With the exception of King Arthur himself, Merlin is the most famous character from Arthurian folklore. He defines the wizard archetype so perfectly that whenever an English story references some wizard, it’s usually Merlin, even if otherwise King Arthur doesn’t make an appearance. He’s part of the backstory in everything from children’s fantasy such as Harry Potter and The Talking Parcel to superhero tales such as Black Knight and The Demon. Like King Arthur, Merlin’s name is so well-known and so linked to an archetype that people often don’t realize how little they know about the character. They just think “yeah, Merlin – he’s an important wizard. I know what wizards are like – big white beard, staff, pointed hat, and either a traveler’s cloak or a robe full of stars. He can do all sorts of crazy magic and is a benevolent mentor to heroes.” However, Merlin’s origins are a lot more complex. Appropriately for a shapeshifter, Merlin’s story has taken on many forms.
Like many legendary figures, King Arthur originally existed in a largely oral tradition. It was the 12th century that gave us the first cohesive biography of Arthur, with his prominent appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. This book was also the first appearance of Merlin. His mother was a virgin princess and his father some sort of spirit (a demon or a fairy – it’s not proven which), which has granted him the gift of prophecy. As a boy, Merlin reveals to the British tyrant Vortigern that his tower keeps falling because underneath it a red dragon battles a white dragon, which predicts how Vortigern will be defeated by Ambrosius, whose throne Vortigern has usurped. After Vortigern’s defeat, Merlin becomes the advisor of King Ambrosius. Later Merlin transports Stonehenge from Ireland to Britain to serve as a memorial for the British slain by Saxon treachery, prophecies Ambrosius’ death and the coming of King Arthur, and finally disguises Ambrosius’ brother Uther Pendragon as Gorlois in order to sleep with Gorlois’ wife Igraine and produce Arthur.
In many ways, this Merlin is similar to the later one of more familiar stories. He is already performing many of his most memorable feats, such as moving Stonehenge and transforming Uther. He prophecies King Arthur. He is half-human. However, this Merlin never meets Arthur directly and he isn’t really a wizard. Merlin’s only explicitly supernatural ability is prophecy, and he transports Stonehenge through vaguely defined “machinery” and uses “medicine” to change Uther’s appearance. You’re supposed to view him as scholar and scientist rather than a magic-user – a startling notion to appear in a medieval text.
Later authors would turn Merlin into a full-blown wizard as well as have him stick around long enough to guide King Arthur in his early years. Not only would he transport Stonehenge and transform Uther through magic, but he would also perform numerous other supernatural feats – many of them involving changing his own form or others. These authors also made Merlin a more morally ambiguous figure – presumably because they felt any wizard (even one whose ultimate goal was good) could not be entirely virtuous. He’s still on the right side, King Arthur’s side, but behaves horribly when not on his mission. This Merlin loves to toy with people, refusing to explain himself and only telling people what he needs to in order to get them to do what he wants. He chuckles when he gazes at people’s future and sees they’ll die an ironic death. He sexually harasses his apprentice Nimue until she entombs him in a tree. This is the Merlin of the Arthurian romances, and especially Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – the most famous Arthurian text.
The character of Merlin gets transformed again in modern stories, such as T. H. White’s novel The Once and Future King and John Boorman’s movie Excalibur. These authors smooth out a lot of the rough elements of Arthurian heroes, such as King Arthur’s vengeful pride, Lancelot’s berserker rage, and Merlin’s disquieting nature, making them unequivocally heroic. Now Merlin is an entirely benevolent wizard, King Arthur’s kindly mentor, and surrogate father figure. In the Sword in the Stone installment of Once and Future King, Merlin is even Arthur’s tutor, transforming him into various animals to teach him about life. This is the Merlin most modern people think of – friendly bearded guy giving useful advice and casting some fancy spells. This is the Merlin that inspires Gandalf.
Sometimes earlier versions of the character still make appearances. Mary Stewart’s series of Arthurian historical fiction leans into Merlin being a prophet and scientist instead of a wizard, and the first book (The Crystal Caves) closely adapts Merlin’s appearances in History of the Kings of Britain. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court features Merlin as a manipulative charlatan and Phyllis Ann Karr’s Idylls of the Queen has him as a fanatical lunatic.
Perhaps the most complex exploration of these different versions of the character is Merlyn in Marvel Comics’ Captain Britain and Excalibur – when he first appears to give Captain Britain his power, Merlyn (or “Merlin”) appears as the benevolent father figure of Once and Future King to Brian “Captain Britain” Braddock, but later this proves to be a façade as the true Merlyn is a far more amoral manipulator, like the Merlin of Malory and the Romances. It’s implied he went all T. H. White because that surrogate father-figure and tutor is who Brian would most respond to, fulfilling a hole in the lonely boy’s life and appealing to his childhood fantasies of being a knight and belonging to something greater than himself. A Malory Merlin pretending to be a White Merlin to manipulate someone into doing what he wants is very on-brand. Later, the character seems to be invoking the original Geoffrey of Monmouth scientist Merlin as a lot of the character’s “magic” is revealed to be alien science – he’s even linked with the Doctor, the hero from the British science fiction show Dr. Who. It’s hard to know how much of this is intentional, especially because figures such as Geoffrey of Monmouth are rarely read these days except by medieval scholars. However, it is intriguing that these Marvel comics do seem to be engaging with all versions of Merlin, whether accidentally or on purpose.
Many King Arthur characters are vastly different from themselves in different interpretations – Queen Guinevere in particular has a talent for appearing as a virtuous hero or a sinister villain or anything in between, depending upon the needs of a particular story. But I’m especially fascinated by how different these versions of Merlin are. If the Merlins of Geoffrey, Malory, and White all hung out together, they probably wouldn’t like each other very much.
One of the reasons I love the stories of King Arthur is that they’re so mutable, able to be changed into whatever purpose they’re needed. It’s fitting that one of the changeable parts is the nature of Merlin, the shapeshifting wizard who is most famous for helping Uther Pendragon take on a different form.
I’ve been spending a lot of my time trying to figure out what to call the sort of stuff I like to write — stories set in the modern world that use the supernatural as symbols to explore the psychological and emotional states of the protagonists. Though many of the stories are dark and some cross over into horror, I wouldn’t say that “horror” is a good umbrella term for this style in general. “Urban fantasy” is usually the term given to fantasy stories set in the modern world, and I find it’s a little too general for my taste. It tells nothing of the ambiance of the story, which matters more to me than the story’s physical trappings. The type of fantasy I’m going for are the deeper realities, the common ground of the stories of Algernon Blackwood and Jorge Luis Borges, and the comics of David B and Junji Ito. I needed to find some term that encapsulates works such as these and demonstrates how I feel about my own writing.
