Friday, May 18, 2007

The Making of a Wizard II: Wizard's Hall by Jane Yolen

A young eleven-year-old, with green eyes and perennially disheveled hair, finds himself precipitously propelled into student life at a renowned school of wizardry over which hangs a sombre and threatening miasma. Although the student appears to have less than stellar aptitude for spells, transformations, and divinations, he is welcomed by the troubled faculty as the long-awaited novice whose powers are not so much those of an "enchanter" as those of an "enhancer," one who is destined to play a heroic role at the venerable school.

The young novice is befriended and supported by an engaging group of first-year students, especially an intrepid girl with unusual hair and a boy who is the loyal best friend who sustains the novice's courage. Looming over the life of the school is the malevolent power of a former magister, a professor who has embraced the evil powers inherent in wizardry, drawing forth the deepest and darkest passions of the magical community and turning them into an evil force destined to consume them and the outside world as well.

Sound familiar? Right! That is the basic structure of the Harry Potter series, laid out engagingly, wittily, and poetically by Jane Yolen almost a decade before Harry made his debut in the muggle world. This is not to say that J. K. Rowling is a plagiarist. The formula is a time-honored one, combining as it does the camaraderie of the school story with the suspense and mystery of the fantasy story.

Yolen's main character is Thornmallow, nee Henry, whose new name means "prickly on the outside, squishy on the inside." Thornmallow is hurried off by his "Ma" to Wizard's Hall as soon as he mentions a possible interest in wizardry.

"But what if I have no talent for it, Ma?" Henry had asked, somewhat sensibly and not a little nervous that she was packing him off so quickly.
"Talent don't matter," she'd said, closing his bag. "I didn't know I had any talent for mothering until you came along!...It only matters that you try."

Good advice. Henry sets off to walk to Wizard's Hall and arrives to a warm welcome as the 113th student, a number which the magisters seem to find strangely propitious. Renamed Thornmallow, the dubious student bungles through his first days of classes, producing magic only serendipitously, as he becomes more and more aware of a vague but overwhelming threat to the community. A former teacher, Master Nettle, is now the creator of a compendium of evil named The Beast, quilted together from the darkest impulses drawn from those who lose body and soul in the process. Magister Hickory convinces Thornmallow of his mission, rooted in his willingness to try, to somehow stop Nettle and his Beast from consuming the school and even "all of the Dales."

At the final scene Thornmallow watches the faculty and almost all of his classmates march like automata to be consumed by the swollen and evil Beast. When only Thornmallow and friends Tansy and Will remain, Thornmallow courageously gives it one last try and recites a spell recalled from remnants of his hurried research, disempowering Master Nettle by the secret knowledge of his name in the best wizardly tradition.

In scope and depth, of course, Jane Yolen's Wizard's Hall is Harry Potter Lite, but in this slender volume Yolen gives up nothing to Rowling in skillful writing, wit, mystery, and an engaging setting. For young readers who aren't ready to put forth into the ocean that is the Hogwarts cycle, Wizard's Hall is a short and sweet sail upon a pleasant inland sea.

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  • Is it better written than Rowlings version of King's longer novels?

    I must be the only non-HP fan in the universe - mostly due to the quality of her writing and the paucity of her publisher's editing.

    I recently got my 11 year old to start the Narnia series - within a chapter he said: Dad this is GREAT. And plowed through.

    His take: Narnia is much better in every way but all his friends haven't read it.

    What a shame.


    By Blogger TierFlyer, at 3:26 PM  

  • Yep.

    Rowling could use a bit more editing, all right, but I think it's a matter of taste, i.e., whether you prefer a sprawling saga or a tightly-knit slender novel, or, as in the case of C.S. Lewis, something in between. I'm glad that all of these writers are willing to take one the epic struggle of good and evil, however they choose to do so.

    But you are right about Lewis' books. Every child should at least read one of the Narnia series!

    By Blogger GTC, at 3:35 PM  

  • Narnia vs. Potter? Why, oh why is everything either-or for some people? My daughter read both series and loved them. Come to think of it, I've read both series too and also loved them both. Lewis and Rowling are not the same, but I think both are wonderful for young readers.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:53 PM  

  • You are right, the basic story lines are fairly similar, although I hadn't connected them before. I guess that might be because I read Yolen's book several years before I read a Harry novel, and because they are different in style. Both excellent, as are the Narnia novels. I think it is wonderful there is such a wide selection for children to choose from.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:34 PM  

  • If Rowling borrowed key ideas from an earlier (and better) work, perhaps it was Ursula LeGuin's "A Wizard of Earthsea". Nicholas Lezard discussed this in The Guardian a few years ago. Here's a bit of his piece:

    "You can't get away from the Harry Potter comparisons. A young, orphaned boy is discovered to have magical powers. He is sent to a school for wizards. He struggles with the minor arts of illusion and other trivia. He dabbles unwisely in necromancy. And so on. As I slogged my way through the first two Potter books, wondering how much more of Rowling's mumsy, artless prose I could stand, I was nagged by a memory of a richer and more bewildering story. It came to me fairly quickly: Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, which I read between the ages of 11 and 13. And, turning back to it, to cleanse the palate as it were, I was somewhat staggered: Rowling can type, but Le Guin can write.",12084,763698,00.html

    LeGuin addresses the similarities here:,6000,1144428,00.html

    By Blogger Scrutineer, at 1:21 AM  

  • Michael, you have a point. The Wizard of Earthsea was a great series (from the 1970's, for those of you who don't know of it) and LeGuin is a distinguished and serious writer of fantasy.

    Rowling's basic plot tracks many such fantasies. Her strong point was in her use of humor and the strong character development of the minor characters, both of which make her work more attractive to younger readers than LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy.

    It would be good if kids read all of the above. The problem of good and evil can be approached many ways in various styles!

    By Blogger GTC, at 10:38 PM  

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