In Paula Brandon’s new novel The Wanderers, the world’s fate rests with a cranky hermit named Grix Orlazzu. While a crotchety old recluse might seem to be an unlikely hero in a fantasy series, Orlazzu is only the latest in a long line of similar characters who can all be categorized as representatives of the “Wise Old Man” archetype.
An “archetype” is a kind of recurring character type found in all of humanity’s arts and stories. The term was first coined by Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung. Jung proposed the existence of a “collective unconscious” from which we draw all of our dreams and fantasies. Symbols and archetypes are manifested from this collective unconscious of which we all have access, and they populate our arts and stories we tell about ourselves.
The Wise Old Man is an enduring archetype that can be found in mythology and popular culture alike, and is often presented as a guru or teacher who initiates the protagonist into greater mysteries. A good example of this can be found in Star Wars when Yoda helps Luke Skywalker complete his Jedi training. Sometimes the Wise Old Man is a bit supernatural, or not of this world, himself. Again, Yoda, particularly in the context of the original trilogy (he’s the only one of his kind in those movies) easily meets this criteria.
Sometimes the Wise Old Man is a little cranky, seemingly crazy or even intimidating, like Gandalf the Grey or Merlin or the King Arthur stories. Like Yoda, both of these wizards are also not of this world: Gandalf is one of the Istari in the guise of an old man and Merlin was the spawn of a human being and a demon. Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope is another seemingly crazy, sometimes cranky old man with access to secret powers. Orlazzu himself has access to powerful magics but doesn’t seem particularly interested in using them…at first. Why? It’s because the Wise Old Man is a guardian of the mysteries, and doesn’t let just anyone in.
Using archetypes in fiction isn’t “cheating”. There’s a reason that these characters endure: they’re resonant on a mythic level. We recognize them as “real” in some way. Jung might have even said that we don’t have any choice but to use them because they’re the building blocks of our very psychology.