One may ask why it is so important to define what kind of thing you’re writing. Shouldn’t you just write what matters to you without thinking about how to classify it? Isn’t it limiting to give it a label? There’s certainly validity in that stance. However, I became especially intrigued about how to classify what I like to write when I decided to enter the UBC program because I realized that if I get a better sense of what, then that can help me figure out why, and if I can understand why I write, then that can help me in directing my work going forward.
I realized that for me it’s less important whether a story has anything literally magical than that it feels like magic. In exploring these psychological states, I want to produce a sublime sense of awe in the reader, what it would feel like to touch some deeper reality, some unnatural, sublime presence beyond their kin. I got a far truer taste of this kind of “fantasy” in Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel Sword at Sunset, whose protagonists feel like pawns of fate playing out some mythic tale, than in Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles, a story of wizards & dragons far more prosaically told. I then realized that there is an obvious word to describe this experience of an unnatural presence beyond our comprehension — “occult.”
The word “occult” comes from the Latin “occultus,” which means “hidden, concealed, secret.” In English, it can be used to mean something generally hidden or mysterious (“occult matters such as nuclear physics”) or more commonly used to mean something related to the supernatural, often with somewhat sinister overtones (“he joined an occult secret society dedicated to demon summoning”). This linguistic linking of “secret” and “supernatural” intrigued me, and I realized that it was able to really define what sort of stories are fascinating to me. Stories about the uncovering of spiritual secrets, the moments when someone discovers something profound that forces them to reevaluate their relationship to the universe, for good or ill. It’s the vision of Heaven or Hell that alters someone’s relationship to God, the ghost that forces them to confront their mortality, the magic spell that causes their reality to warp. It’s about feeling like you’ve reached the edge of your conventional view of things, and your next step will take you beyond the fields you know. It’s about that sublime uncertainty more than about any actual specific fantasy images. That sublimity is what fascinates me.
Such a story doesn’t need to have the literal supernatural. The brilliant movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind is incredibly occult in my definition of the term, as it’s all about how the coming of aliens transforms everyone’s views of reality and forces them to confront the wider universe. Robertson Davies’ psychoanalytical novels such as The Manticore are also occult as their explorations into Jungian symbolism force the characters to uncover the secrets of their psyches, which transform their relationship to the universe and themselves. They’re both about the feeling of touching some great truth, one so transformative that it almost feels supernatural. Now, most of my own occult stories are explicitly supernatural, but I’d like to think that they have more in common with Close Encounters of the Third Kind or The Manticore than they do with Harry Potter. I certainly want to capture that numinous feeling. I want my readers to feel like they’re peeling off a level of reality and encountering something hidden and profound underneath.
In short, “occult fiction” is what I like to write.
I can’t believe it’s Christmas, 2021. So much has happened this year. I can’t believe it’s been more than a year since my last blog post. All right, I can believe the last part. It’s been a hell of a year. I’ve been busy doing all sorts of things. There are certain years in one’s life that are transformative. Almost alchemical. You know as you’re passing through them that they are shaping you, and you’ll be very different when you come out the other side. “Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed….”
What is different? Well, I’m further in my Creative Writing MFA at UBC. I only have one semester of classes left, though my thesis is certainly going to take longer. The classes have been intriguing. A fiction class that has helped crystallize the parts of my writing that need more work, a graphic novel class that has inspired me to try creating a collage comic strip entirely myself instead of relying on someone else to draw it, a teaching creative writing class that has shown me how I can be a better teacher, and a writing for children class that has shown me that the Welsh King Arthur story I want to write would work very well as a YA book.
In addition, I got married to the love of my life, published my anthology on mental health with Cloudscape Comics, and have continued to teach at Langara (and been developing my teaching techniques there). Also the stress of work, school, and the global pandemic have forced me to lose myself in new interests. I’ve gotten very engaged in the various elaborate and creative fashion choices of haute couture (especially the mythology-inspired stuff of Thierry Mugler and Guo Pei), and I’ve finally got involved in social media.
It’s a weird moment to basically sit up and say “Are you telling me that there are people on the Internet interested in talking about 1980s role-playing games, 1990s Marvel trading cards, 1930s horror movies, and general factoids of superhero comics and mythology?” Of course intellectually I knew that to be true, though it took this year to emotionally realize it. I’m actually retweeting people, engaging in twitter discussions, following podcasts (especially the erudite yet hilarious Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, Oh Wow! podcast for the Excalibur comic), that sort of thing. In particular, I’ve gotten engaged in the network of folklore-related hashtags (#MythologyMonday, #FairyTaleTuesday, #WyrdWednesday, #FolkloreThursday, #FaustianFriday, etc.), in which every week on the day of the relevant hashtag, you post factoids relevant to their current theme. It’s bizarre how marvelous it has felt to post folklore factoids and read what others have posted – quick consumption of obscure mythic facts is certainly my biggest addiction. It’s such a soothing experience to be in communication with so many people deeply nostalgic about the same things I am. It seems like a weird thing to fixate on, but considering how important nostalgia and pop culture factoids are in my life — there it is. The world is a frightening and chaotic place.
I am expanding my interests to new areas, perfecting my writing prowess, and moving forward with my life. Right now I’m still overwhelmed with MFA-related stuff, so I’m certainly not relaxed. But it is nice to know that through all this I am becoming a more engaged person. I am building a community of associates, getting more involved in more interests, and of course soon I’ll have a nice MFA degree to be proud of. I am being changed, and it is nice.
So it’s the beginning of December, the dying of the old year, and I’ve been enjoying the lovely experience of experiencing my first semester in UBC’s Creative Writing MFA program while also editing Through the Labyrinths of the Mind, Cloudscape Comics’ anthology on mental health issues. It has been marvelous to organize an anthology of comic book stories all centered around mental health, a subject I care about so strongly about. It’s been marvelous to see the variety of stories born from it – memoirs, fantasies, dramas, adaptations of myths. But perhaps most marvelous is knowing the variety of experiences that went into these pieces. Whether directly or through a veil of fiction, the artists have used this as a venue to explore their own experiences with depression, anxiety, dementia, PTSD, ADD, and numerous other issues. I’m proud to have organized this, given voice to issues that are often not discussed.
Still, Through the Labyrinths of the Mind is a project I’d hoped to have been basically done by the time UBC started. Sadly, best laid plans of mice and so forth. These things always take far longer than expected. So here I am, juggling the incredibly stressful experience of analyzing artists’ work for an anthology with the incredibly stressful experience of embarking on a new academic study. All in the middle of dealing with the incredibly stressful experience of a global pandemic. Fun.
My brain is not wired for multitasking; it requires a lot of effort to quickly reorient myself from one task to another. However, the process of working on both anthology and university together has some interesting elements. It’s interesting to be involved in a creative project in which I’m the boss while at the same time doing various creative projects in which I’m the student, being an authority figure at the same time as being someone who’s definitely not. It’s also interesting to be working on various scholarship applications in which I pitch my thesis project and its exploration of mental health, while at the same time already working on an ambitious mental health project. Feels nice to say on the applications that mental health isn’t just something I have written about or will write about, but is in fact something I’m writing about right now, at this very instant. I’m in the thick of it.
