Having received a beautiful edition of A Wizard of Earthsea for Christmas, and reread it once more with as much delight as ever, I have decided to extend my blogging about children's fantasy from this century (Magic Fiction Since Potter. LINK BELOW) with occasional posts here about my favourites from the twentieth century.

These books will already be well known to many. But there may now be new generations less familiar with them. The fact that they are from a previous century most certainly does not mean they are no longer worth reading. They are just as accessible, relevant and enjoyable as ever. In fact they are some of the greatest children's books ever written. If my entries here encourage even a few of today's young readers to seek out these wonderful reads (or adults to point them in the right direction) then I will consider the enterprise worthwhile. Perhaps you will find a few less familiar titles too; I think they will prove well worth the effort of seeking out.

Below I have tried to list my gems from this period. My intention is to read each again myself over coming weeks and months and then to record my thoughts about each one separately. I may well remember a few more too as I go along.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Dalemark Quartet by Diana Wynne Jones


I was delighted,  when I was in a bookshop yesterday, to see a new UK paperback edition of this great work - with the first two volumes out now and  the other two due to follow in Jan '17. Although it has continually been reprinted since it was written (its four parts originally dating from 1975, 1977, 1979 and 1993) this latest  reincarnation will make accessible to a new generation of children, and hopefully teachers too, one of the recent past's very finest examples of children's fantasy. And this is a wonderful thing. As I am trying to re-emphasise on this blog, many examples of children's fiction from the later half of the twentieth century still have a great deal to offer. They are often somewhat different in feel from today's fantasies, whilst still providing wholly engaging reads. They can potentially extend and enrich that range of reading for contemporary children most valuably . It is not only Dickens et al who are our deserved 'classics'. 

The four books which make up what is now known as the Dalemark Quartet are connected in a number of ways (not least, and fairly obviously, by their setting in the fantasy 'Dalemark') but they are not really a sequence as such. Apart from  the last, each could stand fairly independently, although greater understanding and enjoyment does come from fitting together their component pieces.

Again apart from the last, they are fairly early works of this wonderful author, and in many ways not completely typical. They are however no less great for that. In fact they are amongst my personal favourites of her books. They are rather more 'serious' fantasy than many of her later books, which are much quirkier and often more overtly humorous, even satirical. And I love them all the more for that.

Cart and Cwydder was the first written and is a rather lyrical fantasy, full of the mysterious power of music, and quite, quite magical.

The second, Drowned Ammet, overlaps the first and has characters in common, but is largely a separate story with different protagonists   It is perhaps more powerful and exciting than the first, but also stranger.

The third to be written, The Spellcoats, not just a prequel to the others, but in fact takes place a long time before them, in Dalemark's 'prehistory '. It is a an even stranger and more mystical tale, which puts me in mind in some ways of Le Guin's fantasies . Quite breathtaking in both concept and writing, it is easily my favourite of the four. Well worth not only reading but repeated re-reading. True literature for children..

The final book The Crown of Dalemark was published almost twenty years after the others. It has a more modern feel, and not only because it is partially set in a 'contemporary' Dalemark. It is a multi-layered, multi action story, with rather more of what was to become a Wynne Jones  feel. It is also something more akin to 'epic' children's fantasy. It is actually my least favourite of the four, but still well worth reading not least because it draws together the other stories and their characters, bringing everything to a climactic and thrilling conclusion. 

The work as a whole is essential reading for anyone instersted in the development of children's fantasy; it is a landmark work. It also remains a truly great read for children of any age and time. 


Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo


I do not always agreee with Waterstones' choice for their Children's Book of the Month, however this November it is a real joy to see Jenny Nimmo's modern fantasy classic being promoted in this way, marking the 30th anniversary of its original publication. 

In the 1960s Alan Garner developed a style of British children's fantasy that was very much rooted in particular landscape and drew richly on its deep heritage of myth and legend. Often its  characters and worlds, experienced just below the surface of our reality, were used both as a canvas for external 'adventure' and as a metaphor for some young protagonist's inner journey.

This tradition continued to be exploited and developed by some quite exceptional children's writers over the next twenty or thirty years. Jenny Nimmo was one such when she opened what was to become known as her Magician Trilogy with The Snow Spider in 1986. It is a close 'relative' of Susan Cooper's equally wonderful The Dark is Rising sequence. The Snow Spider is a powerful evocation of Welsh landscape and of its potent heritage of story. It is also a beautiful tale of a boy coming to terms with very real  loss, and ultimately with his own integrity and worth. It has rich, warm characters, beautifully drawn, and is altogether truly enchanting. 

