Wizards: From Merlin to Faust

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsWizards by David and Lesley McIntee Osprey Myths & LegendsWizards: From Merlin to Faust by David and Lesley McIntee

I’ve been a huge fan of just about all the MYTHS AND LEGENDS series from Osprey Publishing, having given four stars to Troy, Robin Hood, and Thor; and 4.5 to King Arthur, with only Jason and the Argonauts standing out as a weak entry in the roll. Until now. The most recent text in the series (for me at least) is called Wizards: From Merlin to Faust, and I have to admit, I really looked forward to reading this, cataloging in my head all the fantastic options they’d have to choose from. It turns out though that I wasn’t look at the idea of “wizard” through the same prism as the editors at Osprey or authors David and Lesley McIntee, so maybe my reaction to the book is more my fault than theirs.

The text opens with a brief overview about the belief in magic, beginning with the shamans, and then the ways in which that belief changed over time. The authors cite Elsie Butler, listing several tropes of the “myth of the magus.” We then follow the same basic pattern: a retelling of a wizard’s adventure or two and then a look at the possible historical background of said wizard.

The wizards themselves are divided into several groups: The Original Wizards (Dedi, Hermes Thrice Great, Simon Magus), Wizards of the First Millennium (Virgil, Geber), The Wizard of Camelot (Merlin), Wizards of the East (Zhang Guo Lao, the Nameless Wizard), Wizards of the Renaissance (Nicholas Flamel, Benvenuto Cellini), The Golden Age Wizards (Francis Steward, John Dee, Faust), and Wizards today.

As is the norm with this series, concision is a main goal, and so the stories are quite brief, as are the histories. In many of the other texts, most of which had a singular focus (Arthur, Robin Hood), this was not a problem. Here, though, where the authors are covering an idea rather than a person, and then under the umbrella of that idea covering over a dozen individuals, the concision is more problematic. The stories are enough for a taste, but I found myself wishing for either a bit more depth of coverage for each or failing that wishing for more direct and complete links between these disparate figures.

That said, the “taste” one gets does offer enough flavor to pique the reader’s interest, which is one of the main goals of this series. It is not meant to be the entire journey, but more of a stepping off moment, and in this fashion, Wizards does mostly succeed. Like most readers (save the younger ones) who come to this, I already knew quite a bit about Merlin and Faust, was more than a little familiar with Virgil, Flamel Hermes, and Dee as well, and knew at least a little about Simon Magus and Steward. The others, especially the non-Western ones such as the Chinese Zhang Guo Lao and the Egyptian Dedi, were entirely new to me. I especially appreciated the author’s willingness to move beyond the western model, not just for the diversity but because the stories involving Lao were my favorites by far — told with a charming bit of humor and energy that really made them stand out.

The other stories varied in their interest and energy, though part of that might also be attributed to how fresh they seemed. Some were a bit more summative than narrative in nature, their language a bit flatter, but none were poorly told or dragged at all.

The histories are brief but generally informative and are enhanced by several sidebars, the use of which I’d say has improved since the first one or two in the series as Osprey’s editors have found a better balance between full text and sidebar. As with all of the others, the text is loaded with artwork, only some of which I was able to see due to the preview e-book version I had to work with. But based on what was available, the art is once again top-notch, including images of classic artwork, (Dore illustration of The Divine Comedy or of Merlin, for instance), photos of sites or texts, and original illustrations by Mark Stacey.

Wizards: From Merlin to Faust is a solid entry in the series, but because of how the concise nature of the books works against the text in this instance, and because of the flatter nature of some of the selections (and also, admittedly, perhaps because of it not meeting expectations that were solely my own), I found it to be one of the weaker books in MYTHS AND LEGENDS. It remains a decent starting point though, especially for its non-Western examples, and it has several gems in it thanks to Zhang Guo Lao.

Publication Date: May 20, 2014. From the wise and mysterious soothsayer with his long grey beard to the deathless necromancer practicing his dark magics in a forgotten dungeon, wizards have captured our imaginations since the earliest days of human storytelling, presenting us with some of our greatest heroes and villains. This book collects the tales of the most interesting, popular, and important spell-casters from history, including such legendary figures as Merlin, Simon Magus, Hermes Trismegistus, Koschei the Deathless, Nicholas Flamel, Dr John Dee, and Johann Georg Faust. Written to appeal to the modern reader, each tale captures the drama, the tragedy, and the wonderment that has ensured that these stories have survived the passing centuries. Each story is also examined in its historical, mythological, and thaumaturgical contexts.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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