Perhaps that’s really the big thing about the last few few months – I’m in the thick of it. In the thick of all these different projects, both in and out of UBC. I’ve been doing things that really matter to me, building myself in various ways as an author, an editor, and a teacher of writing. Labyrinths is getting done; it will get done. And because I’ve embarked on my journey with Labyrinths, I’ve been able to use it to open up some doors in other places.
I feel that to have an effective
criminally insane villain, certain things are necessary:
The writer should have a clear
idea of the character’s mental issue, how their perceptions and
thoughts are abnormal (more so than simply “they are chaotic”).
These mental issues make the
person not responsible for their actions as they are perceiving the
universe too differently.
There’s a tension in the story
because of the character’s unreliability. It is hard to deal with
this character because the villain’s perspective is so displaced
from what’s real. If he has henchmen, then there probably should be
a moment where the henchmen are uncertain how to interpret their
boss’ commands (unless the henchmen have bought into the issue).
The hero’s confrontation with the
villain must have internal tension, a sense of “how do I deal with
this person?” The villain is ultimately not responsible, but still
must be stopped. The story must feel a sadness that such a violent
response against the villain is necessary.
Whatever the villain’s final fate,
there must be a sense of tragedy. If the villain cannot be cured,
then there must be sympathy for the villain, that he or she is
basically a prisoner in their own head.
For many people (myself included),
Batman the Animated Series from
the 1990s is considered one of the greatest takes on the character, a
revolutionary cartoon that reinterpreted previously lame villains
(such as Mr. Freeze and Mad Hatter) and added several compelling new
characters (such as Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya). It did, sadly,
carry on many issues from the comics, including numerous characters
classified as being insane when they had no right to be, Arkham
Asylum as almost more of a prison than a hospital, etc. But that
said, it did feature a few characters who were legitimately
criminally insane, and they were some of the most compelling
He was created in the late 80s, and has the interesting distinction
of being the most intriguing Batman villain created when I was alive.
Arnold Wesker is a shy withdrawn man who has repressed all his anger,
frustration, and aggression. An accomplished ventriloquist, he
expresses his negative thoughts through a dummy named Scarface, who
Wesker is convinced is a totally different person. Scarface becomes a
ruthless gangster who treats Wesker as his pathetic valet, constantly
denigrating him in public, and Wesker believes that they are two
entirely different people.
He’s got a clear mental issue – dissociative personality disorder
brought on by repressed anger, and he clearly his consciousness is
not responsible for his actions. As far as his consciousness is
concerned, the Ventriloquist is an innocent man held hostage by a
villain, and whenever anyone confronts him, he sincerely announces
that (“It wasn’t me! It was Scarface! He’s the one you want!”).
After being persecuted by Scarface, Catwoman attacks the
Ventriloquist and is about to claw his face, and when the
Ventriloquist begs for his life, our sympathy is with him – he
think he’s innocent. There is also a perfect moment of unreliability
in his first appearance on the cartoon, where Batman convinces
Scarface that Ventriloquist has betrayed him, and Scarface demands
that his goons execute the Ventriloquist. The goons, of course,
hesitate, as they know that killing him would also kill their boss,
and Scarface is enraged at this “betrayal.”
Perhaps most tellingly, the doll Scarface is destroyed in the climax,
and then we see Ventriloquist at Arkham Asylum some time later. The
doctors are happy that he seems to be making a full recovery. But
then we see he is secretly making a new Scarface doll. Usually when
there is a scene at the end of a Batman episode that shows the
villain will return, the emotion is menace – the villain will
escape and cause suffering. But here the emotion is tragedy – not
that the Ventriloquist will hurt someone (though he likely will do
that too) but that he is not free of his mental issues.
One of the most peculiar of Batman villains – Maxie Zeus thinks
that he is the Greek god Zeus and he fits everything into this
delusion (such as thinking of Batman as Hades). Probably no villain
is as disconnected from reality. He is often ignored in the comics or
treated as a joke because his delusion is so ludicrous – but that’s
what makes him truly insane.
The Animated Series episode with Maxie (“Fire from Olympus”) is a
powerful and strange story because it truly explores what makes an
insane villain so dangerous and yet so sympathetic. Maxie Zeus is
accompanied by two henchmen and his girlfriend Clio. Clio is a
compelling addition because she is his loved one viewing his fall
from insanity, begging him to return to lucidity. She stands in for
numerous people who witness their loved ones fall from reality, and
desperately try to help them without knowing how.
Maxie’s most prominent crimes are ones that seem so reasonable in his
own world. He destroys police zeppelins that get close their tower
merely because “mortals are not supposed to approach Olympus,”
attempts to murder people who renege on deals with him because they
have “shown disrespect to the gods.” His actions are so divorced
from reality that it is impossible not feel sympathy for Maxie and
for Clio. And tellingly, Batman convinces her to help defeat Maxie
because Batman claims he can get the man the help he needs.
Then, when Clio tries to make him see reason, we have the perfect
moment of unreliability. He believes her actions are because she is
“merely” a demigod. He chains her to his lightning machine so
that the “lightning of Zeus” will purge her of her mortality,
making her a full goddess at Maxie’s side. His goons start to
question him, just like the Ventriloquist’s men did.
And then, we have the ending – which manages to be both funny but
also very sympathetic towards Maxie Zeus. He’s in a straight jacket,
being rolled through Arkham, and is utterly happy, because he
mistakes the Joker for the trickster god Hermes, Poison Ivy for
Demeter, and Two-Face for Janus, and is convinced that finally he is
in Olympus. The final image is not a villain who we can be happy is
incarcerated but a poor victim trapped in his head.
are a few other villains in Batman
are clearly insane. For example, Killer Croc is often so animalistic
he seems almost entirely motivated by instinct; it’s hard to blame
someone for his actions when he just starts screaming “Hungry!
Pain!” Humpty Dumpty is a savant great at taking apart machinery
and fixing it, and he eventually decided that the reason his
grandmother was so abusive was that she must be broken – so he took
her apart to fix her. But they’re rare. Certainly most of the more
prominent characters do not feel insane at all.
What would they be like if they were actually crazy?
Two-Face is almost there. He clearly has an issue that takes away
control of his actions, he often recognizes he has issues, and he has
loved ones grieving for him, and Batman clearly considers him to be a
damaged person to be helped rather than a criminal to be punished.
However, he falls apart a little because of the lack of specificity
of his mental problem. He’s frequently referred to as having multiple
personalities, but that is very rarely represented – and seems more
like an attempt to just add more duality imagery to him than a
thought about how he should be perceived. Perhaps more importantly,
insanity means being so separated from reality that you cannot judge
right and wrong, and Two-Face’s issue is he feels a need to flip a
coin to decide his actions, but the coin flip is always between
“good” and “evil” actions – if he is able to separate what
makes an action good and evil, and he uses definition that regular
people do, then he clearly does understand right and wrong – he
just chooses to ignore it.
