In a magical world where mages can become immortal, why would some of them retain the appearance of being old (70s-80s), even though they can become young and beautiful? Even some mages who become immortal at young ages would change their appearance to become older. Why would they do that?
First impressions matter
Here are 4 people. I'm not telling you their skills. I'm not telling you their education level. I'm not telling you anything about them. You only have what you can guess from their photo:
- Who would you vote for in an election?
- Who would be a good boss at your workplace?
- Who would you go to for advice?
- Who would be a good military commander?
- If money were no issue, who would you pick to defend you from a serious criminal charge?
- Who is more likely to not act selfishly when given power?
- Who has an interesting story to tell?
I'd expect you picked mostly 3 and 4.
Our brains are really lazy, and spot patterns, and then use these patterns to simplify further work. This is not a good thing, it can lead to discrimination, but if you wanted to be trusted and respected, you'd appear in such a way that people treat you how you want to be treated.
As an aside, if I were a wizard with this power, I'd have two personas, one the old trusted wise guy, and the other, "his son", who has taken over the local singles scene.
Appearance is an important social cue, as is age. If they come from a culture where age is revered, they might choose to have an older appearance in order to be perceived as wiser, or more knowledgeable. It might also be used as a means of making opponents underestimate them: age often carries the association of "feeble", a misconception which might prove fruitful when planted in the mind of an enemy.
Gandalf in Lord of the Rings
Gandalf and the other Maiar can choose their appearance. They choose to be old men instead of young men with huge muscles. They seem less threatening and people are quicker to listen to their sage advice. The strength of the Maiar is their wisdom and advice to each, so to be listened to is paramount. Best have every advantage in that that you can get. Their raw strength and survivability is second to this all, even though they have plenty of this.
In Altered Carbon, the first season, someone has the same choice. He tells us he is choosing to be an older man. It shows his wisdom and careful approach to life. The respect he has for it. Not the brash strong youth that make mistakes and rush in headlong.
Finally, as an opposite example, James Bond (Daniel Craig version) meets Q for the first time. He laughs as "the boy still has spots". Despite the huge knowledge and "being able to do more damage before he's finished his morning Earl Grey than [Bond] can do in a year in the field" he's not being taken seriously.
God creating Adam - Which one is God?
The Creation of Adam, detail of the ceiling fresco by Michelangelo, 1508–12; in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.
When I was a teenager, I worked for five years as an aide at an assisted living. As a result, geriatrics is right in my wheelhouse. Here's a quick summary of what I observed about the advantages of being old.
"A wise old owl once said..."
...that people would think him a regular bird-brain if he wasn't so old. Like it or not, people tend to think of elderly people as wise. After all, they've had untold
millenia decades to build up useful knowledge and skill. Like Gandalf and Saruman, your mages want to be taken seriously, so they make themselves look old.
...that he wouldn't be able to get away with annoying the people around him if he wasn't young. Another advantage of age is that people give elderly people (especially old geezers) quite a bit of leeway when it comes to embarrassing/annoying actions. "You wouldn't hit an old man, would you?" Your mages tend to be insufferable geniuses, so they take advantage of this tendency to smooth relations with others.
...that being young sucks. Let's face it: nobody really wants to be an immature teenager again. While some of that immaturity and rashness comes from lack of experience, a goodly part comes from physiological factors like hormones and incomplete brain development, which are part of the package. Your mages don't want to deal with all this emotional and cognitive baggage, so they stay at least thirty years old.
...that he often gets away with mistakes by feigning dementia. Like it or not, most people have the unfortunate mindset that "all old people have Alzheimer's." While your mages are very smart, they aren't perfect - occasionally they make mistakes. This would be extremely embarrassing to them if other people found out, so they attribute their mistakes to senility.
Mages, despite being immortal, are still fundamentally human, and continue to live and interact with humans. As a result, the symbolic notion of appearances is still deeply ingrained both within them, and their society.
To understand why mages would appear elderly at times, let us look at some of the associations we have with youthful and aged humans.
Age = Wisdom
The concept of age=wisdom is undeniably ingrained into human society, and wisdom is what Magicians seek above all else. Wisdom is the source of their power, and by appearing older, mages give off a sense of overbearing power.
An example below is the Archmage Antonidas, a powerful mage from the Warcraft universe. With one glance, one can feel a sense of gravitas, wisdom/intelligence, and power.
Youth = Power
The symbolism of appearances is also potentially why exceptionally powerful mages and wizards may also choose to appear youthful, or beautiful. Youth is a symbol for raw power and strength, rebellion, and never-ending pursuit.
An example is Jaina Proudmoore, the pupil of Antonidas from the same universe, a youthful mage who symbolizes power, courage, and brilliance, who is constantly looking for the best path to do good.
Mages, as humans, still have humanity within them, as well as the ingrained symbolism and concepts that comes from society itself.
They could be looking to portray themselves as youthful; they wish to appear raw and powerful, full of desire and ambition, they want to rebel against the norms of the world and death itself.
They could also appear elderly; their pursuit of the arcane will go on for centuries, maybe eons, and they are tired, with not a care for politics or the world, just their pursuit. However, that age also shows as wisdom, intelligence, a scar of their dogged pursuit of the arcane.
There could be many reasons for their choices, but as I see it, one logical reason for a mage to appear either young or old, is that their appearance itself is a reflection of their internal mentality and psyche. Similar to actual humans, whose appearances are affected by their mental state, mages may subconsciously change their appearance to do so as well.
If a mage is full of reckless ambition, and pursue the arcane arts for power and influence, to rebel, perhaps their appearance will naturally change to that of a reckless youth. If their mental age has become wizened in their pursuit, they may appear just as wizened in the mirror as well.
