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Five Epic Series Featuring Wizards and Magic Written Years Before Harry Potter

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First edition of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea illustrated by Ruth Robbins

These series all predate Harry Potter by many years – indeed a number of them began in the 1960s or 1970s and are so epic that their authors took 20 or 30 years to finish them. Written in varying decades in very different styles, they all have their own cast of characters and their individual fantasy worlds held together by all sorts of magic, but each, ultimately, tackles the same subject: the endless battle between good and evil. Each novelist also approaches, in his or her own way, the shades of dark and light in every human being that mean that this battle will never truly be won. They often make reference to ancient mythology, including the Norse myths and the tales of Merlin and King Arthur, reinventing them in many ways.

Like Harry Potter, the first three series were originally written with young adult audiences in mind, and are perfect reading material for teenagers who loved J. K. Rowling’s magical world, but all five make engaging reading for adult readers as well, thanks to quality of the writing and power of the stories they tell. For aspiring writers, or those who enjoy books that experiment or reflect on literature itself, they will also be of interest. A number of these writers returned to their series later in life, adding new books that revisited their fantasy worlds from an altered, more adult perspective, changing the cannon in bold and interesting ways.


A Wizard of Earthsea

Sparrowhawk is trained in herbal medicine and simple spell-casting by his aunt. When their quiet island is attacked, he is able to conjure up a fog that conceals the village from the invaders, a powerful spell that brings him to the attention of Ogion, a wise mage. Apprenticed to Ogion and overcome with a thirst for knowledge and power, Sparrowhawk – whose real, secret name in Ged – travels to the island of Roke to attend a school for wizards. Roke is nothing like Hogwarts. Far from levitating feathers and turning hedgehogs into pincushions, Ged is tasked with the gruelling memorisation of words of power over many months and is encouraged to learn about harmony and balance and how to use magic wisely. Talented and proud, however, he is goaded into a duel and accidentally conjures up a shadowy creature that attacks him. His battle to confront and overcome this creature forms the narrative of A Wizard of Earthsea, the first of five novels written between 1968 and 2001. It is followed by The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu and The Other Wind

Le Guin’s books are among the most compelling tales of wizardry ever written. Unlike many young adult series, the novels are not all set during Ged’s adolescence. Nor do they paint him as wise and infallible. Le Guin has said that she wrote the series in part because wizards are so often pictured as ancient and wise and she wondered where they come from. In the Earthsea Cycle she bravely charts Ged’s transformation from an ambitious youth, to a powerful yet humble mage, to an old man, exploring the links between power and responsibility and subverting the fantasy genre by shifting from a focus on magic and epic achievements to a focus on the pleasures of a simple life and the quiet wisdom that comes with experience. Like all the best young adult books, her themes are so complex and her writing so beautiful that they are easily sophisticated enough to appeal to adult audiences.

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The Dark Is Rising Sequence

I first read The Dark is Rising, the titular novel of this stunning quintet (though technically the second book in the series) when I was 11, the same age as its protagonist, Will. It fascinated and terrified me in equal measure. Re-reading the series as an adult the terror factor had lessened, but I found myself just as enchanted by Susan Cooper’s storytelling. The story of the battle between Good and Evil – or in this instance Light and Dark – is as old as time but in Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark is Rising, Greenwich, The Grey King and Silver on the Tree, it is remade in a new vein.

On his 11th birthday, Will Stanton learns that he is the last of the Old Ones, a powerful group of figures who can wield magic in the service of the Light. With the helped of his mentor, Merriman Lyon, an elderly but wise and powerful man with bushy grey eyebrows, he collects six ancient signs of power to be used in the battle against the Dark. The other four books in the series introduce characters such as the mortal children Simon, Jane and Barney Drew and a mysterious albino Welsh boy named Bran. Steeped in the myths of King Arthur and Merlin, and the folk mythology of Cornwall and Wales, where four of the novels are set, this sequence will enthral young readers with its magic and seduce older ones with its imaginative power. 

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The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Published in 1960 and 1963, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath were the first novels penned by Alan Garner, celebrated master of the unsettling and experimental. The protagonists Colin and Susan are preteen siblings who stumble into a world of magic and peril one night while walking in the woods of Alderley Edge, a real place in Cheshire, England.

Garner weaves together strands from dozens of myths in these enchanting stories, from a local tale about King Arthur and his nights sleeping inside a hill, protected by a wizard, to the stories of the constellations and fragments of Norse mythology. With the help of wizard Cadellin Silverbrow and his dwarf companions, the children face dark enemies bent on destroying them. Among them are Morrigan, a powerful witch inspired by the character from Irish mythology who appears as a crow above the battlefield, and a Brollachan, an evil creature from Scottish mythology said to have eyes and a mouth but no shape.