Whilst, perhaps, in a sense gentler than much  of today's children's fantasy fiction, it captures a potency of magic that exists in many ancient places and indeed in the very souls of children themselves. Protagonist Gwyn explores what it means to be a magician long before HP does, and in very different ways. It was a firm favourite of my own children in the late 80s,  enhanced, as it was, by an excellent TV adaptation that was around at the time. As a book, it remains both hugely accessible and deeply relevant.  It would be a fine thing to see more of today's young readers discovering it. 

The sequels in the trilogy, Emlyn's Moon and The Chestnut Soldier, become rather darker, and are also well worth exploring by any children (or like-minded adults) who have not yet done so. They will make a refreshing and rewarding change from contemporary fare.  This is a somewhat different side of Jenny Nimmo from the entertaining romps of  Charlie Bone, and not to be overlooked. 

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Fintan's Tower by Catherine Fisher


The wonderful Catherine Fisher has been writing high quality children's/YA fantasy for twenty five years or so and some of her early works fully merit the status of modern classic.

Fintan's Tower, first published in 1991, is one of her earliest. Rereading confirms that it is still a must read for fantasy enthusiasts, and a strong recommendation for today's children.

Like her other early work*, Fintan's Tower is very much in the post-Garner tradition; in fact in the early nineties Catherine Fisher essentially revived for a new generation of readers the style of location-rooted, myth-based fantasy which Alan Garner had pioneered twenty five years earlier. This novel draws strongly on Catherine Fisher's own Welsh home and heritage and sees a young boy, Jamie, and his sister Jennie, follow the clues in a magic book which indicate that Jamie has been chosen for a special destiny. They accompany strange and seemingly magical companions through a portal into the mythical 'Summer Country' to rescue an imprisoned youth from the titular tower. The mythology is broadly Arthurian and Grail but with a strong Welsh bias, the emphasis being on early versions from such sources as the Mabinogion where the Grail is a magical cauldron. None the of this is particularly original, and in fact it is not originality which is the strength of this early Cathetine Fisher.

Although sharing much of the mythological base, this book is considerably darker and more brooding in atmosphere than the derring do of Lloyd Alexander's much earlier Chronicles of Prydian, and, in Alan Garner terms, it is more cousin to Elidor than to the more 'children's adventure' feel of The Wierdstone or Moon of Gomrath. However it is the quality of language here that is exceptional, as are the power and structure of the storytelling. In fact this is very short book, almost a novella, but it is is no way thin. Rather it is richness concisely expressed. Moreover, by its end, the story does more than just draw on myth but has morphed into a myth in its own right, engendering universal resonance on many levels. It is this more than anything which makes Fintan's Tower an absolute classic of its genre.

Throughout the nineties Catherine Fisher continued to explore and develop this genre, experimenting with a variety of sources and settings. In 1997 her Belin's Hill, for example, intimately blends a contemporary boy's own fire trauma with the story of a witch burning, with the much older mythologies of a putative Camelot and with the malevolent presence of an ancient god. It is a truly ground-breaking book and has the particular courage to end very disturbingly. By early this century, her landmark Corbenic had fully developed her storytelling to a stage where the mythology is simultaneously an adventure and a metaphor, a working through of the protagonist's own issues. In this she has helped prepare the way for a whole host of 'psychological' fantasies which have followed. All of these books are well worth the trouble of seeking out. In a world where much young adult reading revolves around vampires, werewolves, fallen angels and the like, it would be good to see more young people also accessing this strand of fantasy which instead tunes the imagination into the rich vein of archetypal celtic mythologies.

Also around the turn of the century, Catherine Fisher wrote her quartet The Book of the Crow. This was the first of her fantasies to feature a largely invented world as opposed to drawing on existing mythologies. This is also well worth tracking down, and led, perhaps, more directly to the fine works of fantasy for slightly older readers which have dominated her writing in the present century.**



* The Conjuror's Game (1990) and The Candle Man (1994) come into the same category, and also remain well worth reading. In 2004 these three short novels were published together in one volume and retitled The Glass Tower: three doors to the other world.

