Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Practice of Wizardry

This week I want to delve a little deeper into what a wizard is, and to do that I want to look at what a wizard does- in other words, the practice of wizardry. My aim is not to describe what I already am or do, but to sketch out a few key attributes that I (as well as those of my readers who take an interest) can aspire to. Or, to put it another way, things I want to practice, with the hope of learning and improving my (currently limited) knowledge in these fields.

To start with, these writings are my way of practicing the magic of language. This I don't intend to get right right away, nor do I expect to be right all the time, though of course that would be nice. Practicing wordcraft is not like practicing medicine or engineering; a writer's slip-ups don't generally lead to bodily injury. But they can lead to more insidious harm if said writer has set him- or herself up as an all-knowing sage possessed of magical powers of intellect. To ward off such danger I'll now invoke a useful spell I learned from a lawyer one time, one I call 'The Doctrine of Wizardly Fallibility' or just 'The Disclaimer': take it from me, you can't believe everything you read on the internet.

In historical times, of course, a wizard had certain practices that marked him as a lifelong student of the Art Magic. The wizards I'm referring to are those that first emerged during the long period of decentralization and re-localization in Europe known retrospectively as the Middle Ages, and whose vocation it was to keep alive the intellectual treasures of the classical world that was coming to pieces around them. Since the slant of medieval European society admitted mostly men into this profession, I'm going to use the masculine pronoun from here on, though of course there very probably were (and could certainly now be) female or genderqueer wizards as well.

To start with, a wizard spent a lot of time reading books. In the medieval world this in itself would make him seem magical and mysterious to his neighbours. At a time when written words were jammed all together on a page in order to save parchment, somethinglikethis, reading was a matter of sounding out the long strings of syllables in a murmured half-voice that would have sounded much like the muttering of incantations. (One fourth-century archbishop of Milan was renowned for his uncanny ability to read silently, in his head- imagine that!) All the better if the book were written in a foreign or dead language; better still if it concerned an arcane subject like alchemy, history, theology (whether orthodox or heretical), or something which had fallen out of everyday use, like formal logic. In the course of these writings I intend to touch on each of these subjects, among others, thereby creating a pretext to spend more time with such books.

In addition a wizard had to have practical knowledge and skills. The great mages may have been free to absorb themselves in matters of abstract spellcraft, but your local village wizard had to have a few useful tricks up his sleeve if he expected to stay relevant to his neighbours, not to mention putting food on the table. What was the use of keeping around someone well-versed in natural philosophy, after all, if he couldn't tell which formulae made for good compost and which amounted to a heap of dung? A wizard had to stay current in a number of practical fields, including but not limited to gardening, astrology, animal husbandry, rhetoric, herbal medicine, and the refinement of base elements (such as children) through the twelve gradations of alchemical enlightenment into gold, or its spiritual equivalent. By this latter I am referring of course to teaching, a dubious branch of the Art Magic and frequent source of income for wizards everywhere. (More on that later, perhaps).

What set the village wizard apart from his neighbours, all of whom were contributing members of society each in their own way, was that he was expected to apply the broad perspective gained through his book-learning to the practical problems at hand. For instance: 'Wizard, why all this rain?' 'Well, the influence of Neptune on the other heavenly bodies is particularly strong this spring. Nothing to do but drain the fields as best we can and wait.' Or, 'Wizard, why does my stomach hurt?' 'Well, your humours are out of balance. Take a bit of vinegar before bed and call on me in the morning.' And so forth.

The way I see it, as more and more young people these days invest more and more of their time in book-learning, we should begin to see more and more would-be wizards cropping up. This sounds like a pretty great thing to me. Maybe one day we will have a League of Young Wizards, all pooling their knowledge, skills, and efforts for the continued well-being of their village communities. The test, of course, is whether a wizard can actually work magic: whether his or her words can illuminate reality in a new and powerful way, and whether the projects she or he takes on make a meaningful difference in the real world.

To that end I've taken up a practice every apprentice needs to have some grounding in: learning the language of birds. Yes, this is real, and yes, it is magical. If you want to join this wizard's game, keep an ear open as you go about your neighbourhood this week, because spring has arrived and there's a lot going on in the trees and hedges around us. And yes, it all means something. We'll dive into the mysteries of bird language next week.


  1. I was lying in bed the other day and my stomach grumbled. Then, it grumbled again. But the grumble sounded a bit weird. And then it happened again. And again... confused I looked out the window. The wood pecker that I saw shed some light on the situation.

  2. Josh, I'm glad you didn't turn out to have a woodpecker in your stomach. I could foresee some complications arising from that scenario.