The Wand (or Other Magical Tool) Chooses the Wizard

Most of us are used to being able to pick up many everyday tools and use them, regardless of their provenance. If I need a knife to cut up a potato, I just get one out of the drawer. If I need a pen, I grab the pen at hand. It doesn’t really matter if the knife or pen is one I’ve had ashort while, one I inherited, or even one that belongs to someone else, as long as I can cut up the potato or write down the item on the grocery list. However, like most people, I find that it really does matter. I have a favorite paring knife; I have pens I like or don’t like. Sometimes, it is because of the intrinsic quality of the item. Maybe that particular knife just holds the edge well or does a particularly nice job on potatoes. Maybe that pen writes well. Sometimes, though, it’s more about personal preference. The size of that knife or pen might just be a great fit for my hand, which is smaller than that of most adults. Or, I might prefer a particular color of ink for the task at hand (I have never graded in red, always green, purple, or, occasionally, blue).  Even more subtly, though, that tool choice may be linked to something deeper. Perhaps I use that knife because my granny always used one like that to cut potatoes, or perhaps I choose a pen, even for a menial task, because it reminds me of someone special. Humans are used to choosing our tools for reasons that are both practical and sentimental. Yet, there is also the sense, especially in literature, that tools choose us, and that is a theme we can see not only in the Wizarding World, but also in a wide variety of other texts and popular media.

Wand Allegiance

The practice of wand-choosing in the Wizarding World is so iconic that Universal Studios has a whole guest experience designed around it. Orlando tourists could just walk into Ollivander’s and grab a wand off the shelf, along with a couple of t-shirts, water bottles, and hats, but there is a whole choosing opportunity that is much more fun than a mere purchase, built around the description of Harry Potterbuying his first wand (and around the film adaptation’s treatment of that event). In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Mr. Ollivander enjoys the challenge of finding the right fit for Harry and is fascinated by the fact that the wand which chooses our young wizard is linked to the one that killed his parents, a plot point that resonates throughout the whole series, of course, bringing us back around full circle to Mr. Ollivander’s conversation with Harry in The Deathly Hallows.

Wand-choosing goes far beyond the initial purchase made by bright-eyed young people purchasing school supplies. As we see throughout the Hogwarts saga, wizards and witches can use wands that have belonged to others, but never with the same connection they enjoy with their own wands, the wands that choose them, or which were won in combat. Hermione hates using Bellatrix’s wand, both because of its bloody and cruel history, and because it is not her own. “I really hate it. It feels all wrong, it doesn’t work properly for mer…It’s like a bit of her” (DH 519). A wand like Bellatrix’s, which has killed, is almost like a Horcrux, a piece of its evil owner.

Mr. Ollivander assures Harry and Ron that they can effectively use the wands of Draco and Wormtail respectively, since they defeated their previous owners in combat. In disarming Draco, however, Harry also gains the allegiance of the Elder Wand, since Draco haddisarmed its previous owner, Dumbledore, just before the headmaster’s planned death at the hands of Snape. Since Voldemort cannot understand that the allegiance-shift does not require killing the previous owner, he does not realize that the Elder Wand is faithful to Harry, who disarmed its last owner, rather than to himself, who killed Snape, who had killed Dumbledore.  Complex and convoluted (if correct) that chain of logic may be, but it also echoes through other magical objects which also work better (if at all) for certain people.

Those Who are Worthy

In the mytho-literary world of the Marvel universe, it is not surprising to find tools that share some of the Elder Wand’s preferencesregarding owners.  Some tools can be handed over to new owners. One of the best examples is in Avengers: Endgame with the  “passing of the torch/shield” when an elderly Steve Rogers, having gone back in time to live the life he was denied in 1945, hands off his iconic vibranium shield to Sam Wilson, the Falcon. While Sam does eventually come to terms with the complex legacy of the shield over the course of the first (and hopefully not last) season of The Falcon and the Winter Solider, his initial reaction, when Steve asks him how it feels to hold the shield, is that “it feels like it belongs to someone else.” Sam struggles to understand and embrace the symbol of Captain America, even relinquishing it for a while to a replacement Cap, who proves his unworthiness in a variety of ways, including killing a defeated enemy with the shield’s edge, sullying both the shield and his image in the process. Only when Sam accepts that he is the true Captain America, taking up both the shield and the mantle of the First Avenger, can the shield be used properly and by the one who deserves it.