**Some of which I hope to write up very soon on my other blog Magic Fiction Since Potter


Monday, 28 December 2015

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin

Few fantasies written for young people have been more admired than this from 1968. I happened to be at just about the right age at that time to read it not long after publication, and I was certainly bowled over by it. I loved and admired it enough to read it several more times over my years as a teacher and to recommend it enthusiastically to colleagues and students. However, whilst this esteem held in recollection, I hadn't reread it for some years. Opening it this New Year I therefore felt a little apprehension. Would I still enjoy it just as much having read so many other wonderful fantasies since?(See my blog Magic Fiction Since Potter.) Was this novel just remarkable in its time, special only in its literary context, or is it truly a book 'for all time'?Crucially, is it still as recommendable to today's young readers (and any others who haven't yet read it) as I thought it then. My answer to this last question turned out to be an emphatic yes.

A Wizard of Earthsa was, and remains, remarkable for so many reasons.

There are some respects in which it presents as a conventional wizard tale. It concerns a youth who is discovered to have remarkable magic talent who is first tutored by a reclusive old Mage and later goes off to train at a wizard academy. The story then charts his growth into full magic power, destined for the highest wizarding status in his world.

Much of this owes its progeny to earlier fantasies, mostly based on or retelling the Arthurian legend. (It must be remembered that this book predates Harry Potter by almost 30 years.) Probably the most significant of these is T.H.White's The Once and Future King, with its first book, The Sword in the Stone, also charting the development of a magician's apprentice - albeit a very different one with a very different destiny.

However it rapidly becomes apparent that Ursula Le Guin's young wizard protagonist, Ged, is world's away from The Wart, and the fact that he is almost ten years older is the least of it.

In some ways A Wizard of Earthsea is very much a book of the 1960s, and, since those were the days of my own youth, that might explain its original appeal for me. Clearly highly intelligent and of searching mind, Ursula Le Guin delved deeply not only into literature, but also into anthropology and social sciences and into then current theories of psychology, particularly those of Carl Jung. She also immersed herself in esoteric writings associated with eastern religions, such as Zen and Taoism, particularly the book known here as the I Ching. In this way she was clearly of the 'hippy' generation, although very much, one feels, at the intellectual end of that particular spectrum. Such thinking obviously found its way into the writing of this and other of her books. For example, the behaviour of the Mage Ogion, when Ged first spends time with him on Gont, is very 'zen', as are the riddles asked of Ged when he arrives on Roke. It could be that these influences would make the book feel dated. But no such thing. Such is the skill of Ursula Le Guin as a writer that these understandings rather give her book timeless, universal significance.

A Wizard of Earthsea emerges with two principal themes. More than anything it is about Ged's quest for self, his whole self, his long and difficult journey to become what he can be. He is no conventional hero. He is not even always likeable: 'for the most part he was all work and pride and temper, and held himself apart.' His nemesis is not some unspeakably evil overlord, who threatens the future entire world, but a shadow, a shadow which he himself has released. Wizardry or no (and magic does abound in this book) Ged's story is essentially that of a human being. Ursula Le Guin's tale is possibly the first young person's books to use fantasy as an allegory for the psychological journey of her protagonist. In this it was the precursor of a wonderful thread to develop in children's fantasy fiction, particularly in the US. But is was also the almost complete antithesis of its other principal precursor in the field, the monumental work of J.R.R Tolkein. Here there is no Sauron threatening the whole of middle earth, no orcs, no warriors, no apocalyptic battles. It is so different a book as to stretch the boundaries of the genre and mould a totally new understanding of fantasy.

It is significant too that Ged is very pointedly brown skinned and his only real friend black. Tolkein's creation, as is so much of the vast amount of fantasy that has followed its lead, is a world of extreme good and bad, light and dark. The triumph of one over the other, and the little hero's part in it, is a powerful trope with which we all sometimes need to identify as an antedote to our own seeming powerlessness against the evils of our world. However it is essentially presented as the domain of dashing white heroes battling demonic black forces, both figuratively and literally. Not only is A Wizard of Earthsea far less simplistic but Ursula Le Guin significantly turns colour expectation on its head in creating her protagonist wizard. It was a remarkable gesture at the time. I would like to be able to say that this is no longer so surprising, but I fear I cannot. True there are more children's and YA books around in other genres with themes and characters which reflect our multi cultural multi ethnic society (although not enough even of these). However in fantasy the darker face , where it is included at all, is more likely to belong to a 'sidekick' than to the protagonist. Ursula Le Guin still has much to teach us.