For Two-Face to be truly insane, his coin flip should not be about
whether to be good or evil, but about deciding what the “good”
choice actually is. Studies have shown that any choice we make is
ultimately with our emotions, our “gut” — if the emotional part
of the brain is damaged, then no matter how much reasoning the person
is still capable of, they will be unable to make proper choices. If
part of Two-Face was damage in whatever scarred them, then he could
potentially have no ability to judge his own actions. That would
present someone highly sympathetic and clearly dysfunctional, a
person robbed from any internal sense of meaning.
One problem with that is that it does separate Two-Face from the
iconic-ness of his coin, which represents the choice between good and
evil. It is possible that it could still often represent the violent
vs non-violent choice (“do I shoot this person or not”) — but
frequently which choice should be made with the scarred side is
arbitrary (“do I rob this store or the other?” “Do I shoot
Batman or Robin?”). It would dilute the purity of Two-Face’s
iconography, but would make his situation more philosophically
compelling, and ultimately make him a more sympathetic and
accurately insane character.
Poison Ivy is a seductive woman with an affinity with plants, and an
eco-terrorist ideology. She is an iconic Arkham inmate, but what
exactly is her insanity? Caring about the environment is not insane –
neither, for that matter, is killing people over it – though it is,
of course, criminal. To be insane she would need a harsher separation
from reality, and more confusion on why others don’t see things her
Giving her a warped sense of empathy could work. She has an easier
time feeling empathy for plants than for humans. She thinks back in
sadness at when her grandparents’ house burned – not because the
grandparents died but because their rose bush did. Ivy can’t
understand why other people are so cruel to plants. If one goes this
route, it would make sense for Ivy to only eat the parts of plants
that doesn’t harm them – she eats fruit and nuts, but never roots.
She feels about eating carrots the same way that most people feel
about eating human flesh (or at least monkeys). Ivy is earnestly
baffled why she’s considered a villain for murdering a CEO whose
Harley suffers from the association of chaotic behavior with
insanity. Of course she’s insane; she’s so weird! But then what
exactly is her craziness? Harley is at her most frightening when she
is bubbly and goofy while doing terrible things. There’s a bit where
she has Catwoman strapped to a conveyor belt, and is about to turn
her into catfood. Harley is joking, and seems to honestly think that
Catwoman will appreciate that in death she’ll be helping some cats.
Harley does not take life seriously. She treats it like a game. What
if that’s what she literally thought life was? That it was just fun,
with no serious consequences – like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon.
People may fall off buildings, be set on fire, but in the end no one
is really hurt. There are no consequences. It would make her bubbling
personality very dangerous.
Batman villains have changed more dramatically than Mad Hatter. First
he was just a villain who looked like the Alice
in Wonderland character,
then someone obsessed with hats, then someone obsessed with Lewis
Carroll, then someone whose obsession moves between hats and Carroll
depending upon the author. He often feels like a character who was
declared insane by the authors simply because he has “Mad” in his
name, and then made to giggle and quote Alice
in order to feel crazy without any real thought to what exactly his
Mad Hatter’s two obsessions, the Carroll one is far more interesting
than hats, and easier to build an insane outlook on. The Alice
are full of bizarre outlooks, logic puzzles, and weird philosophy,
and it is easy to build an insane perspective from them. The most
effective Batman stories with the Mad Hatter play up the dreamlike
subjectivity of the Alice books, producing a character who doesn’t
really believe that the world is real – it’s all just something
dreamed by the Red King (or possibly Mad Hatter himself). A world
full of all sorts of backwards logic, including that the best way to
go over a gate is to stand on your head and that words can mean
whatever you want them to mean. The Mad Hatter is a person who
believes he has stepped through the mirror into Looking-Glass Land, a
realm where flowers talk, rabbits have waistcoats, and everything is
a dream. When he becomes a man suffering from delusions,
hallucinating his dream realm, he becomes a far more compelling
Riddler is a man obsessed with proving he is smarter than the
smartest man (who he thinks is Batman), and so he constantly leaves
riddles, forcing Batman to try and solve them. In later stories, they
have played up the riddles as a compulsion, that he finds himself
unable to not leave them behind. This can clearly mark him as
abnormal, but crazy? No. It’s the sort of thing that might get a
psychiatrist to visit him in prison but not get him sent to a
It would be hard to reinvent the Riddler to make him actually insane,
as his defining trait beside riddles is his total lucidity. He very
clearly understands his environment, and knows the laws, and how they
can be played with. The only way to make him insane while keeping
that cunning is to make him some sort of solipsist who believes that
no one is actually real except him and Batman. It would explain why
he is so obsessed with Batman, and why he doesn’t care if other
people are hurt as part of the schemes. Unfortunately, it would also
make his issues pretty similar to Mad Hatter’s – a genius who
basically believes the universe is a dream operating under its own
logic. Honestly, I feel Riddler would be better served as being
reclassified as abnormal but sane.
The Scarecrow. A psychologist who dresses up like a Halloween
decoration and is obsessed with spreading fear. In some stories, he
is spreading fear just for the hell of it, but in others he seems to
be doing some psychological experiments. What is his insanity? It’s
something that is never really established. He is creepy and
obsessed, but besides that there really isn’t much.
Is it some extreme megalomania combined with delusion? Sometimes the
way he talks, he almost sounds like he thinks he’s some sort of god
of fear. Is it that he prioritizes scientific research so much that
he cannot understand why people are shocked by his actions? That sort
of mad scientist approach could be a direction to go. Possibly he
might even think that people facing their fear, even if they die, is
what they need to do. Though admittedly all of these move him away
dramatically from his normal personality. He is so clinical and yet
sadistic that it is difficult to reinvent him in a way that seems
arch-enemy. When one asks “Is the Joker crazy?” Most people would
answer “Of course, he is. He’s the Joker!” What then is his
mental issue? Sure, he’s weird and wild, and does all sorts of funky
things, but what exactly is his problem? It’s something that
surprisingly few people are interested in exploring – probably
partly because one big element of Joker’s appeal is how mysterious he
is. However, I feel that if you are going to present an insane
character, then it is important to explain how he is insane.
Otherwise, go another direction with him
suggested that Joker’s brain has difficulty processing sensory
information, so that he is constantly interpreting it in a different
way. That’s used to explain why different stories have dramatically
different takes on him – joyless assassin, goofy thief, giggling
serial killer, etc. Others (including Alan Moore) have suggested that
Joker is such a complete nihilist that not only does he feel the
universe is one big pointless joke, but he believes then that the
only moral imperative is to teach others of this cold hard fact. The
world is chaos, and everyone should know it. Or, in a more
light-hearted way, he just sees everything as a cartoon, just like
Harley does. In this case, the one moral imperative is to get
everyone to laugh.
lot of people also like to think of the Joker as one of the DC
Universe’s ultimate embodiments of pure evil. If he is insane, then
by definition he can’t be that. Then Batman is an unfeeling brute
beating up a man not responsible for his actions. This is an
interpretation many people are not comfortable with. Fair enough, but
in that case don’t call Joker and his ilk crazy.