While anyone can carry, or even use, the shield to some degree, Thor’s magic hammer, the legendary Mjolnir, can only be lifted by the worthy, which actually includes Captain Rogers himself, who brandishes both the shield and Mjolnir against Thanos, with Thor’s blessing. The Vision, a worthy individual as well, can also lift the hammer, and his ability to do so in Age of Ultron is the primary reason he is embraced by the Avengers despite his questionable origins and appearance.  Others, however, cannot even lift the hammer, as evidenced by the amusing scene with various Avengers making the attempt. Even Thor, before he proves his worth in his own first feature film, is unable to lift the hammer. Only when he chooses self-sacrifice and service, qualities that demonstrate the worth suitable for a king and hero, can Thor wield Mjolnir. When he falls into drinking and depression after Thanos’s snap, he doubts himself so much that he is pleasantly surprised and relieved to find that he is “still worthy” as Mjolnir flies to his hand on his time-travel trip to Asgard of the past.

Arthur, King of the Britons, Puller of Swords from Stones

The idea that only a certain person can wield a weapon is not, of course, an idea created for Marvel comics, or even exclusive to the mythos of the Norse. Folklore and legends of a variety of cultures feature magical swords, many of which can only be used by a specific person. The most familiar example is probably King Arthur’s Excalibur, the famous Sword in the Stone, which would could only be pulled from the sword and anvil by the true king. As the descriptive inscription reads: “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, isking born of all England.”  That inscription, of course, is very like the verse Odin speaks over Mjolnir in Thor: “Whosever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor,”  and the movie scenes of various people trying to lift Mljolnir from where it has fallen to earth are very like those of unworthy knights trying to draw the sword from its tone. While some versions of the Arthurian legends separate Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone, designating the former as the sword bestowed by the Lady in the Lake (regardless of whether or not a vote was held, Monty Python fans), they are often elided. I always loved the explanation offered by my wonderful professor of medieval history, Dr. Spears, who liked to show how the phrase for taking the sword from the stone (in Latin, the word “saxo” means stone) could easily have originally meant taking the sword away from (disarming) the Saxons.

In the Disney version, of course, young Wart (Arthur) pulls the sword from the stone, in a snowy London churchyard, because, as squire,he has to get a replacement sword for his Dudley-esque cousin to use to in a tourney. When he pulls the sword from the stone, his role as king is acknowledged, even by those Dursley-like relatives, and, thankfully, he has the assistance of the very Dumbledore-like Merlin. Like Harry, Wart is a kid whose good heart helps him when he is in over his head. His goodness is what makes him worthy. Not everyone has such worth, of course, although the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World has a darling show in which Merlin appears at the Sword in the Stone next to the Carousel in Fantasyland, calling on volunteers (particularly children) from the audience to see if they can free the sword. Since Disney magic is at work, some folks do get to release the sword, but they are not instantly made royalty (unless we count the fact that young female resort guests are generally always referred to as “Princess”).

 

The Darksaber in the Stone?

