Wizard’s Duel

August 25th, 2007

The classic Wizard’s Duel is a battle won by lateral thinking rather than brute force.

The earliest examples are shape-shifter battles, known from ancient times. Author Neil Gaiman calls it variously the Oldest Game and the Game of Forms.

(The soundtrack is unrelated to the video, I suggest muting it.)

The Oldest of Schools

An account of a Wizard’s Duel with shape-shifting elements is found in early Sumerian texts from the 3rd millennium BC. In the story of “Enmerkar and En-suhgir-ana,” an itinerant sorcerer has been ruining nearby farm production by taunting livestock, so the wise woman Sajburu of Erec confronts him on the banks of the Euphrates.

Sajburu and the sorcerer both throw fish eggs into the river; from the sorcerer’s eggs springs a carp, but from Sajburu’s eggs springs an eagle, which snatches the carp and carries it off to the mountains. In the next round of eggs, the sorcerer makes sheep, and Sajburu makes a wolf, which drags the sheep off to the desert. They go a few more rounds before the sorcerer concedes — then Sajburu eats his life-force. Problem solved.

In the book of Exodus, circa 1300 BC, Moses battles the Pharaoh’s sorcerers in a similar way. To prove his magical skillz, he throws his staff to the ground, and it becomes a snake. Unimpressed, the sorcerers do the same to their own staffs, but in an impressive display of holy pwnage, Moses’s snake eats the others.

Change is Good

What if I’m a lake?

The Odyssey, dated between 800-600 BC, contains another famous shape-shifting battle, this time with lateral thinking winning over brute sorcery. Proteus, the prophetic Old Man of the Sea, is minding his own business herding a flock of seals. The Spartan king Menelaus wants information from Proteus, so he dons a seal skin to infiltrate the seal flock. When Proteus falls asleep, Menelaus grabs him and hangs on though Proteus, in a panic, shape-shifts ineffectually into a lion, a serpent, a leopard, a pig, rushing water, and a tree before he runs out of magic points and surrenders.

A related theme in mythology is the Transformation Chase, wherein a character changes shapes to escape a pursuer; sometimes the pursuer shape-shifts as well. This shows up frequently in The Brothers Grimm, but appears in much older stories too. Loki, the Norse trickster god known for shape-shifting, attempts to escape his final fate by changing into a salmon and fleeing down-river. He is caught, but gets credit for inspiring the fishing-net.

The Sword in the Stone, the 1938 novel by T. H. White, gave us Merlin vs. Mad Madam Mim — a classic Shapeshifter’s Battle — shown in the clip at the top from the 1963 Disney adaptation. (The scene was excised from the pacifist post-war collection The Once and Future King.)

Three more modern film examples cut more closely to the heart of the matter: Neo vs. Agent Smith, Paprika vs. the Chairman, and the climax of Pixar’s Ratatouille. In all three films, using combinations of technology, willpower, and kung fu, we come full circle back to the banks of the Euphrates: by literally entering and co-opting the body of the enemy, the victor eats the life force of the vanquished.

My New Fighting Technique is Weird

Kung fu is itself thematically related to shapeshifter battles, to the point of having styles named for animals. In particular, Jackie Chan-style monkey fu features unexpected and acrobatic placement of the hands and feet, not to mention clever use of furniture, kitchen implements, and poultry. Much of the modern wuxia genre of Asian film concentrates on this aspect of combat, though there is a fine line drawn between honorable cleverness and sneaky underhandedness; any technique involving scratching, for instance, is only used by Bad Guys.

Regardless, in most underdog and trickster tales, cunning and sneakiness are the tools used to win the day. The lateral thinker is often a culture hero as well — Prometheus and Odysseus are known for their metis, or cunning, manifesting as word tricks, disguises, and overall smartitude.

Prequel Yoda
Cooler as a muppet

Many modern examples of wizardly throwdowns lack this sort of cunning, and are reduced to Feats of Strength. Dumbledore vs. Voldemort, Gandalf vs. Saruman, and Yoda vs. Dooku are flashy, yet flat. There aren’t any tricks involved; one of them just beats the other into submission. Even boxing is better when there’s sneakiness, e.g. Muhammad Ali’s roping of dopes.

Classic underdog battles, like David vs. Goliath or Apple vs. Microsoft, aren’t appealing only because they’re small vs. big — they’re interesting because the hero is crafty. We want Astronaut to beat Caveman, especially with kung fu; it’s way cooler than another story about Cavemen bashing each other with clubs. Plus it gives us hope for the world — if Astronauts can clever their way to victory, maybe we can too.

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