Mages, despite their immortal lives, still cannot escape the human mentality. As such, their appearances conform, through different mechanisms, to their own perception of themselves.
They might wish to avoid attention or to more easily blend with the crowd. A beautiful young woman could attract a lot of attention which might not always be desirable. If they were at a venue where the average age was fairly high, parliament for example, they would probably attract less attention aged 68 than 18.
Many reasons, some of which are compatible:
- To get more respect for their judgment
- To avoid notice in many respects -- perhaps to blend into crowds better, perhaps to avoid advances, perhaps to avoid being challenged by youngsters to fights -- which ones depend on cultures and may vary even among them in your world
- To avoid duties incumbent on the young in their world, whether it's overt gestures of respect to the elderly or military duties
- To avoid people thinking them aware of the fads among the young
Heinlein's Lazarus Long mostly goes for a mature man, late 50's or 60's, not so young he is challenged for strength and would have to prove himself, old enough to be seen as a leader and to have enough wealth to live a relaxed life. But still young and fit enough to fight in an army and to defend his own life and belongings, and known by others to use all arms available to him.
He has been younger and older looking in his long life, but this is what he goes for when has the choice.
Other characters in the same series go for younger, more likely to be soldiers or parents to young children. In these books people can select a body age and a 'looks' age. Often they look older than the age they keep their body, looking mature but without the pains and problems of an old body.
Book characters who are more likely to fight with magic will most often go for an older look, as a mage mostly has more power when older, so by looking older they will often warn others not to pick fights with them.
Young looking people will have to fight more often, as they can not impress by accumulated power and/or wealth.
Powerful immortals have little reason to care about age, and they don't fear it. Their attitude to the appearance of age is completely alien to mortals.
You or I might fear getting old, but that is mortal nonsense, beneath the notice of the ageless. Looking very young or very old is no more a problem to them than dying my hair different colours is a problem for me. When they make themselves look 9 they aren't naive or inexperienced, when they make themselves look 90 they aren't powerless or close to death. They could do either for any reason or no reason at all; and they do, usually for reasons wildly unrelated to the concerns of mere mortals.
"The ancient hermit look is so in this century, you know, but Sir Edward doesn't seem to have gotten the memo, he looks like a teenager, how embarrassing for him! Nobody who gets invited to the right parties has been a teenager for 300 years!" "He says it's bronze age retro. Reckons it's the next big thing." "We weren't teenagers in the bronze age. Does he even remember it? Was he even walking the mortal plane back then? What a poser."
Depending on how common these immortal mages are, some of the other answers might not work. They rely on how our society perceives age, and the values we associate with it (e.g. we generally consider older people more wise and experienced). If these immortal beings who can change appearance at will were common, this would no longer be the case - we'd have no way of visually determining how experienced or skilled a given mage is.
So, what other reasons could these mages have for generally favoring older bodies? Maybe their bodies still age for some reason, until they actively decide to suppress it. Then, unless new mages recognizes this immediately, they would probably just live out their lives while aging normally. It is only when their old and feeble bodies starts to become an issue they might decide to change it. But since they already left their youthful appearances far behind, they'd probably only revert back a few years, and then freeze it there.
Reasons for why their bodies still appears to age could be that immortality does not stop aging, it just does not allow them to die. Alternatively it could be a subconscious process, to match the world and non-mages around them.
Anti-Aging Magic Imposes a Cost
If magic isn't just something that mages achieve by simple wishing, but requires either effort or material or spiritual components to accomplish, mages might allow themselves to age and only periodically restore their youth when it becomes absolutely necessary. If each spell that makes you younger costs a "pearl beyond price", you might not be willing to bear that cost just for a youthful aesthetic.
Perhaps the specific "youth" magic is under the control of specialists in that area of magic, and they require service from the other mages in exchange for sharing it. This would mean that you could judge the attitude of any given mage towards that group of specialists, and some aspects of their personality, by looking at their apparent age. Mages that appear old have some grievance that makes them unwilling to cooperate with other mages, or just don't like being pushed around. Etc.
In a magical world where mages can become immortal by becoming a lich, why would some of them retain the appearance of
being old (70s-80s)something from a death metal album cover, even though they can become young and beautiful since they have access to 9th level illusion spells? Even some mages who become immortalliches at young ages would change their appearance to become oldera decrepit skeleton. Why would they do that?
Matter of taste. Sometimes people just don't care. Sometimes it's just that we've been exposed to such many stereotypes that the appearance manifests automagically.
It might also be that they are using the appearance they are using as a badge of office. You know, just like you can identify some people wear turbans, gold rings, giant belt buckles or kilts because that's the clothing of their culture. For immortal men, the appearance of being ancient while also being ripped shows that their heritage is either greek or norse god. Now unlike greek goddesses, Norse goddesses will also be ripped, and don't care about an older appearance (or even an undead one, see Hel for example).
Besides what was already said:
- perhaps most mages who are immortal in fact don't do that, so it's an effective smokescreen for those that do?
- they might just be styling on the mortals. This could even be a plot point, with mortals seeing immortals choosing to look old as mocking their mortality.
- perhaps it's a secret that mages can do this, and they don't want people to ask themselves why EVERY. SINGLE. MAGE. they meet is in their mid-twenties or early thirties.
- expanding on the last point, maybe that's why some mages are known to go on adventures that last about a year every ~five years, and return with another piece of their youth visibly spent - convincingly changing form gradually is HARD, and they want to spend some time at Mage Central anyway to exchange experiences/learn new skills/do the kind of magic that is impossible to explain away or conceal/not pretend to be a person they are not.