A princess can use a sword, of course, even in space, as evidenced by the fact that Princess Leia has one. One of the most interesting examples of a weapon functioning as the wands do has just recently been presented in the Star Wars universe, in the Book of Boba Fett series. In the latest episode, in which the titular bounty hunter was notably absent from the screen, the legendary Darksaber of Mandalore was featured.  The episode largely focused on the character of Din Djarin, the Mandalorian, crossing over from his own series, as at the end of the last season, he found himself the new owner of a strange weapon, the darksaber, as opposed to the lightsabers of the Jedi. Saberlore in the Star Wars universe is complex and fascinating, but even those with limited knowledge know about lightsabers and that there is something about them that binds them to their owners. Anyone can use a “clumsy”  blaster, though perhaps not as well as a pro like Han Solo, butlightsabers have an affinity for their owners. Han only uses a lightsaber when he has to (like cutting open a tauntaun to save Luke’s life), as he is much more comfortable with an “uncivilized,” non-hokey, non-ancient weapon. Although Jedi can use each other’s lightsabers, it does matter who made and used the weapon before. The trajectory of Anakin Skywalker’s saber is at least as complicated as that of the Elder wand, and Luke and Rey, who use it but eschew the dark,  make new weapons or take up ones without the Darth Vader baggage attached.

The Darksaber, which Din won by defeating its previous owner, was, according to the latest episode, created by an ancient Jedi who was also a Mandalorian. According to the Armorer, who has a vast knowledge of “the way” and helps Din understand such things, it can only pass to a new master who wins it in combat, “by Creed.” If it is merely handed off to a new owner, that owner can use it, but is not the rightful heir of the blade and ruler of Mandalore, heir of Mandalore the Great. Although Din effectively uses the darksaber to fight off attackers (cutting one right in half, yuck), he has trouble with it. He injures himself with it in a fight, and, while sparring with the Armorer, he says that the darksaber gets heavier all the time, so she notes that this is because he is fighting against it.  For a really good overview of the fascinating theory on how Boba Fett should be able to wield the blade, check out this great Star Wars Fanatic podcast, which demonstrates that, like the Elder Wand, the Dark Saber has switched allegiances. It’s a great theory, relying on the fact that Boba Fett is an exact clone of his father, Jango, who defeated the saber’s previous bearer, so there is a great deal of possibility there, and it will be interesting to see how the arc continues and how similar it is to that of the Elder Wand.

While magical weapons with minds of their own are nothing new, it is always fascinating to find them in a story, like treasure in a long-buried horde, just waiting for us to touch and see if we are worthy.

Comments

  1. Brian Basore says

    I was introduced to fountain pens by people in my parents’ generation whose children did not want those pens. Imagine, in a way, if wands went out of use in the Wizarding World. What I’ve learned is that the right pen is a pleasure and a wonder to use. It’s not a splashy reaction like Harry meeting ‘his’ wand, a warm feeling then fireworks and all, but there’s a definite personal fit. One time I could somehow tell a broken pen was a good one, and after rebuilding, it was great. (I had to quit using it after it wouldn’t fix anymore.) Even a steel pen that one dips into an inkwell, the kind universally used for so long when everyone wrote at desks, can be nice to use, with the right combination of handle, pen (just a nib (there used to be a lot of manufacturers of different shapes), and inkwell (it took me a long time to find the right design of inkwell) and ink.

    Harry bought stylus pens and ink, as part of his school supplies, that always worked. That’s old school technology with a magic guarantee, like Wizarding kitchen pans that stir themselves.

  2. Brian Basore says

    Another way pens, fountain or steel, up through the 1950s in the Muggle world, were like wands in the Hogwarts Saga is that you trained to use them in school, though they, like wands in the Wizarding World, were in general use. (That’s why the old school desks had inkwell sized holes in the upper right hand corner and a pen rest machined into the surface of the desk near the top.) Penmanship and Handwriting were class subjects basic to instruction in Reading, Writing,, and Math. The schools supplied the ink, starting in grade school with Washable Blue ink. When you graduated to permanent black ink in the upper grades you knew you were considered almost an adult.

    It wasn’t until High School that I had typing class, and it wasn’t until college that instructors wanted school papers typed, instead of handwritten. That was in the 1970s.

  3. I love these comparisons between different fictional universes. More, please! 🙂

    Travis Prinzi wrote a chapter in “Harry Potter and Imagination” called “Worthy of Hallows” where he traces the Hallows and the way Rowling uses them back to Arthurian myth. It’s very much the same kind of philosophy about the magical objects and being a worthy wielder. A good read for those interested in going deeper into this topic.

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