1st November 2002 at 00:00
There were wizards long before Harry Potter. Dinah Starkey gazes into her crystal ball to reveal the true story of Merlin and his followers A wizard has a long white beard and flowing robes. He - and it is usually a he because the equal opportunities lobby has had little impact on the world of fantasy - spends his time consulting musty books, stargazing and concocting potions. He is the master of mysterious lore, at once powerful and dangerous.

Gandalf, Dumbledore and Merlin all share the same characteristics, and so, indeed, do the magical worlds of JK Rowling, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett et al. Magic is closely associated with scholarship. It has rules which can only be understood after long study and its practitioners speak in dead tongues and are the masters of ancient wisdom.

This universal stereotype is hardly surprising because the magicians of fantasy are based on real people. They hark back to the scientists and scholars of Tudor times and many of their characteristics reflect this.

The dress code at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School reflects Tudor fashions. Men of learning were concerned to present a dignified appearance so they wore long flowing gowns to signify their freedom from manual labour. Hats were tall and often pointed and older men favoured long beards. Many carried a staff, or wand, as a symbol of authority. Add a sprinkling of stars and a pair of piercing eyes and you have the classic story book magician.

Despite their sedate appearance, life was exciting for Tudor scholars. The printing press was powering an information revolution. In medieval times the universities had been dominated by Roman writers and thinkers. The Renaissance saw the rediscovery of Greek philosophers and scientists such as Plato and Pythagoras. From the Arab empire came mathematical texts that made complex calculations possible. Scholars began to abandon the cumbersome Roman numerals in favour of the Arabic number system, which had been exported to the West in the 13th century, and the symbols that we now take for granted, such as plus, minus and zero, were being used for the first time.

These symbols, like the Greek and Hebrew alphabets in which many books were written, seemed so strange and mysterious to contemporaries that they concluded they must be magical. And so the stereotype of the wizard began to evolve. He spoke Latin because this was the lingua franca of scholarship and he spent his life studying esoteric lore in quest for knowledge and power.

But what were these scholars really up to? They looked back to the Middle Ages and forward to the Age of Reason. And their thinking, a curious blend of the mystical and the practical, reflects this. In some ways they retained the uncritical mindset of the Middle Ages, but they had read their Aristotle and were beginning to recognise the importance of careful observation. So the medieval art of astrology laid the foundations for astronomy, and alchemy evolved into the modern science of chemistry. They believed in magic, certainly. So did everyone in Tudor times, however hardheaded. But they approached it scientifically.

Central to the beliefs of the time was the notion of the Philosopher's Stone which transmuted base metals into gold and breathed life into dead matter. Mercury, sulphur and other ingredients were distilled and redistilled in retorts until, at the end of many processes, a reddish powder was obtained. This, when heated with base metals, had the power to breed gold. That was the theory and it cast such a spell over contemporaries that to this day magicians are shown as presiding over bubbling flasks and alembics (closed flasks made of glass). The procedure was shrouded in mystery and alchemical texts are illustrated with strange, symbolic pictures showing, among other things, the death and resurrection of the base metal.

To contemporaries, transmutation, though difficult, was a perfectly practical proposition. It was the equivalent of nuclear science today in that it needed great skill and had a huge potential both for good and ill. Many of the scientists of the day attempted it and not all were motivated by greed. It was believed that the Philosopher's Stone was the key to knowledge and the alchemists included genuine scholars, who laid the foundations of the scientific method which flowered during the Enlightenment.

Perhaps the best example is Queen Elizabeth's magician, Dr John Dee. His career reflects the shift from the pre-rational beliefs of the middle ages to the scientific principles which began to take shape in the age of reason. John Dee was a learned man who was well versed in Greek, Hebrew and Latin. He was a gifted mathematician who quickly adopted the new Arabic number system. A geographer and expert on navigation, he was one of the first to accept Copernicus's theory that the earth goes round the sun, rather than vice versa.

In all these aspects of his life he represented the new rationalist strand in Tudor thinking. He was the forerunner of Harvey and Newton, the scientists of the Enlightenment. But, like his predecessors, he based his scientific philosophy on the premise that magic existed and could be controlled by those who understood its rules. Thus he spent years attempting to make contact with angels using a crystal ball or scrying dish and his motives for doing this were entirely pragmatic. He wanted to understand how the universe worked, just as Newton did, two generations later. Unlike Newton he believed that higher beings, rather than direct observation could provide the information he needed.

Dee was a glamorous figure who provided the inspiration for Shakespeare's Prospero and the doomed Dr Faustus. His theories have been discredited but his memory, and that of other scholars of his time, still lingers on in the story books we read today.


Born in 1527, Dr John Dee was the son of a rich cloth merchant. As a university undergraduate, Dee's passion for knowledge led him to study for 18 hours a day, exploring geometry, arithmetic, harmonics and astronomy. He soon acquired a reputation for scholarship and at 19 he was a reader, or lecturer in Greek at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Throughout his life there were rumours that he dabbled in the black arts, and his first brush with the authorities came when he designed a giant dung beetle for a college production of Aristophanes' play, Peace. It was big enough to carry a man on its back and it flew through the air. The audience marvelled but some spectators refused to believe that the effect could be achieved by natural means. Dee, they claimed, had used witchcraft.

He left Cambridge to travel on the continent where he befriended Gerard Mercator, the German mapmaker. Dee learned from Mercator how to apply his mathematical skills to navigation.

Back in England he was taken up by the Earl of Northumberland and his protestant circle. When Mary Tudor came to the throne, Dee found himself in the Tower on charges of calculating, conjuring and witchcraft. He seems to have drawn up the horoscope of Mary, her husband Philip and the princess Elizabeth, and informers claimed he had "endeavoured by enchantments to destroy Queen Mary".

He was cleared and, when Elizabeth came to the throne, soon became the court magician. When a wax effigy of the Queen was discovered, stuck with pig bristles, or when a blazing star appeared in the sky, or the Queen fell sick with a mystery illness, Dee was summoned to give advice.

In an age of exploration, Dee's knowledge of mathematics and mapmaking was at a premium. When Martin Frobisher set out on his voyage to discover the fabled North West passage (the route which Elizabethan seamen believed connected the Atlantic and Pacific) it was Dr Dee who instructed him in the use of the latest navigational instruments and showed him how to chart his course. And it was to Dee that the Queen's ministers turned when they sought to reform the calendar to bring it in line with continental practice.

He died in 1609.



The Weathermonger Peter Dickinson Merlyn

The Sword in the Stone TH White Dallben

The Book of Three Lloyd Alexander The Wizard of Oz

L Frank Baum Gandalf

The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien Ged

The Wizard of Earthsea Ursula Le Guin Thomas Kempe

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe Penelope Lively Cole Hawlings

The Box of Delights John Masefield Harry Potter and Dumbledore

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone JK Rowling Dr John Dee

Stars of Fortune Cynthia Harnett Cadellin

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen Alan Garner Chrestomanci

The Magicians of Caprona Diana Wynne Jones Will Stanton

The Dark is Rising Susan Cooper Mr Strange

Under the Enchanter Nina Beachcroft Gwydion Gwyn

The Snow Spider Jenny Nimmo AT THE CINEMA

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Warner Brothers) goes on general release on November 15.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (New Line Cinema) comes out on December 18.

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