“What interests me…is the fact that he functions as a lightning rod for a certain breed of psychotic. They specialize in absurdly grandiose schemes, and whatever the ostensible rationale–greed, revenge, the seizure of power…their true agenda is always the same: to cast Batman in the role of Nemesis.” –Henri Ducard, Batman
Comics sadly have a bad history of treating people with mental issues respectively. This is especially true in superhero comics, where insanity is often used as a villain’s motivation, and especially especially true in Batman comics, where most of his villains are considered insane and sent to Arkham Asylum as opposed to prison.
This is actually a relatively recent
addition. Originally Batman’s enemies were considered no more or less
insane than any other villains. In fact, there was an early comic
strip in which the Joker faked insanity
in order to be transported from prison to a hospital (so he could
escape on route). It was only in 1974 (35 years after Batman was
created) that Arkham first appeared in the comics, and was in the 80s
when it was decided that most of Batman’s enemies were crazy rather
than being merely eccentric, and so it became the go-to place for
Presumably this was an attempt to give more depth to the villains, an explanation for their bizarre crimes and actions. Why does Riddler always leave riddles? He’s obsessive-compulsive. Why does Joker tell jokes all the time and commit bizarre crimes? He’s lost touch with reality. However, this decision has some pretty deep problems. Firstly, making insanity the main motivation of the rogues gallery for the world’s most popular superhero results in further demonizing an already derided minority. If you think of crazy people in popular culture, Joker, Two-Face, and other miscreants spring readily to mind. Secondly, it shows a serious ignorance of what insanity actually is.
To be classified as psychologically abnormal, a person must have behaviour and/or thoughts that are very different from regular people and which hamper the person’s ability to interact with themselves or with others – to function well. Thus, if you fill several rooms in your house with dolls that you talk to but you also hold down a good job, feel good about yourself, and have positive relationships with others, then you are not abnormal, just eccentric. But if you yell at people about what the dolls are saying and are unable to interact with people in a comfortable way, then you are abnormal. Now, insanity is actually more of a legal than psychological term – to be criminally insane means that you committed a crime but your mind is such that you were incapable of realizing that what you were doing was wrong – thus, you are ultimately innocent of your actions. You’re not criminal, you’re sick. That’s why you’re in a hospital rather than a prison.
In this context,
only a few of Batman’s enemies would be considered properly insane.
Maxie Zeus thinks he’s the god Zeus, the Ventriloquist has so
repressed his anger that it manifests in his wooden dummy – which
he thinks is a living person, sometimes Killer Croc is written so
that his thoughts are more like an animal’s than a man’s. But most of
the prominent villains are merely abnormal – Riddler is
obsessive-compulsive about leaving cues, Poison Ivy kills to protect
plants, Scarecrow is a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur, but
they still understand that their actions are wrong – or at least
will be so judged by society. They are responsible for what they do.
it is a trope of the Batman franchise to constantly remind us that
the villains are responsible for their actions. Often a psychologist
or other concerned citizen will accuse Batman of being a brute for
mistreating people who are mentally ill, that these poor individuals
are victims rather than criminals. This happens in the regular
comics, in Batman the Animated Series,
in The Dark Knight Returns…
and every single time, the villains attempt to kill the psychologist,
either resulting in that individual’s death or in a last-minute save
by Batman that makes the individual realize that Arkham’s inmates are
monsters that need to be controlled, not victims deserving our
many of you might take offence to the idea that Joker or Scarecrow
are merely misunderstood victims. Is that really fair considering how
many people they’ve murdered? Plus, then it makes Batman seem like a
villain, beating up the mentally ill who are ultimately innocent.
Fair enough. I think there’s a lot of problematic elements in
treating people like Joker as victims – but if you don’t want to do
that, then don’t classify them as being insane. By definition,
someone with criminal insanity is a victim – a victim of their
trauma, of their lives, of their own brain.
is a lot of stigma towards people with mental issues, and a lot of
people complain about criminals being declared legally insane and
sent to the hospital rather than prison. Stories like Batman,
where people who are clearly villainous but still classified as
insane, encourage this perception – that being declared insane is a
way to “cheat the system.” In reality, very few lawyers use it as
a defence for their client, and even less cases end with that being
the sentence. And, interestingly enough, when a person is declared
insane, he is generally sent to the hospital longer than he would be
in prison (as he is not there for a set time but until cured).
would claim that the Batman comics
do not demonize the mentally ill because the heroes have issues as
well. Don’t people often think of Batman himself as being crazy? Okay
then, what is his craziness? It’s not that he dresses up like a bat
and drives a bat-shaped car – Catwoman is considered one of his few
sane enemies and she basically has the same animal shtick, to say
nothing of various “sane” superheroes who have costumes equally
strange. Is it that Batman’s obsessive-compulsive, utterly driven in
his war on crime? Well, once again that could fit numerous
superheroes, who are not considered crazy. Besides, even if that were
true, it would at most make him abnormal but certainly not crazy –
by definition he knows what right and wrong are. But more
importantly, Batman’s sanity is almost never engaged with by the
writers in a serious way, just hand-waved as an explanation for why
he’s so intense and usually used to simply make him seem more badass
(“he’s not human!”). If Batman’s sanity is questionable, then
clarify in what way, and treat the topic with understanding and
sympathy. If you don’t want us to pity Batman, then don’t pretend
The mentally ill
are a prominent minority and one that, virtually by definition,
suffers a lot. Pop culture should be used to help us understand these
people and feel sympathy for them, not encourage us to treat them
like criminals and punchlines. Storytellers have a responsibility.
“Ah, Geraint,” said Gwalchmai, “is it thou that art here?” “I am not Geraint,” said he. “Geraint thou art, by Heaven,” he replied, “and a wretched and insane expedition is this…. Come thou and see Arthur; he is thy lord and thy cousin.” “I will not,” said he, “for I am not in a fit state to go and see any one.” Thereupon, behold, one of the pages came after Gwalchmai to speak to him. So he sent him to apprise Arthur that Geraint was there wounded, and that he would not go to visit him, and that it was pitiable to see the plight that he was in. And this he did without Geraint’s knowledge, inasmuch as he spoke in a whisper to the page. “Entreat Arthur,” said he, “to have his tent brought near to the road, for Geraint will not meet him willingly, and it is not easy to compel him in the mood he is in.”
– “Geraint ap Erbin,” The Mabinogion
The stories of King Arthur is one of
those funny things that have conjured so many cultural tropes and
images that a lot of people think they know more about it than they
actually do. For example, I’ve heard people comment that they prefer
characters who are more complicated and flawed, and so perfect heroes
such as King Arthur and his knights are not interesting.
