True story: in my youth I thought “wizened” meant something along the lines of “imbued with such age-won wisdom that it shows in one’s countenance.” Imagine my disappointment when I looked it up its actual definition.
The wizened mentor is a hallmark of epic fantasy. (So is the young, male protagonist, but I digress.)
It’s a nice fairy tale, some random old guy showing up out of the blue to offer wisdom and guidance. I’d blame Tolkien for the trope, but it dates back a bit further than his time. Like, at least 2 – 3 millennia back, to an actual character named Mentor. In Homer’s Odyssey, he’s an aged friend who watches over Telemachus during Odysseus’s long absence. His mentor status becomes magnified through Athena, who disguises herself as him when she comes to give guidance.
(Aside: While we’re on the subject, Odyssey > Illiad > Aeneid. Odysseus is a boss, and Penelope is, like, seven different kinds of awesome. I just need to make sure everyone’s on the same page here, because if you disagree, we can’t be friends. /aside)
The Athena-Mentor connection is particularly important, because a mentor character is almost always more than he seems at first glance. There lurks within a certain divinity, a higher understanding of the world which breeds a higher purpose. The mentor condescends to train the protegé, passing on a legacy of knowledge instead of hoarding it. The protegée, too, is blessed by such condescension.
Even if the mentor himself is not good. (He doesn’t have to be, and when he’s evil it breeds so much emotional trauma. Delicious plot-fare, that.)
A mentor, then, embodies age, wisdom, and tutelage, but not necessarily virtue. He is typically a past master of whatever art the hero seeks to learn.
And he often has a beard, wears a funny hat, carries a magic stick, and gets written off by the locals as a doddering old lunatic.
In many ways, this character is a walking cliché. He’s a fun one, though, so I’m not complaining.