The other theme which underlies A Wizard of Earthsea is that of the need to understand and value every element of the world, to maintain natural balance. The considerable magic of Earthsea focuses at root on knowing the true name, that is to appreciate the uniqueness and integrity, of any person, creature or element. Ged, like all true mages, must learn his own place in the world, and that of everything else. This is an essential part of his route to wholeness, to true magic. It is thinking every bit as relevant today as when the book was written, perhaps more so.

All of this might feel rather academic and perhaps rather dry. Not a bit of it. More than anything this is because Ursula Le Guin's writing is consistently masterly, and sublimely distinctive for fantasy. Much of the time it approaches spareness. In the early stages, narrating Ged's experiences on his home island of Gont, her style is close to that of traditional tale. She focuses on what happens and allows description of character and setting to be implied by the reader. When Ged reaches the magical island of Roke, her prose become rather more fluid and gains an effervescent lyricism. This is achieved without ever being florid, but by skilfull selecting, placing and balancing of words and phrases. This writing particularly thrills in such scenes as that when Ged is flying as a hawk, or when his first Tutor, Ogion, fashions a staff for the young wizard. Her prose is never less than captivating and at best achieves an almost Lawrentian poetic intensity.

'Under his feet he felt the hillroots going down and down into the dark, and over his head he saw the dry, far fires of the stars. Between, all things were his to order, to command. He stood at the centre of the world.'

Over and above all this though, Ursula Le Guin's storytelling is magnificent. The island world of Earthsea is quite wonderfully imagined and evoked (as well as mapped). The emerging tale of Ged, first hunted by and then hunting the shadow, is totally gripping. An encounter with dragons, near captivity by an elemental being on an enchanted isle, storms and shipwrecks, all thrill just as fantasy should. Ged's increasingly desperate and terrifying quest keeps the pages turning rapidly until the very end. When this is finally reached, the brief but telling denouement is uplifting and life affirming. What was beginning to feel an increasingly dismal and disturbing read springs magically back to thankful optimism. Ged's tussle to come to terms with life, and death, has, like that of many young people, been desperately hard. It has cost much, but the message of the book, although difficult, is ultimately positive. This is a story that is both intensely personal and profoundly universal. Any young person who misses out on reading it (or its equally wonderful sequels) will be missing a very great deal.


Magic Fiction Before Potter



Of course, children's fantasy from the second half of the twentieth century was essentially launched by two staggering and seminal creations, Tolkein's Middle Earth and C S Lewis's Narnia (the latter never a personal favourite, but undeniably influential). Here are, in my view, some of the finest works which followed on their heels, but in no way stood in their shadows. They were, and remain, great books in their own right. All are hugely enjoyable reads too.

In some instances I have picked out a single book or sequence to represent a writer of several great fantasies.


The towering greats:

Elidor, The Owl Service, Alan Garner

The Dark is Rising Sequence, Susan Cooper

The Earthsea Trilogy, Tehanu, Ursuka K Le Guin (there are also other amazing follow-ups, but they came much later)

The Chronicles of Prydian, Lloyd Alexander

The Dalemark Quartet, Diane Wynn Jones

The Song of Wirrun Trilogy, Patricia Wrightson


Other wonderful, and often influential books, well worth seeking out:

The Prince in Waiting Trilogy, John Christopeher

The Whispering Knights, Penelope Lively

The Young Wizard Sequence, Diana Duane

The Changes Trilogy, Peter Dickinson

The Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley

Red Moon and Black Mountain, Joy Chant

The Hounds of the Morrigan, Pat O'Shea

Marianne Dreams, Catherine Storr

Fintan's Tower, Catherine Fisher

The Redwall Series, Brian Jaques

Beadbonny Ash, Winifred Finlay

The Wind On Fire Trilogy, William Nicholson

Charlotte Sometimes, Penelope Farmer

The Snow Spider Trilogy, Jenny Nimmo

Boy in Darkness, Mervyn Peake

The Ghost Drum, Ghost Song, Ghost Dance, Susan Price

The Troy Game, a Jean Morris


(I am sure this list will grow as I remember and dig out other books from my reading past.)


At the turn of the century two other massively influential children's fantasy creation emerged, one of great literary merit, the other of (deservedly) unprecedented popularity. They were of course Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials triology and J K Rowling's Harry Potter sequence. It is my quest to seek out the best of what has followed in the footsteps of these two giants that is the subject of my companion blog Magic Fiction Since Potter.