But King Arthur and his knights are so
deeply flawed. One of the most regular themes in the Arthurian
Romances is how great ideals and moral codes crumble and break
eventually. The whole arc of Arthur is that he created the perfect
kingdom but it was inevitably destroyed – not by an outside force,
but rotting from within due to the sins and weaknesses of the
knights. Infidelity, petty jealousy, incest, betrayal, feuds,
vengeful murder – all of these help to shatter the Round Table. So
It is fascinating to look at how older
cultures viewed mental issues, especially things like anxiety or
depression, where it is often ambiguous whether the person is
suffering from a disorder or if that’s just their personality. In
King Arthur stories, characters are frequently pushed to the breaking
point by traumatic events, when their views of themselves are
The most famous break is with Lancelot.
He is seduced by the princess Elaine when she’s disguised as
Guinevere, and once Lancelot realizes that she wasn’t the woman he
thought she was, he leaps out of a window and runs screaming into the
forest. It’s an ironic scene, for if he had had sex with Guinevere,
that would have been the supreme betrayal of his vows to King Arthur,
and yet it is having sex with Elaine that shakes Lancelot to the
core. He feels he cheated on the queen, sullied himself with someone
he didn’t love, and so he lives like an animal in the wild for
The theme of trauma reducing a man to
an animal shows up in several Welsh Arthurian stories as well. In the
Welsh version of the “Lady of the Fountain,” the hero Owain
temporary leaves his fairy wife, the Lady of the Fountain, to return
to King Arthur’s court. He becomes so wrapped up in Arthurian
adventures that he forgets to return to her, and after waiting months
for his return, the Lady eventually discards him as he discarded her
– appearing to him in court to deride his faithlessness and then
using her magic to hide her valley from him forever. Owain goes mad
with the guilt and loneliness, and he spends the next few years
living naked in the forest, eating raw meat. Similarly, the
semi-historical Myrddin (who the Arthurian Merlin was partly inspired
by) in “The Life of Myrddin” was traumatized by his involvement
in a great battle, and so fled naked into the forest, where he ate
moss and apples, befriended the beasts, and refused to return to
human society, snarling like a wolf whenever someone tried. It is
perhaps problematic to identify someone in the middle of a nervous
breakdown as akin to a wild beast, but a storm of emotions causing
someone to flee into their head and into the wilderness is a feeling
I can strongly identify with. Sometimes so much force is exerted on
the self that one wishes for the self to be blotted out.
“Geraint ap Erbin” is another Welsh
Arthurian story in which the warrior suffers from mental issues, but
in a dramatically different way. The first half of the story is about
Geraint winning the lady Enid by impressing her in a tournament, a
pretty traditional Arthurian Romance. The second half involves
Geraint being forced to leave Arthur’s court to take charge of his
father’s domain in Devon, giving up his adventures to instead become
a ruler and bureaucrat. Geraint hates this, constantly yearning for
Arthur’s court, and eventually shuts himself in his room, too
depressed to deal with any part of the court. Geraint believes that
since he can no longer be a warrior and adventurer, he’s a failure as
a man, and so he starts to suspect his wife Enid of infidelity –
deciding that there’s no way that she could ever love a failure like
him. In a storm of envy and depression, he drags Enid with him out of
Devon, determined to fight battle after battle in order to prove to
her and himself that he is still a man… or die in the attempt.
Geraint’s suicidal obsession and his
verbal abuse of Enid ring much more realistically than the other
characters’ descent into animalism, which makes it especially
shocking to read. There’s an intense moment where Arthur finds
Geraint almost dead from numerous wounds, both he and Enid dressed in
tatters, and the king is angry and frightened – demanding to know
why Geraint is putting himself and Enid through hell. It is very hard
for people who don’t suffer from depression or anxiety to understand
exactly why we who do are acting the way we are – it seems
illogical, bizarre, and self-destructive (and often is); this moment
in the “Geraint” Romance is startling for its psychological
There are various examples in stories
all over the world of characters struggling with mental issues. What
makes the Arthurian stories that struggle with this topic especially
striking is that King Arthur and his knights are supposedly
archetypes of masculine heroism and strength, perfect paladins pure
of thought and deed. By showing them being undone by their guilt,
self-hating and self-destructive because they fall short of their
ideals, it reminds us that depression can strike down all of us. All
of us are vulnerable, even the greatest knights of the world.
“The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.” -Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
To honour Mental Health Month and my own struggles with anxiety and depression, I will be exploring various examples of characters with mental issues throughout literature and popular culture, starting with perhaps the most gut-wrenching: Frankenstein’s Monster.
Arguably the greatest horror novel ever written, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein produced the most compelling horror icon of all time. The Monster himself is terrifying — a huge and hideous product of an unnatural birth — but also someone who we feel such empathy for. It is telling that the two most iconic version of the story (the Mary Shelley novel and the James Whale movies with Boris Karloff) initially envisioned Dr. Frankenstein as being the protagonist and named the story after him, but most people think of the title as referring to the Monster rather than the scientist because the Monster is far more memorable, and it is he who feels like the real protagonist.
His suffering is anyone who has suffered from mental issues such as depression or anxiety can sympathize with. The Monster feels different, unnatural, wrong — he knows the population of the world is divided between himself and everyone else, that he has been made imperfectly, falsely. When I am at my darkest, I myself often feel like a “patchwork man,” a bunch of pieces that don’t seem to quite fit together, a soulless automaton rather than a real person.
When in the depths of depression, one feels unloved, incapable of being loved, which is the great curse of the Monster. He has been defaced by the Mark of Cain, though unlike Cain, it’s not a punishment for any crime he did. He is desperate for a place in the world, but cannot find it anywhere he goes. The more the Monster is rejected and persecuted, the more his hope is consumed by desolation and rage. Many people who experience mental issues feel intense frustration for who they are, that they are fighting against themselves, against pieces of their mind that don’t seem to quite fit together. The Monster knows why they don’t fit — because he was made improperly by a person who thought himself God.
Dr. Septimus Pretorius: Do you know who Henry Frankenstein is, who you are? The Monster: Yes, I know… made me from dead… I love dead… hate living. –Bride of Frankenstein
Speaking for myself, I have always found Karloff’s interpretation of the Monster to be even more compelling than the original. His treatment in James Whales’ Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein is one of the most emotionally intense performances in cinematic history. Perhaps it’s because the Monster here feels closer to me. He’s not just broken in body as Shelley’s Monster is, but broken in head.
