Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Educating Wizards

I'm working on a project right now on education and fantasy literature and it's taking me in some interesting directions. So I've spent the past couple of days catching up on a series I'd never encountered before--the Young Wizards books by Diane Duane. The first novel came out in 1982, and the most recent one, Wizards at War, which is the eighth in the series, came out in 2005. (A ninth is due out this fall.) She's also the author of two other fantasy series and several Star Trek books. Yes, she's prolific.

So I'm halfway through the Young Wizards series, and so far, I'm intrigued. Like J.K. Rowling--and, of course, before her--Duane imagines a world in which wizards and non-wizards live side-by-side, the wizards often working in secret and hiding their powers from the non-magical. She intriguingly imagines the effect this might have on family life--her protagonist Nita (and, later her sister Dairine) has to reveal her wizardry to her parents, and their reactions are comically apt, I think. Hard enough to deal with your kids growing up--the Callahans have to deal with two magical daughters who are as likely to be on the moon as down the block having an ice-cream sundae. There is an established wizard hierarchy, but young wizards are often the most powerful: lacking the experience (or fear?) to know what can go wrong, they're likely to barge in and act first, thinking about what they've done only later. So far, in the first four books, this approach mostly works, though there are hints that it won't always.

The novels are a nice blend of genres: some of the magic (particularly Dairine's) seems more like science fiction than fantasy; there's plenty of comedy; and the whole is underpinned by a religious sensibility that's comparable to Susan Cooper's or even C.S. Lewis's: it's a syncretistic system in which Christianity blends with ancient pagan myth, vaguely New Age-y spiritualism, and the like. Light and Dark, good and evil, are--as in so many fantasy series--at war, though the goal is reconciliation and balance rather than (as in Lewis) the destruction of what we call "evil." So there's some LeGuin-ian leaning in there as well.

I missed these books in my own childhood because they started appearing the year I graduated from college, but I'm curious to know why they're less well-known* (or are they?) than Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet, or Cooper's Dark is Rising series, or LeGuin's Earthsea books. Less poetic than LeGuin and less overtly Christian than L'Engle, they seem to me comparable to all three nonetheless. Is it because they're comic that--like Diana Wynne Jones's similar works--they've been ignored? I'm intrigued...and I have four more books to read.

*The MLA Bibliography lists 359 citations for Ursula Le Guin as a subject, 25 for Madeleine L'Engle, 20 for Susan Cooper (that's once you remove the Susan Fenimore Cooper citations), and 24 for Diana Wynne Jones. There's one for Diane Duane.

1 comment:

  1. I found the first one--So You Want to Be a Wizard--charming and delightful. Then I read the second, and the third, and somewhere along in there got tired of them. I thought maybe it was because I hadn't found them at the right time in my life (viz if you haven't read Victor Hugo by 15, it's too late), but my kids didn't care for them much, either.

    I don't think I'd compare them to Susan Cooper's books, which I think are much better. I see the comparison to L'Engle and LeGuin. And I think it's a good question about their comic aspect...although that seems to be increasingly more acceptable.