Successful wizards command incredible power. They wiggle their wands, sprinkle a few archaic words and suddenly the sky splits with lightning, fire scorches the earth and demons grovel before their very feet.
And then there are the failures: reckless apprentices, power-hungry adepts and thrice-cursed conjurers who mortgage their very souls for immortality and fancy hats.
See, sorcery is not for the faint of heart. It's a tightrope walk over a gulf of damnation. It's a juggling act of cataclysmic forces and maddening revelations. There are a hundred ways to screw up any given magic spell and, as the saying goes, you're a genius if you can think of 10.
So in the hope of educating future practitioners of the thaumaturgic arts, here are 10 examples of wizarding failure – a sorcerer's hall of shame, if you will, populated by men and women who fell from grace, grasped for the stars or simply failed to leave the tarmac in the first place.
Learn from their mistakes, gentle reader, and avoid their tragic fates.
Lord Voldemort employed countless cowards, psychos and sycophants in his rise to power, yet only the dark wizard's greatest servant makes this tragic list.
Shocked? You might well be. After all, Barty Crouch Jr. was no slouch. Not only did he infiltrate Hogwarts, he did so by kidnapping and impersonating the formidable Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody. That took magical finesse, and everyone fell for it. Teachers and students alike took Crouch for the genuine article as he taught Defense Against the Dark Arts classes by day and secretly plotted to deliver Harry Potter to the dark lord during lunch breaks and planning periods.
Here's the kicker: Crouch succeeded! Yet so flawless was his execution, so perfect his disguise, that he actually proved an exceptional instructor to his young charges. He taught Potter and friends to overcome all three unforgivable curses and vanquish the forces of evil. Way to go, Crouch.
The lesson: A tireless work ethic is an excellent trait in a wizard, but maybe slack off a little when it comes to training your master's archenemy. Otherwise, what's the use in torturing innocents, killing your father and dying in the clutches of a Dementor?
Wizards are dangerous company for muggles in the best of circumstances. If they're not actively pursuing some dark power or forbidden secret, then they're probably enemies of someone who is. They may be funny, charming and sexy, but danger always comes a knocking, and it's rarely the guy with the magic wand who winds up in the morgue.
Which brings us to John Constantine, the occult detective with rock-star good looks and a knack for getting all his friends and lovers killed. Even in the wizarding noir community, this Hellblazer has something of a reputation. Several of the more wronged spirits even haunt Constantine from beyond the grave – including two victims of a disastrous exorcism attempt in Newcastle.
Plagued by guilt, Constantine initially suffered two years of madness following the Newcastle Incident before settling into a deep, brooding pit of self-loathing and bitterness. He still saves the world occasionally, but happiness isn't in the cards.
The lesson: Wizards, think long and hard before you invite your lover to an impromptu séance or crash at a friend's place when there's a demon on the loose. You move in dangerous circles, but at least you can shoot magic missiles. Spare your friends and spare yourself decades of guilt-ridden torment.
Nobody bats an eye when a novice wizard gets in over his head. But dark mysteries and ancient sorceries can overcome even the wisest wizard. Just consider the case of Avyctes of Poseidonis. He didn't use his power to brutalize a kingdom. He didn't plot to cast the Earth into darkness. He was content to pine away his final years in study.
Avyctes, however, was an addict. His drug of choice? Forbidden knowledge. So while schemes and worldly power failed to interest him, the mysteries of the ancients proved an irresistible temptation.
So Avyctes purchased the oldest, rarest thing he could find: a mirror-bright tablet of the primordial serpent-people. Absolutely no one knew how the thing worked, and the wizard had to call up the ghosts of prehistoric shamans just to figure out which way to read the text.
When he finally succeeded in activating the thing, it summoned a ghastly shadow. At first this pool of blackness just lay on the floor, but the thing crept steadily closer to Avyctes' own shadow, until finally the two dark patches touched. Avyctes' death was horrible, but that was just the beginning. The ghastly shadow made the wizard's corpse its new avatar, twisting the dead flesh into a vessel for its own unknowable desires.
