So what’s the difference?
I used to feel the same unnerving frustration most readers become plagued with when they first enter the fantasy scene and discover that there is almost no consistency between different authors’ interpretations of magic (D&D literature aside). Why do some spells work only if you can say “the right words” while others require the right blend of exotic animal parts? (Eye of newt, etc.) And then still, we have magic that invades the storyline, completely unprovoked, to tear down the very backdrop of reality we cling to for understanding. (Time Bandits anyone?)
But this is a good quality in a genre, because it keeps things fresh. It prevents magic from losing its…magic. Sometimes magic is allegorical or an expression of profound emotional desire, and many authors choose to embody these motifs within a single character type, interchangeably called either a wizard or a sorcerer. These are people who have “figured it out”, having attained some sort of cosmic awareness which grants them special knowledge to tap into the secret capabilities of humanity and the universe.
In a broader term, we are describing magicians (or mages for short), but that word makes us think about fancy card tricks, sleek wands with white tips, long-legged disembodied ladies, and emotionally abused white rabbits. So, fantasy writers might look to folklore and call their magic-users shamans, witches, or warlocks. Still, those concepts are specific to a regional or occult-ish context, and are not broad enough titles to substitute for the useful but unimaginative phrase “magic-user”.
To most people’s comforts, wizardry and sorcery are blank enough slates for writers to create their own sandbox and see what castles they can come up with. But as it stands today, concurrent fantasy readers will have an idea of their differences. Where a wizard is seen more as an occupation like “doctor”, involving years of education and study leading to a unique and highly sought for expertise, a sorcerer implies a natural prodigy with the inborn talent and raw will to invoke fantastic phenomena. As a result, the wizard has become a figure with a degree of prestige, using tools (spell book, wand, etc.) and logic-based magic, where the sorcerer is the wild counterpart, emotionally driven with fiery eyes, a death touch, and can grab the moon out of the night sky and slide it into his/her pocket.
Terry Pratchett in particular loves to over emphasize the intellectualism of the Discworld wizards from the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, who, in Soul Music, pick apart a new kind of music box that plays “music with rocks in” trying to understand not how the box is playing music but why the sound makes them want to stomp their feet, bang their heads, and paint their bedroom walls black.
Wizardry depends on scientific (if absurd) methods to make magic understandable within a system of phenomena (which allows fantasy to blend into sci-fi). But when sorcery occurs, it has to happen, not simply as a plot device, but because it needs to happen in order to drive at some immediate, persistent, irrational desire that gives the reader a peek beyond the show magician’s curtain, which inexperienced fantasy readers may have become accustomed to taking for granted.
Leif Carl Behmer received his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Texas–Pan American and his Bachelors in English at the University of Houston–Downtown. His passion for fantasy fiction stems from his exposure to fantasy in both classic fairytale literature and the fantasy role-playing genre of the video gaming industry. His pursuit of the discipline of writing led him to take courses in technical writing and dramatic writing, as well as studying tutor theory. Leif writes dramatic scripts for pop-culture conventions. He is currently a composition and literature instructor at Houston Community College and Lone Star Community College in Houston, Texas.