actually producing results.
Now, the wonderful thing about ceremonial magic is that it’s effects are often supposed to be subtle – in many cases so subtle that the success or failure of a ritual is impossible to detect or can be accomplished via placebo effects.
Very shortly, all the practicing court “wizards” were ceremonial magicians – and most of them actually were scholars. It made maintaining the image and claiming to be part of a great hidden (which is what “occult” means) tradition a lot easier. Who knows? Many of them may even have believed it themselves.
That gives us the Classical Wizard – a scholar and ritualist who might command modest “psychic” (at least in the terms of most games and how people currently think of “psychics), talents or who might have gained minor inherent abilities through some sort of pact, but who’s primary powers were derived from weird talismans, dangerous summonings, and complex ceremonial magics. Such “Wizards” tended to be reasonably “wise” and rather cautious noncombatants. They acted as advisors and counselors to important folk – and were generally decent and reasonable, since they had few defenses other than goodwill. The powers of a Classical Wizard were generally just too slow or weak to be of much use in an unexpected battle – and they had no time to study combat even if they weren’t yet frail elders.
Classical Wizards also got a reputation for being potentially evil since, in most people’s minds, dabbling in the unknown was insanely reckless at best. Until very recently, original research was not favored.
The Fantasy-Fiction Wizard is a modern creation. In fantasy fiction there was little patience for the slow tinkering of engineers or the subtle manipulations of patient ritualists – not, at least, when the wizards were the heroes or the companions of heroes. To be active companions to solo heroes, rather than advisors to men who sent out armies, a Wizard’s powers had to be fast enough, and simple enough to use, to compete with weapons. Soon enough, spells often required little more then “magical talent” and a whispered phrase – allowing them to function as a plot device or even as hold-out weapons.
Of course, that also meant that they had to be limited in some other fashion, otherwise why would anyone bother to use weapons – which were obvious and could easily be taken away – when they could learn a few mystic phrases to fight with?
So quick-and-easy magic wound up being limited to particular situations, or required extremely special ingredients, or only worked a limited number of times per day, or drained the user in some odd fashion – burning up their life force, or exhausting, or aging, or otherwise penalizing them. Still, that did open up a new option; the Wizard-Artillerist – a “Wizard” who’s magic was powerful and spectacular, but which couldn’t be used very often.
That basically turned the Wizard into another magical monster, like a demon or a dragon – a powerful, but inherently limited, force. Thus Merlin, half-breed son of a demon, became one of the standards for Fantasy-Fiction Wizards – although the creators and tellers of the original tales would probably fail to recognize the modern version entirely.
The Wizard-Artillerist also completes the gutting of the original Archaic Wizard. There might still be some mystical skills mentioned, or perhaps some alchemy or some ancient tomes of lore – but the Fantasy-Fiction and Artillerist Wizards no longer needed to have long decades of intensive study under their belts. All they needed was mystic talent and a willingness to pay whatever price their magic might exact (if any). Now you could have child-wizards, and young and inexperienced (but still powerful) wizards, and wizards who had the time to learn to fight as well (albeit never as well as the dedicated fighters), and dabblers who had the talent, but didn’t really know what they were doing.
Finally, of course, in movies, comic books, and later novels, this trend reaches it’s end with the Warrior Mage – the wizard- as-superhero; characters who, whether by virtue of some innate talent, or through long study, command great and versatile powers with little more then trained force of will. Unfortunately, save for the special effects, the tactics of such “magi” are often indistinguishable from those of more conventional warriors; whether the blasts and shields come from spells, weapons, battle armor, natural divinity, psionics, or raw cosmic power, the parry / thrust / counterstrike routine is quite recognizable.
- Comparative Costs of Wizards and Sorcerers II (ruscumag.wordpress.com)