What does a wizard look like?

When Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition came out, there was a great deal of argument over its “dungeonpunk” aesthetic and, particularly, the way wizards didn’t look like they were “supposed” to. The pointy-hatted old men familiar from Dragon magazine covers or Will McLean cartoons had been replaced by a confusingly-dressed elf lady and a bare-chested man in leather, buckles, and an underbust corset.1

All well and good, I suppose, but what do wizards really look like? The Gandalf by way of Merlin types we’d gotten used to didn’t seem quite right to my imagination, though they’ve graced some excellent vans in their time. What do the sources have to say about them?

Well, Fritz Leiber is always definitive, so let’s lead off with a few of his lesser wizards. The Gray Mouser begins:

“Hey, I think our creditors and other haters have hired a third S besides swords and staves against us.”


The small man drew a coil of thin yellow wire from his pouch. He said,

“Well, if those two graybeards in the second story windows aren’t wizards, they shouldn’t scowl so ferociously. Besides, I can make out astrological symbols on the one’s robe and the glint on the other’s wand.2

A robe is not an uncommon piece of costume in Lankhmar, though the better-but-not-best class of people prefer the black toga. The astrological symbols, though, are a distinctly occult touch. More telling, however, are the ferocious scowls, as the Mouser flippantly points out. Presumably, one quick to anger is also quick to grump.

Well, that’s Leiber, but where would we be without that other chronicler of scoundrel heroes, Jack Vance? What of that mighty magician Pandelume, of Embelyon, the Land Who None Knows Where?

“Halt, Turjan,” spoke the voice. “None may gaze upon Pandelume. It is the law.”3

…oh. Well, then. I suppose Iucounu the Laughing Magician will have to do.

Fianosther pointed across the way to a man wearing garments of black. This man was small, yellow of skin, bald as a stone. His eyes resembled knots in a plank; his mouth was wide and curved in a grin of chronic mirth.4

These, however, are all wizards of a lesser sort. Surely, those who fling death-spells at Leiber’s twain are only just this side of charlatans like Cugel the Clever or the Mouser himself. And Iucounu seems somewhat over-reliant on and under-cautious of the charms he keeps in his mansion.

Perhaps for a wizard of a wiser sort, we might look to Lloyd Alexander’s Dallben:

Dallben, master of Caer Dallben, was three hundred and seventy-nine years old. His beard covered so much of his face that he seemed always to be staring over a gray cloud. On the little farm, while Taran and Coll saw to the plowing, sowing, weeding, reaping, and all the other tasks of husbandry, Dallben undertook the meditating, an occupation so exhausting he could only accomplish it by laying down and closing his eyes.5

Ah, a graybeard again. That seems to be a developing theme. And meditation! While Alexander may have treated the subject lightly, we Dungeons & Dragons players know all too well how critical it is! Let the fighters mock the wizard’s fifteen minute workday. Little do they know how mighty are his mental preparations.

Dallben is that rare sort, a humble wizard. Generally, they’re anything but. Consider Pelias, encountered by Conan beneath the archetypal dungeon of the Scarlet Citadel:

Conan stared, spellbound; then a sound brought him round, sword lifted. The freed man was on his feet, surveying him. Conan gaped in wonder. No longer were the eyes in the worn face expressionless. Dark and meditative, they were alive with intelligence, and the expression of imbecility had dropped from the face like a mask. The head was narrow and well-formed, with a high splendid forehead. The whole build of the man was aristocratic, evident no less in his tall slender frame than in his small trim feet and hands.

This man is intelligent, aware, and physically small while projecting no air of weakness. 6 Yet, he is still a man, and the greatest of wizards are more than that. What of Gandalf the Grey?

All that the unsuspecting Bilbo saw that morning was an old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which his long white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.7

Gandalf was quite scrupulous in his man-seeming, to the point that his human admirers in innumerable D&D illustrations seem to have considered a fit example of dress, even if they tend to leave off practical concerns like the scarf and boots.

But what of those wizards, no longer human and perhaps pre-human,8¬†who sponsored Leiber’s heroes? We must not forget them, lest we incite their anger, or that of their favored heroes.

Blue lightning glared, revealing with great clarity a hooded figure crouched inside the low doorway. Each fold and twist of the figure’s draperies stood out as precisely as in an iron engraving closely viewed.

