The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Wizard of the Mountain (1867)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Wizard of the Mountain was written by William Gilbert. Although Gilbert (1804-1890) is now known only as the father of W.S. Gilbert, of “Gilbert and Sullivan” fame, in the 1860s he was a successful author of novels of social reform.
The Innominato (“Nameless”) is an astrologer, wizard, and mystic who lives in Italy during the thirteenth century. The Innominato is the master of his own castle and is feared and respected by all those in the area. The local nobles are wary of him but the local peasants and burghers come to him for advice and help. The powers of the Innominato are never spelled out, but they seem to include clairvoyance, prophecy, and various sorcerous arts, including curses, setting magically intelligent animals to watch over the Innominato's targets, and so on.
As a young man the Innominato had planned to become a priest, but he was distracted by the secular life and drawn to the study of magic. He met a woman, Malatesta, who offered him magical powers if he would foreswear all religion. The Innominato agreed to this, but then Malatesta then took things a step further and tried to get the Innominato to sell his soul. The Innominato refused, strengthened by the sight of the ghost of his wife and the knowledge that the Devil was behind Malatesta. In the decades since that time the Innominato has tried to live a good life and use his powers to help people. In this he was only partially successful, though the bad results of his involvement are often not his fault. When Doctor Onofrio, an evil old lawyer, is made young by the Innominato, it is with the condition that his lifespan will be halved for each evil deed he commits. Doctor Onofrio runs through his allotment of years in next to no time at all. When an old married couple ask for renewed youth, the best that the Innominato can do is to give one a young body and the other a young mind. And when the evil chief of a group of robbers takes on the Innominato, the man is killed and his ghost is condemned to haunt a palace until his evil is expiated.
The stories are not ground-breaking in any way, but are professionally-told and entertaining, and the didactic Christian subtext is lightly enough handled that it neither distracts nor bothers. What is primarily of interest in The Wizard of the Mountain is the fact, that Christian fantasy though it is (see: “The Laird’s Luck”), and appearing as it did in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Christian fantasy as a genre flourished, the novel is full of Gothic elements, at least when compared to the work of other Christian fantasists of the time. The combination of the two in Gilbert is not particularly successful. Christian fantasy, as Brian Stableford writes, “usually has an ironic aspect derived from a slightly uncomfortable awareness of its lack of literal truth,”1 while the Gothic relies to a significant degree on the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief and engage in the overheated emotions of the form. The final effect of The Wizard of the Mountain, although the stories are never less than competent, is of a writer engaging with genre material at arm’s length, or perhaps with a long set of tongs.
Print: W.S. Gilbert, The Wizard of the Mountain. Los Angeles, CA: David Truitt, 2012.
1 Brian Stableford, The A to Z of Fantasy Literature (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005), 76.