sorcerers as wizards (and vice versa)

This will probably be my last post about Roger Zelazny’s “Dilvish the Damned” short stories, which turned out to be one of my favorite D&D-ideas-inspiring sourcebooks ever, joining the motley collection of African Civilizations and Theophile Gautier’s Captain Fracasse. A lot of Zelazny’s fiction seems to be directly translatable to RPG content. And I haven’t even started Amber yet!

3e+ D&D takes a bunch of words for spellcaster that all used to mean the same thing – wizard, sorcerer, warlock – and makes them all different classes. In OD&D, Gygax took all the synonyms for wizard he could find and made them level titles – to lock up IP from potential competition, he said. But you can’t really copyright these words, and other authors are going to redefine them in their own ways.

Here’s Roger Zelazny’s definitions of wizards and sorcerers from Dilvish the Damned:

“But if that isn’t sorcery, what is?”

“Sorcery,” she replied, “is an art. It requires considerable study and discipline. One must generally apply oneself for a fairly long period even to obtain the relatively modest status I have achieved. But there are some other routes to magical power. One might be born with a natural aptitude and be able to produce many of the effects without the training. This is mere wizardry, however, and sooner or later–unless one is very lucky or careful–such a one gets into trouble from lack of knowledge concerning the laws involved in the phenomena. I do not believe that this is the case with your lady, though. A wizard usually bears some identifying mark visible to others in the trade.”

This definition – with sorcerers as academic porers over tomes and wizards as natural talents – is hilariously opposite the descriptions of wizards and sorcerers from third edition. Even many of the same words are used in the (swapped) descriptions. In the 3.5 PHB, sorcerers have “inborn talent” and “cast spells through innate power rather than careful training and study“. They are even “marked as different by their power“, like Zelazny’s wizard. The PHB wizard, on the other hand, must spend “years in apprenticeship“. Magic is “not a talent but a difficult art.

This kind of thing will happen a lot when you start ascribing different meanings to synonyms. For example, a different fantasy author could easily decide that hobgoblins were smaller than goblins. You’d also be perfectly justified in making goblins, hobgoblins, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and trolls all the same species.


4 Responses to “sorcerers as wizards (and vice versa)”

  1. Dave says:

    Interestingly the big hobgoblin is Tolkien’s doing–apparently hobgoblins in folklore were smaller than goblins, but he got confused and decreed they were bigger. And now we’re stuck with it.

    It always bothered me that “sorcerer” was used for wild talents, since the word evolved from “sortilege”, the casting of lots to determine the future. Which was a skill learned by priests in Ancient Rome. Whereas “wizard” is the masculine form of “witch” (“warlock” originally meaning “oathbreaker”, a nasty insult but not arcane in origin), which suggests learned wisdom.

    As far as I can tell the whole idea of inborn magical abilities is actually a backward formation from the wild talents proposed during early parapsychological research in the 19th century; before then, magic-users always got their power either through pacts with spirits and other magic entities or by extensive study of grimoires.

    Not that any of this matters–in any game system, the words mean what the designers want them to mean. Hence “Necromancer” as someone who animates skeletons and zombies, instead of what the word actually means, which is someone who foretells the future by talking to ghosts. But I prefer it when there’s some deeper source.

  2. Sean Holland says:

    That is pretty cool and humorous, nice find.

    @Dave, interesting information there. I did not know that about the source of wizard and sorcery.

    Necromancer is one of my pet peeves of the gaming lexicon.

  3. Baf says:

    “Wizard” is not the masculine form of “witch”, or at least not in any grammatical or etymological sense. (I’ll grant that it’s the case in Harry Potter books.) “Witch” derives from “wicce”, the feminine form of “wicca”, which is attested in Old English, where it already referred to a person with magical powers. “Wizard” is Middle English, and derives from the word “wise”. Its original meaning was just “wise man”; it wasn’t until the mid-16th century that it started to specifically mean someone skilled with magic.

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