The lesson: Never recite an incantation you don't understand. That's common sense for most accomplished wizards -- at least until scholarly curiosity overpowers caution.
Say what you will about the Master, but this stylish servant of Manos had potential: hypnotic powers, an advanced grasp of fire magic and power over life and death. Plus, just look at that fashion sense! Half the wizarding battle is knowing which robe to go with.
Based out of a desert compound, he could have been the next Nix "the Puritan," but instead the Master decided to marry every woman in sight and buy a dog. He eventually hired a dim-witted satyr named Torgo to look after the place.
And that's pretty much it. Presumably, the Master continues to wander around in his robes, worship a hand deity and probably play Xbox 360 in the rumpus room. Why translate forbidden texts or ascend to godhood when you can play "Call of Duty" and eat Funyuns all day?
The lesson: Wizards, it's perfectly fine to absorb yourself in dark hobbies and inane scholarly pursuits, but use those powers for something! Open a cursed novelty store at least. Sponsor a Hobbit. Don't squander your gifts running a lackluster polygamist cult.
Lust can corrupt just about anyone, all the more if you conjure a direct line to the Prince of Darkness and start making crazy requests. You know, like magic rejuvenation and the chance to bed every duchess in Italy.
That's the deal Faust makes with the demon Mephistopheles: unbridled debauchery and jaw-dropping magic powers all for the low, low cost of his immortal soul. See, like all humans, Faust stunk at weighing short-term pleasures against long-term pains. That's why his tale strikes such accord with the rest of us. To some extent, we all fill our days with Faustian bargains.
In some versions of the story, a repentant Faust overcomes his contract with damnation via the classic legal loophole of true love. Other storytellers send him straight to hell.
The lesson: Don't sign contracts with demonic entities, wizards, no matter how sweet the payoff seems. Credit card companies make their fortune off debt not loans, and you can be sure that hell has a similar business model.
The wizard Rincewind finds a perfect home at the dead center of this list. He's a man of meager plots at best and, for all his legendary ineptitude, he's yet to stumble into a fate worse than death. He carries on thanks to his unequaled survival instinct, extreme cowardice and the blessing/curse of one or more deities and demigods.
Rincewind occasionally helps save Discworld from this doom or another, but he also boasts an impressive ability to solve minor problems by turning them into major disasters. So it all kind of balances out. Most impressively, he has almost no magical skill whatsoever. Aside from a single arcane spell accidentally lodged in his brain, Rincewind's sorcerous acumen is mostly a matter of book smarts.
The lesson: On the plus side, take heart that even the most useless of wizards enjoys certain survival privileges. But here's the other side of the coin: Wizards by their very nature stumble into dangerous and terrifying circumstances. Don't run, because you'll wind up at the center of the story anyway.
There's much to admire in Wilbur Whateley. Born the bastard spawn of an erratic albino mother and an incorporeal father, the young man overcame his many inhuman deformities to become something of a self-taught expert in the world's blackest sorcery. Plus, he did all this while supporting a decrepit grandfather and an amorphous, cattle-gobbling twin brother.
But the man had dreams – big dreams. Whateley aimed to summon the blasphemous Old Ones back to Earth and birth a new age of darkness. So this half-human scholar, barely hiding his crotch tentacles, set out to obtain a copy of the dreaded "Necronomicon" from the local library.
Naturally, they rejected his request out of concern for Earth's safety. So Whateley did what any sensible wizard would do: He attempted armed burglary – and was promptly killed, stripped and partially eaten by a guard dog.
The lesson: Wizards, occult secrets and dark wisdom are one thing, but don't turn to petty crime in order to achieve your sorcerous goals. Just remember poor Whateley, his cosmic ambition and the dog that ate him.