But the lightning showed nothing whatsoever inside the hood, only inky blackness.9

Sheelba of the Eyeless Face needs no other, inevitably lesser, introduction.

Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, however, would insist upon it. The great gossiper of the gods dwells in his caves of endless, twisting passages10, and Leiber was perhaps too modest in giving this description:

A little later, having wasted no time in reconnoitering, they stood before the Great Gate, whose iron-studded upper reaches disdained the illumination of the tiny fire. It was not the gate, however, that interested them, but its keeper, a monstrously paunched creature sitting on the floor beside a vast heap of pot-sherds, and whose only movement was a rubbing of what seemed to be his hands. He kept them under the shabby but voluminous cloak which also completely hooded his head. A third of the way down the cloak, two large bats clung. Fafhrd cleared his throat. The movement ceased under the cloak.

Then out of the top of it sinuously writhed something that seemed to be a serpent, only in place of a head it bore an opalescent jewel with a dark central speck. Nevertheless, one might finally have judged it to be a serpent, were it not that it also resembled a thick-stalked exotic bloom. It restlessly turned this way and that until it pointed at the two strangers. Then it went rigid, and the bulbous extremity seemed to glow more brightly. There came a low purring, and five similar stalks twisted rapidly from under the hood and aligned themselves with their companion. Then the six black pupils dilated. 11

A portentious sight, to be sure, even if one can’t help thinking, as do the twain, that there’s more than a little Oz to this wizard. But I’m not sure I’d like to find out what’s behind the curtain.

These are the images conjured to mind when I think of wizards. I acknowledge some gaps, here: I haven’t treated the truly evil wizards, nor did I have a description of Elric at hand. Nonetheless, these are my wizards.

Who and what are yours?


  1. Who was probably pretty confusing in his own way. Me, I just wanted the pants.
  2. Fritz Leiber, The Swords of Lankhmar
  3. Jack Vance, “Turjan of Miir,” The Dying Earth
  4. Jack Vance, The Eyes of the Overworld
  5. Lloyd Alexander, The Book of Three
  6. I’ve always envisioned him as looking something like a carving of a Babylonian king, but there’s no textual source for that. Perhaps it’s an adolescent confusion with the villain of “Black Colossus.”
  7. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
  8. I am aware that Robin Wayne Bailey, who’s written the only Fafhrd and Mouser book after Leiber, laid out the origins and nature of Sheelba and Ningauble with slightly more specificity. I am, however, less than pleased with that and the rest of his interpretation of sorcery in Leiber’s universe. Personal preference.
  9. Fritz Leiber, “The Circle Curse,” Swords Against Death
  10. All alike, to the uninitiated.
  11. Fritz Leiber, Adept’s Gambit, Swords in the Mist

2 thoughts on “What does a wizard look like?”

  1. Well, start with Tolkien, since he’s easy to pick on. His archetypal wizard is (literally) an angel, with all that is implied by that- great and terrible, with power over man and nature. They are the forces present at creation, which form the world, and then are meant to function as mankind’s (used inclusively, lest this sentence get over-long) sheepdogs.

    But then they go native. Gandalf (and Ratagast, and Saruman) are faces for the temptations of the world (to lay down one’s burden, to shun others and become misanthropic, to surrender to the desire for power). The meta-narrative of the wizard is the thing that is made of pre-natural material, is drawn down into nature (where it is powerful and feared), and then is trapped by the desires of the flesh. Gandalf’s only real character beat in the whole damn story is where he realizes that he *does* have to give up the flesh, so to speak. He can’t be the jolly, sleepy old man anymore.

    For an icon, we have our pick of the nephilim (of the earth and heavens at once), the soul (if you see the Buddha on the road, etc), or (since they are meant to know what happens beyond that veil of sleep). But it occurs to me here that you may be thinking of something less esoteric when you say icon- rather ‘the wizard is power which is uncontrollable to us’, ‘a force with which we cannot contend, and which is opaque to us’. Wherein, the wizard is the icon for nature (tying in with Tolkien’s big nature!good science!bad), and corrupted angels expose the mechanics of nature willy-nilly, rather than keep them sequestered.

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