I wrote about magic recently, then I saw this question on Quora: Who is the greatest wizard: Gandalf, Merlin or Dumbledore?
It intrigued me. I don't know the Arthurian legends well, so let's leave Merlin aside. Dumbledore vs Gandalf.
I recently read a book by Robert Sawyer (a terrific science fiction writer) which clarified - at least for me - how scientists are like wizards. In trying to understand a phenomenon they immediately come up with a concept to test it and a method, based on their deep familiarity with mathematical structures.
This Doonesbury cartoon kind of gets it as well. Working with computer scientists, I've occasionally seen them dissect a seemingly difficult problem. I'd like to think they occasionally see me do sort of the same thing in my space. That being said, they are accomplished because they see and comprehend an underlying structure. Because they know it they can manipulate it in ways the rest of us cannot.
So Dumbledore is sort of a Dungeons & Dragons style wizard, just tossing thunderbolts and miracles around. In terms of sheer firepower he is pretty impressive. But it's a world of magic, so everyone can do that, Dumbledore is just better at it than everyone else. So it's like a book about baseball in which one character is just a better hitter. Fair enough.
What Gandalf does is more mysterious. We see him intervene personally on occasion. He fights a balrog, tussles with Saruman, rallies the troops at Gondor. clearly he can make things happen. But he isn't just running around tossing fireballs. He is choosing carefully where to intervene, he is following deep patterns and trends and identifying critical points - and that's where he shows up. It isn't clear who he is working for and the exact nature of his power (where it's from and what he can do) is vague.
But I think that is closer to the definition of wizard, in which the root word is wise - that is the ability to see more deeply and clearly than others, to make connections that others can't.
It would be cool to be Dumbledore, who can fly and repair buildings and all this other cool stuff with the swipe of his wand. But we live in an age of miracles. We can in fact fly (not as easily as Dumbledore) and communicate instantaneously and a zillion other things.
But I kind of like Gandalf. He certainly has powers, but he sees deeply - the profound underlying patterns and where and how they can be re-shaped. Gandalf is both more mysterious and wise, which is what a wizard should be. Dumbledore is pure fantasy, but I can almost imagine a real-life Gandalf - a brilliant strategist one move ahead of everyone who seems to make things go his way - like (since I'm all about Presidents) Lincoln or Eisenhower or even Reagan. (The closest president to Dumbledore would probably be TR.)