Talk about a fall from grace. Saruman the White was a heaven-sent demigod, gifted with all the magical might and political charm to unite the peoples of Middle Earth against the forces of darkness. That's something of a dream job in the wizarding world, but alas the grass is always greener.
Over time that dream job soured. Endless White Council meetings and planning sessions consumed Saruman's days, while outside a storm of modernity began to creep into the world. So Saruman decided to cast it all aside and make a play for the all-powerful One Ring. He industrialized Isengard, raised an army of orcs and set out to make his mark on the world.
It didn't quite work out. Isengard fell. His armies scattered. Too prideful to crawl back to Gandalf and the White Council, he instead conquered the Shire and attempted to modernize the hobbits. Defeated here as well, he died at the hands of his backstabbing lackey Wormtongue in one of Hobbiton's worst neighborhoods.
The lesson: Look, the life of a highly successful wizard isn't all Balrog battles and dark wizard duels. Sometimes you just have to sit through a meeting, fill out some paperwork and settle for collective glory.
An overpowered device, be it an iPhone or a magic mirror, is a recipe for disaster. At first it's the utility of the thing. Sometimes you NEED to check your e-mail on the go or ask a demonic visage for updates on the kingdom.
But then the inevitable abuse begins. You start checking football scores at red lights. You fire up "Angry Birds" at your brother's wedding. In a moment of waning self-confidence, you even ask your magic mirror to rat out pretty girls so you can deploy axe-wielding henchmen to cut out their hearts.
That's exactly the trap our queen fell into. Jealously protective of her status as "the fairest of them all," she used her mirror to magically e-stalk her rival. When her huntsman failed her, she turned to even darker magic, twisting her appearance into that of an old hag and gifting Snow White a bevy of lethally cursed items: a haunted corset, a toxic comb and finally a poison apple.
In the end, her murderous attempts failed. Depending on the account you read, she either died a twisted hag, pursued by murderous dwarves, or the sadistic Snow White forced her to dance in red hot iron shoes at her wedding.
The lesson: Whatever the details of her downfall, the queen's fate was avoidable. Let well enough alone and don't use your magic to pursue petty vendettas. Just turn the smartphones off, set the demonic mirror aside and read a book or something.
Magical artifacts are always a gamble. They tempt us with powers beyond our wildest dreams, but there's always a price to pay.
Just before the great mushroom war cast the world into a post-apocalyptic world of magic and monsters, an antiquarian named Simon Petrikov acquired an ancient golden crown. To wear this artifact was to invite strange visions and lapses of consciousness – but it also gave the wearer chilling magical powers.
Petrikov lost his sanity to the crown and in turn lost his fiancé Betty -- all as the world descended into atomic desolation. While the crown enabled Petrikov's survival and granted him an unnaturally long life, it reduced him to a bumbling, petty and desperately lonely old man. Now known as The Ice King, he dodders away in his fortress with his pet penguins, plotting to kidnap princesses in a demented attempt to reclaim the love he lost in another life.
The lesson: No one wants to be the Ice King. Sure, his powers are pretty dope and the crown sure does look fancy, but his fate serves as a reminder that cursed artifacts are a horrible magical investment. That's why we call them "cursed" magical artifacts and not "entirely reasonable" magical artifacts. They're shortcuts to power at best.
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Author's Note: Top 10 Wizarding Fails
Failure and magic go hand in hand. No one wants to read a story about a wizard who accomplishes all his or her goals and makes it home in time for dinner. Ultimately, it's all about wisdom and power and the misconception that one or the other will protect us from misery, misfortune and death. Wizards fail because we fail, and their fantastic exploits are but a strange reflection of our own lives.
That being said, certain wizards were too successful for inclusion here: Merlin, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Voldemort, Dr. Strange, Ged, Anasurimbor Kellhus ... They all have their ups and downs, but their ups are all pretty amazing – yes, even Voldemort. Talk about a go-getter!