Magical Mondays: The Problem with the Wise Old Man Archetype

Obi WanThere are a lot of character archetypes that have been passed down to us almost since the beginning of storytelling. The Hero, the Hooker with a Heart of Gold, the Lovable Rogue, and many more are all archetypes we see often. One of the archetypes we see the most is that of the Wise Old Man. In other words, the magical guy of some sort that helps lead our Hero on their path to do the right thing. Though I understand the point of this archetype, it’s often one that annoys me.

The Witch BraveMy first issue with the Wise Old Man archetype is sexism. This is not overt or obvious sexism. After all, there is nothing wrong with having a Wise Old Man, but the traditional use of this archetype means we almost never get a Wise Old Woman to guide our hero on their journey. The closest equivalent that we get is the Witch archetype. Except the Witch, while wise, is almost always either an evil archetype to the Wise Old Man or at the very least a neutral party who cares very little for our hero either way. The Witch will often try to use her power to deceive or gain something from the Hero that the Hero doesn’t want to give. Or she will give the Hero a power or potion, knowing that the hero made a poor decision buying that particular item. However, she does nothing to stop them, because the Witch simply doesn’t care. 

Very rarely do we see a Wise Old Woman character actively leading or guiding the hero on their journey and helping them make the correct choices. It almost seems in some ways that our traditional narrative archetypes cause us to subconsciously think that women cannot fill this role. You have Ursula from The Little Mermaid who actively deceives Ariel so she can take control of the sea in the Disney version. In the original version the witch simply provides the little mermaid with what she wants, knowing that it could backfire, and simply says nothing and doesn’t advise her. She is an utterly neutral party. The witch in Brave is the same way. She gives Merida what she wants, but through a means that Merida is not happy or comfortable with. The Witch never advises Merida on what she should do or explains to Merida what is actually going to happen to her mother. Spirited Away is an interesting example, because we get two witches in the form of Yubaba and her sister. While Yubaba is quintessentially evil, her sister Zeniba actually helps the hero, but she is barely in it enough to be considered an actual Wise Old Woman figure.

AlfredMy second issue is with how many authors write the Wise Old Man archetype. Far too many authors in their narratives have the Wise Old Man just constantly doing exposition dumps about things—past events, magical objects, or the philosophy or morality that is being espoused in the story. Sometimes exposition is necessary, but exposition dumps are best to be avoided, especially if what the character is talking about can actually be shown to the reader instead of just told. The Wise Old Man archetype almost exists to tell the reader and the hero things we didn’t know before. And while sometimes that is necessary, more often than not, when this problem occurs, it’s the Wise Old Man that is the source of the problem. While not strictly fantasy, probably the best example of this is Alfred in the Nolan-verse Batman movies. Almost all of Alfred’s lines are huge expositional monologues espousing the philosophy of the movies. While I love Alfred and love the Nolan-verse movies, a lot of his dialogue seemed more like a philosophy lesson than anything else.

Obi Wan LukeAnd finally my biggest issue with this archetype is that in an effort to make the Wise Old Man seem wise is have him be very mysterious. Sadly, many authors make the Wise Old Man mysterious by having him withhold vital information. Despite this, the Wise Old Man is still presented as a good person even though the Hero often has to deal with discovering painful or important details for themselves in the worst way possible, only to discover that the Wise Old Man knew the whole time and simply didn’t tell them. This quite frankly makes the Wise Old Man seem like an unhelpful dick or at the very least, patronizing, because they tend to tell the Hero that they were trying to “protect them” by not telling them vitally important information. I think this is easily shown in Star Wars through Obi-Wan, who in the original three movies is meant to guide Luke to bring balance to the Force. Luke, in Empire Strikes Back, finds out that Darth Vader is his father, which is something Obi-Wan knew the whole time and lied to Luke about. Before, Obi-Wan told him that Vader killed his father. Now, Obi-Wan spins this as meaning that Anakin joining the dark side killed the man he used to be, but that is such bullshit. If Obi-Wan was viewed as an evil character, this would be viewed as Obi-Wan cruelly manipulating his words to convince Luke to kill Vader, despite knowing he is his father. The movies meant for Obi-Wan to still be shown as good and just protecting Luke, but honestly this effort to make him helpful and mysterious just makes him look like a dick.

While the Wise Old Man can serve as a great archetypal character, authors need to be careful that we don’t fall into some of the traps that these archetypes come with. Otherwise, stories can come off as tedious, cliché, or even sexist. Using archetypes is not necessarily a bad thing, but we need to use them in new and interesting ways to keep stories, fresh, innovative, and interesting.

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4 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: The Problem with the Wise Old Man Archetype

  1. The original Legend of Zelda game has an old man and an old woman. While the old man may be more instantly recognizable because he’s in that cave with the sword, the old Woman is the one who seems to be a character in the actual story, Impa.

    Star Wars does want us to morally question Obi-Wan, that is very clear from the Prequels where we learn the Jedi aren’t much better then the Sith. The moral complexity the Prequels add to the story is part of why I love them.

    I enjoy Exposition Dumps, I cannot relate to all the complaints about them somehow being boring. Exposition and Dialogue are what I’m most into when it comes to Genre fiction.

  2. Want to make a quick recommendation for the films of Mamoru Hosoda here. The grandmother in Summer Wars, and Aunt Kazuko in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (though she’d probably resent being call old *or* wise) both offer powerful moral and emotional support to other characters.

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