Wednesday, 1 February 2017

G+ Seminar - Wizards in Towers

(You can't really make a G+ seminar happen, they spring into being organically and unpredictably around certain topics and prompts. But when they do spring up I think we should try to save them somewhere instead of just dumping them into the morass of G+ where everything is really hard to search and which is probably going to be shut down by Google anyway once they realise they can't wring the blood from that red stone.)

This was prompted by a question from Zak about the linking of Wizards to towers in the imaginative mind.

I did think about chopping this up to present it to you in some kind of chronological order, running either backwards from Tolkien (who I think distilled the idea into its current form) or forwards from Ziggurats and Zorastonian Towers of Silence, but it would have meant chopping and editing so much that it risked presenting the work done more as mine than as the peoples involved (and would have been a bitch to do), and the conversational format has a ragged logic and interest of its own.

So, prepare yourselves for a journey back through early 20th century fiction, into the middle ages and its magicians, alchemists, astronomers and invisible collages, and further back to artificial mountains on which you meet the gods.

Original conversation is heeeeerrree.

(When links lead straight to images I tried to replace them with the images themselves. Formatting is borked by the transfer from G+ to blogger but blogger borks everything anyway.)

(Oh and, of course, if anyone in this conversation wants their words or information removed then let me know and I will do so.)

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Jan 31, 22:32
OK, Wizards In Towers. It makes all the sense in the world but where does it come from?

Tolkien ether invents the trope or re-invents it so powerfully that it sticks for everything after that.

Before that, the earliest version I could find is The Iron Tower of Carcë in The Worm Ouroboros.

Does anyone have any earlier mentions from literature or mythology?
  • 1h
  • Richard G's profile photo
    Simon Magus is interesting because he builds a tower in order to fly from it, which suggests gliding to me - more Icarus than Pythagoras.

    There's no suggestion that he lived or worked there habitually, is there? I agree, for the image that's not important. I'm just wondering if there's a suggestion in the story that something else might've been going on.

  • Dunkey Halton's profile photo
    +Richard G I don't think that's the question Patrick is asking, though. I think he wants a wizard in something that we would now recognise as a tower, as opposed to something that a 16th-century guy would recognise as a tower. So the Tower of London is not a tower for the purpose of this question, but the Galata Tower or St. Mark's Campanile would be.

  • Patrick Stuart's profile photo
    +Dunkey Halton It's still valuable information and following the roots of the idea has a fascination of its own.


(Reading back through this, the thing towers remind me of is the nacelles of the Enterprise or a suspension bridge. Power without visible strength. Power without mass to back it up. The absence of a large mass to sustain or confirm an evident power thereby multiplying it, giving it a particular tincture and feeling becasue of its occult, in the literal sense, properties. A power whose source you cannot see and whose limits you therefore do not know. 

Add to that, separation, domination, introversion.

Yet the tower is not truly a seperate place, a mountaintop does that, a tower is in a particular conversation with civilisation, it is a statement of separation *to* those you are separating from, while actually remaining reasonably close to them, in range of the shops and a decent tailors. The wizards tower in that conception would be the architectural equivalent of a pair of sunglasses and a leather jacket.)


  1. It seems to me that in demanding a ["wizard"|"enchanter"|etc.] in a "tower" prior to the 19th century, the linguistic angle has been overlooked a bit. There's some discussion about whether the Tower of Babel was properly a "tower" or whether that was a translation issue, but the word "tower" is itself derived from a more general Latin word meaning "high structure":

    Old English torr "tower, watchtower," from Latin turris "a tower, citadel, high structure" (also source of Old French tor, 11c., Modern French tour; Spanish, Italian torre "tower"), possibly from a pre-Indo-European Mediterranean language. Meaning "lofty pile or mass" is recorded from mid-14c. Also borrowed separately 13c. as tour, from Old French tur; the modern spelling (1520s) represents a merger of the two forms.

    So when writers in English later refer to ancient wizards who lived in "towers", they may very well be translating ancient ziggurats, mountaintops, forts, citadels, or castles directly or indirectly from Latin sources that called all of these things "turris".

  2. For what it's worth, here's a mid-seventeenth-century example of someone who clearly thinks that a 'high lonely towr' is the appropriate place for him to carry out his magical studies:

    Or let my Lamp at midnight hour,
    Be seen in som high lonely Towr,
    Where I may oft out-watch the Bear,
    With thrice great Hermes, or unsphear
    The spirit of Plato to unfold
    What Worlds, or what vast Regions hold
    The immortal mind that hath forsook
    Her mansion in this fleshly nook:
    And of those Dæmons that are found
    In fire, air, flood, or under ground,
    Whose power hath a true consent
    With Planet, or with Element.

    - John Milton, 'Il Penseroso' (1645)

  3. Tried to reach you guys earlier...Do not forget the Stylites:

  4. The links to ngrams suggest other searches.

    1) Wizards don't live in towers, they live in houses:

    2) A bit off topic but if you're going to find a magic-type person in a dwelling, it'll be a witch in a house: