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If Famous Witches and Wizards Cards featured beloved wizards from the pages of literature, you know there would be a card each for J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore, Tolkien’s Gandalf, Peter Beagle’s Schmendrick, and John Bellairs’s Prospero… I’ve already got quite a long list in mind. Now that I’ve read this brief book by the Newbery Medal- and National Book Award-winning author of the Prydain Chronicles, I have another name to add to that list: Arbican. He doesn’t do much magic in this book, and most of what he does goes wrong, and on first acquaintance he may seem a bit brusque and grumpy, not very lovable at all. But in the last few pages of this book, he earns his Chocolate Frog Card, wands down. In fact, for the sake of one paragraph, a single speech in which he finally sets straight what is and isn’t true about fairy tales, he’s a shoe-in.
We first find Arbican—and by “we” I mean a young kitchen drudge named Mallory—glaring balefully out of the middle of a felled tree trunk. He’s been in there an awfully long time, due to a magical mishap that only released him when the tree’s life ended. As soon as Mallory busts him out of the dead trunk, he means to set off for the Vale Innis, that far-away country to which all the enchanters retired long ago when the magic went out of the world. He has just this little problem: he seems to have lost his powers. Even after they start to come back, his efforts to do magic fizzle quickly. He tries to turn himself into a horse, for example, and becomes a stag instead. He unintentionally becomes a pig, then cannot change back—even when a farmer threatens to turn him into bacon and ham. If only he can find a circle of gold, he may get all his powers back.
Mallory would really like to help him. In fact, she often seems to care about Arbican more than he deserves. While he is absorbed in his own problems, she has to deal with the hard-handed mistress at the cookshop, the crooked squire of the Holdings, a greedy gamekeeper, and a murder mystery that puts both girl and wizard in deadly danger. Too often, the only thanks she receives is to be crisply informed that everything she learned about wizards from her mother’s fairy tales is wrong. Wish granting? Phooey. Powerful spells? Meh. Riding on broomsticks? Not so much. What Arbican slowly leads Mallory to understand—just as he slowly reveals the warmth and affection hidden under his crusty exterior—is that the magic that really matters is what people do for themselves, when they wish for something hard enough to do what needs to be done.
Lloyd Alexander’s books, mainly fantasy novels for young readers, sound the depths of folklore from many cultures. In a 52-year writing career (from 1955 until his death in 2007) he wrote some of the most movingly beautiful stories I have ever read—fiction that is powerfully lyrical, dramatic, and epic at the same time. He is simply one of the best. The list of his books that I have read is long, but the list of those I have yet to read is even longer. I have not touched one page of his Westmark trilogy or his Vesper Holly sextet. More of his titles that I intend to find and explore include The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man, The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, Gypsy Rizka, and The Gawgon and the Boy.