SGs protect society or the world as a whole; they are, unusually, an idea as likely to appear in Contemporary Fantasy as in Sword and Sorcery. They are usually to be distinguished from the Secret Masters of Theosophy, whose influence is by precept and example and subtle spiritual influence rather than by active intervention. They are also to be distinguished from Gods, who are usually invulnerable if things go wrong; SGs are always in some degree of jeopardy themselves.
By definition, SGs are an element intrinsically associated with Fantasies of History, because in any context in which they occur they automatically make a statement about the nature of consensual reality. It is explicit that the order of Wizards in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) are at one and the same time SGs and Angels, and have guarded Middle-Earth for millennia. The Benandanti in Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon (1994) have guarded humanity against the malignant aspects which they have confused with the true nature of the Goddess since before recorded history.
SGs sometimes guard deliberately and sometimes by merely existing – in Central European Jewish legend, there are at any given time 12 just men, the Lamed Wufniks, whose virtue is the keystone of the Universe. SGs sometimes forget their purpose, as has happened with the Antaeus Brotherhood in Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates (1983). They are not always especially competent – the League of the Scroll in Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (1988-1993) is manipulated by its Dark Lord opponent into potentially destructive decisions – and are sometimes almost as ruthless in their workings as the Evil they oppose – the Diogenes Club in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula (1992) sacrifice endless pawns in order to put a silver knife in the same place as the reluctantly vampirized Queen Victoria and make possible her liberatory suicide. Groups that believe themselves the authentic SGs of a society, but are not, such as the Children of Light in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time sequence (1990 onwards), are often a fertile source of Debasement and Wrongness in their world, whether or not they are being secretly manipulated by the dark lords and their allies.
SGs are often a Hidden Monarch and his retinue – like Aragorn and the other rangers in LOTR. They are sometimes Accursed Wanderers – e.g., Indigo in Louise Cooper's Indigo sequence (1988-1993) travels from location to location destroying the demons she unwittingly awoke and freeing societies from their machinations. The culmination of an Ugly Duckling's or a Brave Little Tailor's career may be to be recruited to membership of a group of SGs.
The secrecy surrounding their work may make them a Wainscot group or even a Pariah Elite. They will often live, or deliberate, in a Polder where they are safe and hidden. Seven-Samurai or Dirty-Dozen groupings will often be recruited by them, or discover that they have been working for them unknowingly for some time. SGs are the standard opponents of dark lords and potential dark lords. [RK]