Karloff’s Monster has a hard time understanding the world, a hard time communicating. He has impulses he cannot understand, which often take control of him (here derived from a murderer’s brain that he was cursed with). Shelley’s Monster is always very cognizant of all the damage he caused, coldly striking in vengeance against a humanity that rejected him, but Karloff’s Monster is confused. He drowns a girl under the mistaken belief that she’ll float as happily and prettily as the flowers that he and she were tossing into the water. He happily follows Dr. Pretorius when the mad scientist suggests that he can make a friend for the creature, and then howls in frustration and betrayal when that doesn’t happen. Karloff’s Monster was brought into the world unable to understand it, and remains baffled and pained by whatever’s going on. He is us as we try to claw our way through life, seeing other people who find it so much easier than we do. He is us living in a world that seems to be built for other people.
I have screamed at the sky, demanding the universe tell me why I was built this way, why my brain seem to respond to things differently from how other people do. Why does this storm of negative emotions seem to crash through my body? Why do I feel false, broken? The Monster knows why. Because his creator built him not knowing what exactly he was, then tossed him into the cold, leaving him unable to know how to cope with existence.
In a weird way, he fulfills a strange fantasy I’ve had — wouldn’t it feel nice to punish the God that made you such a broken person? Who decided that you should have a mental storm most other people don’t? Wouldn’t it feel good, just for a little bit — to drag that being down to the depths of depression that you regularly god? Of course, it wouldn’t make anything better. In the novel, the Monster tortures Frankenstein, murders everyone he loves, and then forces Frankenstein into a long and tortures death in the snows, and seeing the corpse just makes the Monster sob, makes him rant about how pitiful he is, and decide to burn himself to death with Frankenstein’s corpse at the North Pole. In Bride of Frankenstein, the Monster does the opposite, deciding that Frankenstein and his wife should go and live because he is “alive,” whereas the Monster and his bride are “dead…. We belong dead.” I feel that the Monster saving Frankenstein has less to do with any real forgiveness and more him wanting someone to remember him positively — to get some satisfaction as he kills himself.
The Monster: We belong dead. –Bride of Frankenstein
The horror of Frankenstein is not that we will be attacked by the Monster, but that deep down we are the Monster. That we are soulless automatons who have been “made wrong,” beings damaged and then discarded by our creator. We have bodies that don’t do what they’re supposed to, minds that don’t do what they’re supposed to, impulses that drive us mad, and there is no one else like us, and if there were, they would reject us too (as the Bride rejects the Monster), for who could truly care for us — even fellow freaks would try to be with normal people. We are, as Karloff’s monster succinctly said, “dead.”
If the Monster can be a metaphor for mental issues, that feeling of lonely brokenness that frequently haunts our brains, then what is it ultimately saying about those issues? It is how they can possess the person who feels them, take over their lives. How it leads to fear, to frustration, to rage. How it can make us lash out against those we blame for our pain. How in the end, when it takes us over, the person we most lash out against is ourselves.
Though certainly not the most empowering image of depression and mental issues, perhaps nothing better captures the isolation and imagery that it produces than Frankenstein. We are all Frankenstein’s Monster, but unlike the Monster, we cannot punish our creator. We can only hurt ourselves. At the end of both the novel and Bride of Frankenstein, the Monster commits suicide — either burning himself alive along with Frankenstein’s corpse in a funeral pyre or pulling a convenient switch in the lab to blow him to atoms. Are the stories saying that this is the only possible ending for those who feel dominated by mental issues?
The ultimate motivation for the suicide is desolate loneliness. The Monster feels no one cares about him, he is truly alone. However, we in the real world who deal with these issues are not alone ourselves. There are other people out there who suffer from similar issues, and we can reach out to each other. We can tell each other that we are not dead, we are not automatons, robots, or zombies. We are human, we are people. We are not broken. We are merely different. And we are not alone. Maybe often we with mental issues feel like we cannot save ourselves, but we can save others who are similarly touched — we can save them because we understand what they’re going through, because we can show them they are not alone. Unlike Frankenstein Monster, we are not alone.
One of my favourite comic book authors is Grant Morrison. He writes with so much energy and creativity, such a sense of fun, that so many of his comics are a psychedelic thrill ride exploring so many crazy ideas. One of Morrison’s most ambitious projects was DC’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, seven interlocking miniseries about seven different DC heroes who independently fight against an invasion of demonic fairies known as the Sheeda.
One of these heroes is a reinvented version of the Shining Knight, a champion of King Arthur’s court who reawakens in modern times. While the original version of the Shining Knight was from the Dark Ages and the pseudo-historical King Arthur, Morrison’s version instead comes from a fantastical “ur-Arthur” thousands of years before recorded history. Basically, the archetypes of King Arthur and his champions appear over and over again in this world, each time in a different form.
This prehistoric fantasy Arthur first appears in Shining Knight #1, which retells the famous Taliesin poem “The Spoils of Annwn”: “before the spoils of Annwn woefully he sang, / And thenceforth till doom he shall remain a bard. / Thrice enough to fill Arthur’s ship we went into it; / Except seven, none returned from Castle Revolving.” In the comic, Arthur’s army is at war with the Sheeda, and they battle to the Sheeda’s capital of Castle Revolving to steal their enchanted cauldron which is the Castle’s heart. Of Arthur’s men, none but seven return.
Shining Knight #1 starts off powerfull and mythic: “From the far, unspeakable land of the Vampire Sun they came, from Eternal Summer’s End on Sheeda-Side….” It is clearly not some faux historical tale in the remnants of Rome nor a stiff and courtly Romance. It’s old myths, wild and fantastical. Sadly, beyond the basic premise of the poem (Arthur’s men go into Fairyland to steal the cauldron heart of Castle Revolving), Morrison is not especially interested in engaging with the original folktales.
It feels like he skimmed the poem, but never Welsh prose — didn’t actually take a look at the Mabinogian. Firstly, the fairies are called the “Sheeda” — a clear derivative from the Irish “Sidhe” — instead of the “Tylwyth Teg” or the “Fair Folk.” Merlin gets referenced as “royal were-dragon from Celtic mythology” whose name is also “Gwydion,” which is utter nonsense (Morrison’s earlier idea of Merlin being a renegade Sheeda sorcerer would have felt much more authentic). The warriors dress like knights, when having stranger, more primal costumes would suit the Welsh folklore and the pre-historic narrative far better. Morrison’s list of Arthur’s champions is especially telling:
“Against the Sheeda, Gawain, the Silent Knight, attended by his wondrous hawks. And Lancelot, defender of the faith so long with such a broken heart. Mighty Caradoc, who loved peace most of all. Peredur, blinded by the light of the Holy Cup, yet possessed of celestial senses unknown to ordinary men. Bors, the Laughing Knight. And Galahad next. Galahad, the Giant Killer. The Perfect Knight. Warriors all, of the Shattered Table. But first… Lancelot.”
The idea that each knight has his own special power or trait is straight out of “Culhwch & Olwen,” of course. There are some other Welsh touches here. Gawain’s hawks probably reference his Welsh name, Gwalchmai (“Hawk of May”). “Peredur” is the Welsh name for Percival, the star of one of the Welsh Romances. The name “Caradoc” is very Welsh, though I haven’t heard of any prominent members of Arthur’s court called that. Olwen later shows up in the story.