Later in life, Garner claimed to be somewhat embarrassed by these early novels, but those who grew up with them vehemently defend them – including Ursula Le Guin and Phillip Pullman. In 2012, more than 50 years after his debut, Garner published a third book, Boneland. This work, aimed firmly at adult readers, reveals a troubled grown-up Colin’s sessions with his mysterious therapist and casts the events of the earlier volumes – which he cannot remember – in a new light. This brave attempt to tackle old stories from a new, adult perspective, thrilled some and appalled others. Whatever the authors’ feelings about his early work, Colin and Susan’s adventures rival Harry Potter for drama, magic and their imaginative adaptation of mythological creatures and forces.

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The Crystal Cave

This series is one of the most epic and inventive ever written about Merlin, perhaps the most famous wizard in the cannons of British folk tales. And, a little like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Mary Stewart stages the elements of magic against a backdrop of power struggles, political alliances, bastard children, incest and fighting for the throne.

The Crystal Caves begins when Myrddin Emrys, also known as Merlin, is six years old. Told in the first person, it charts his travels through Wales, Brittany, England and Ireland in search of a home. The Romans have recently left Britain and its kingdoms are loosely ruled by a High King. Merlin, the son of a Welsh princess and a mysterious father, has clairvoyant visions, which cause him to be viewed with suspicion. In France, he assists Ambrosius Aurelianus, who is preparing to invade Britain, defeat its Saxon ruler and become High King. His decision sets in train a dramatic sequence of events, culminating in the birth of King Arthur, the son of Ambrosius’ brother, Uther Pendragon.

The Hollow Hills continues Merlin’s story, from mentoring Arthur – his cousin, in these stories – to discovering the lost sword Caliburn, to Arthur’s eventual recognition as king. In The Last Enchantment, like Ged in Le Guin’s later novels, we see Merlin grow old and his powers slowly waning, even as he struggles to protect Arthur’s reign from scheming lords with designs on the throne and takes on a young apprentice, a girl names Niniane.

The final two books in the quintet diverge from the first three and are no longer narrated by Merlin. The Wicked Day explores King Arthur’s complicated relationship with his son Mordred, lost as a youth, raised by fisherfolk and destined to bring about the death of his father. The final novel, The Prince and the Pilgrim was written in 1995, 25 years after the first in the series. A standalone work, it tells the story of Prince Alexander, whose father is murdered by the King of Cornwall, leaving him to seek justice from King Arthur and resist the enchantments of the evil sorceress Morgan Le Fay, who is attempting to control Arthur’s court.

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Equal Rites

Steeped as much in humour as they are in magic, Terry Pratchett’s beloved Discworld novels are full of delightful characters and wonderful locations, but the Unseen University and its cohort of bumbling, elderly wizards are among its most amusing. The wizards are central characters in 13 of his novels. Particular recurring favourites include the bombastic Mustrum Ridcully, the hapless Rincewind, the awe-inspiring Librarian, transformed into an orangutan in a magical accident, and the gibbering Bursar, whose insanity is (nearly) kept in check by frequent doses of dried frog pills.

The role of the wizards, besides eating, drinking, sleeping and studiously avoiding contact with students, often comes down to saving the Discworld from terrifying monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions, who are always searching for a way into their reality. An ongoing joke sees magic likened to particle physics. The young wizard genius Ponder Stibbons has created a semi-sentient machine called Hex, which is run by ants and works like a primitive computer. He is viewed with suspicion by the older wizards, who fear innovation and appear not to understand how magic works at all, simply relying on tradition to get the job done.

The eighth son of an eighth son is automatically a wizard. In Equal Rites, Pratchett combines the world of the wizards with that of the witches, powerful and eccentric old ladies, through the protagonist Eskarina Smith, who is given a staff by a dying wizard who mistakes her for a boy. Unable to control her powers, she travels to the Unseen University for training, but the faculty refuse to accept the concept of a female wizard. Her struggle for recognition leads to a death-defying battle with the creatures of the Dungeon Dimensions and, like all the Discworld novels, a happy ending.

Other novels featuring the wizards include Moving Pictures, in which Holy Wood is accidentally transplanted to the Disworld when alchemists invent film, and Interesting Times, in which Rincewind, perhaps the Discworld’s least-powerful wizard, finds himself in the Aurient, a foreign country on the brink of war. 

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India Stoughton is a British journalist who has been writing on books, art and culture since 2011. She is currently based in Beirut and writes for publications including The Economist, 1843 ... Show More

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