In honor of the Realms 50th Anniversary, we’ll be releasing 50 columns penned by Ed Greenwood, the Archmage himself.
Almost two decades ago, as I pen this, something that had developed unofficially—regarding a certain whimsical old wizard of hidden depths hight Elminster—became official policy at TSR, Inc, then the publisher of the Forgotten Realms® line of books and games and comics: Elminster was now my “signature” character.
Just as my friend Bob (R. A.) Salvatore had become known as the scribe of the two-scimitar-wielding “good” drow Drizzt Do’Urden in the Realms, and Tracy Hickman (who is a guy, not a gal, just to set novices to our little corner of fantasy straight) was “the” writer of Strahd, the vampire who became the heart of the Ravenloft setting and game and novel, I was now to write Elminster, Elminster, and more Elminster.
In the original Realms, the Realms of my short stories, Elminster was “Merlin up to mischief” (and if you want to know how I envisage how he speaks and acts, Nicol Williamson’s portrayal of Merlin in the movie Excalibur, minus the red hair, earring, and skullcap, is pretty nearly spot-on, though Elminster was well developed long before that movie started filming). He was a manipulator of others, for good aims or ends that were often well-hidden from others, he loved mystery and what we might call “poetic justice,” and he was more of a narrator and story spur than a main character or prime mover.
In the early days of the Realms as a published game line, however, I wanted to firmly establish the “unreliable narrator” as a way of maintaining maximum freedom for Dungeon Masters running D&D® campaigns to deviate from published lore, and to give future writers and designers as much elbow room as possible (as opposed to being “painted into a corner” by what had already been printed). So Elminster became our almost-sole source of information about the Realms—as in, all we readers and gamers in the real world saw and knew of the Realms was what he told us, and we had no guarantee that he was telling the truth, or the whole truth. He was a “spin doctor” before the world knew that term.
So Elminster was a narrator or “not-home-right-now, but he wrote this little chapbook, or someone remembers him saying this” sage far more than a major or useful to game players character.
A role that soon changed, as TSR hit upon the idea of using my facility for public speaking (okay, ham acting) to do Realms-related seminars, panels, and events at the annual GenCon Game Fairs (the then-owned-by-TSR summertime conventions where gamers gathered to play, buy stuff, and hear bout what was new or would soon be finding its way into their local hobby shop). I cobbled together a costume, opened my yap, and ad-libbed my way through hours of fun repartee, wherein a twinkling-eyed or crotchety Elminster would answer questions about the Realms, tease with fragmentary lore about hitherto-secret matters Realmsian, and generally be an unreliable but hopefully entertaining pain in many behinds.
Elminster was becoming popular in his own right, and at the same time fulfilling the Old Storyteller role but drifting in the direction of Gandalf—something that was going to become increasingly apparent as his status as a Chosen of Mystra, the goddess of magic in the Realms, became publicly clearer. (I knew about the Chosen, from Elminster and Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun and the strikingly beautiful Seven Sisters, to failures like Sammaster, from the very beginning, but TSR used what of my lore they could, and only got around to the whole concept of Chosen later. Whereupon it inevitably got adopted by other writers to mean “special champion anointed by this or that god,” that is, an excuse for superheroes or supervillains onstage—but that’s another discussion for another time.
So Elminster became the voice of the Realms and the face of the Realms for and to many—those who didn’t think of Drizzt first, that is. And for many, he still is that today. There are gamers aplenty who label him my “Mary Sue” character, or author’s wish fulfillment or alter ego, conveniently ignoring that some nine or ten thousand other named characters in the Realms are also my creations, and that when I created him, I was six years old and lacked a long white beard.
Yet for those who pay closer attention, and realize that my Realms novels are works for hire and the plots are approved and to some extent dictated in-house, Elminster is much more. He is a way of exploring what it must be like to live for well over a thousand years, outliving not just all the people he initially knew and loved, but almost all of the countries he knew, and to suffer grief after grief and loss after loss, to serve a goddess he has outlived and had to guide her successors, to descend well into insanity, and to become so darned tired of it all that he just wants to die, but to be torn by the need to keep his life meaningful by working for the goals and principles he’s fought for these many centuries . . . an ongoing exploration of what that must be like. To be both genders, and more than one race, to rule and to be a slave, to see the same mistakes made again and again.
And to bounce back time and again telling blue jokes and giving gifts and merrily manipulating those in power.
Yep, Elminster has become my signature character in the Realms, and I’m proud of it.
Just remember, he’s not me, and never has been. He says and does all sorts of things I’d never dare to, or that make me cringe. (There are good reasons one of my lady players often refers to him as “Mister Cringe.”)
Right now, he’s trying to train a successor. Who of course has become a juicy target for Elminster’s many foes in the Realms.
And is living what many have realized, in Faerûn and in our real world: say what you like about the Old Mage, he certainly keeps things interesting.