However, in folklore Gwalchmai’s defining trait is his politeness, whereas this Gawain is silent. This Peredur is obsessed with the Holy Grail (a Romance invention). Perhaps most prominently, Lancelot, Bors, and Galahad were all creations of the French Romances, and thus utterly alien to Welsh myths. Conversely, the comic has no references to Cai or Bedwyr, Arthur’s most devoted companions in the Welsh cycle.
Morrison’s Shining Knight is a lot of fun, and its description of Castle Revolving and the epic raid has a lot of strength to it. Certainly it captures a lot of the fantastical spirit of Welsh folklore, that is sadly missing in most Arthurian retellings. That said, it would have been more compelling and much more mythic if it engaged more with the original Welsh folktales. If the scene were to feature a fully Welsh retinue of warriors, I would describe them thusly:
“Against the Teg, Cai, defender of the faith so long with such a broken heart. Owain, attended by his black lion and his wondrous ravens. Mighty Bedwyr One-Handed, wielder of the Living Spear. Gwalchmai the Golden-Tongued, whose strength waxed and waned with the sun. Geraint the Seafarer. Menw, son of Three-Cries, the Warrior-Wizard. And Peredur next. Peredur, the Monster Killer. The Perfect Champion. Warriors all, of the Shattered Table. But first… Cai.”
I have always found the archetype of
the “magician” compelling and empowering. The idea that someone,
through their own introspection and hidden lore, could access
supernatural power – could gaze into the future, turn into a bird,
do all sorts of things – that always captivated my imagination. For
that reason, as a child I always preferred fantasy stories in which
magic could be good as well as evil, and disliked tales in which
magic was mainly the province of villains (such as the Conan
or Faust). That being
the case, Gandalf the utterly benevolent wizard was always my
favourite character in The Hobbit and
The Lord of the Rings,
with the runner-up being Beorn, the man who can turn himself into a
bear (and thus something of a magician himself).
Thus, I felt a profound sense of
betrayal when I discovered, many years later, that Tolkien had
written his five wizards (Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast, and the two
Blue Wizards) not as magicians as I defined the term (mortals who had
unlocked supernatural power) but instead as angels (maiar
spirits) disguised in mortal
form, emissaries from the Undying Lands sent by the gods to confront
Sauron. For me it turned Middle-Earth inside out, for now it seemed
that the only truly human magicians of that world were evil sorcerers
(such as the Witch-King and the Mouth of Sauron) – which was not
the sort of fantasy I wanted at all.
adult, I am much more willing to recognize the problematic aspects of
the magician archetype, its bad as well as its good, and am far more
accepting of stories in which all mortal magic is corrupt. That said,
it is still a peculiar element of Middle-Earth. After all, modern
high fantasy is usually filled with benevolent wizards, and to many,
Lord of the Rings is
the ultimate archetypal high fantasy story. Thus, I returned to the
world of Middle-Earth, reading between the lines to see if it indeed
had any magicians as I define the term (regular people who learn
non-malevolent supernatural powers).
In Tolkien, the
term “wizard” is only used with the Five Wizards, who are
secretly angels, while “sorcerer” is entirely a negative term for
humans who have made pacts with Sauron in return for power. No one
who falls into neither of these categories gets a general magic-using
noun (magician, enchanter, etc.) applied to them. But does that mean
they don’t exist?
elves clearly possess supernatural powers. Elrond summons up a flood
in Fellowship of the Ring,
while Galadriel has a scrying pool; furthermore, it is implied that
their respective powers are what stops Sauron’s forces from invading
their homes. There are elves in The Silmarillion who
can change their form and control the weather. The wood elves in The
Hobbit have magic. Characters
such as Frodo and Sam talk about “elf magic” in ways that they
never reference “human magic” or “elf magic.” That said, I
don’t quite feel that the elves match my magician archetype. To me, a
magician has always meant someone who, through skill and will, has
unlocked powers beyond the grasp of others of their ilk. They are
mortals who have stepped a little closer to the gods. However,
Tolkien’s elves are basically demigods themselves, immortal beings
who seek to be reunited with their divine “big brothers” and who
just naturally possess numerous powers that humans lack. In fact,
various elves become confused when hobbits ask to see their “magic,”
as for elves this is all just regular talents that they possess, no
more magical then their skill with a bow.
become far more interesting for me when I look to see if any mortals
(humans, dwarves, or hobbits) can possess supernatural abilities
without making pacts with Sauron. The aforementioned Beorn is the
most prominent example, a being who Gandalf theorizes is either a
bear who learned how to turn himself into a man or a man who learned
how to turn himself into a bear – and who becomes the patriarch of
a whole group of humans (the Beornings), who also possess a certain
ursine kinship. Other mortals it seems have learned to access
particular powers – Bard and many other people of Dale can speak
with animals, certain dwarves know the corvid language, certain
humans (such as Aragorn) are capable of prophecy, there is even a
seer referenced once or twice; “seer” is the only official term
ever given to a benevolent human magician.
Aragorn seems one of the closest things to a magician the story has,
both due to his aforementioned fortune-telling and his mastery of
certain herbs. Beorn is another figure of course, who actually
expressed scorn for wizards. These two people, despite their
supernatural powers, come off as being more as warriors than
traditional wizards – they have magic, but spells and staves do not
define their identity. Probably the most “magician-esque” human
to appear in Tolkien is Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. He is
described as a sagacious and powerful figure who Pippin feels looks
like a wizard more than Gandalf does, and whose will is so great that
he can communicate telepathically, read minds, and possibly
psychically attack. The novel is surprisingly brief about his
abilities, quickly mentioning them but not dwelling too long. They’re
not treated as too unusual. In Middle-Earth, it simply seems that
especially strong-willed humans can have psychic abilities. It’s part
interestingly, the role the “magician” takes in Tolkien. Wizards
and sorcerers have supernatural powers because wizards are
supernatural beings and sorcerers have bound themselves to a darkly
supernatural force. If a mortal wishes power but does not want to
taint himself, he must turn to certain techniques that are
supernatural to us but which seem to be simply the specific
functioning of Tolkien’s world – a sort of occult science. Anyone
with enough lore can learn how to speak to animals or unlock almost
magicial abilities in healing herbs. One can even learn telepathy or
prophecy if the will is great enough. These people are not called
“magicians” or “enchanters” because they don’t flaunt their
abilities as supernatural. They perceive them as simply talents or
skills. The only such magician treated as something strange and other
is Beorn, but he seems to be the obsession rather than the rule.
I think the child
within me is satisfied that “magicians” do exist in Middle-Earth.
They are subtle rather than flashy. Though they don’t even consider
themselves to be magicians, they are still mortals able to access
wonderful things. That’s good enough for the archetype and good
enough for me.