Harry Potter and the boy wizard tradition
The parallels between Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea and JK Rowling’s creation are striking, part of a tradition of boy wizards in fantasy fiction dating back to CS Lewis
A scene from the film adaptation of Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince: JK Rowling has been sniffy towards the fantasy tradition of which she is part, claiming she’d rather curl up with the latest Roddy Doyle rather than Tolkien. Earthsea author Ursula Le Guin returned the compliment, saying of Harry Potter: “It seemed a lively kid’s fantasy crossed with a ‘school novel’, good fare for its age group, but stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited”
A young man, fleeing unhappy domestic circumstances, enrols at a mysterious school for magicians. There, he makes friends, cultivates enemies and gains a nemesis with whom he shares an intimate connection.
This is obviously the basic premise of the Harry Potter series but also of a much-loved work that predates the JK Rowling juggernaut by decades. In Ursula Le Guin’s 1968 YA classic A Wizard Of Earthsea, a boy, naive yet ambitious, becomes a sorcerer , but at a terrible price and along the way learns there are some wrongs in this universe no incantations can put right.
It is a good moment to revisit Earthsea and the long-standing fantasy trope of the boy wizard, with Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Cursed Child just opened in the West End to swooning reviews and anticipation growing ahead of the November release of the movie adaptation of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, aka Hogwarts Goes to America.
On paper, the parallels between Earthsea and Potter are striking. Ged, the hero of Earthsea, is a stereotypical little boy lost, his mother dead, his father gruff and distant. At the wizard’s school of Roke he is taken under the wing of the Dumbledore-esque Archmage Nemmerle and begins a rivalry with slithery posh boy Jasper, a hissing cad explicitly in the Draco Malfoy mould.
So was Rowling serving up reheated seconds with Potter? There is no evidence that this was so and she has certainly never claimed Le Guin as inspiration. What can be stated with confidence is that both Earthsea and Potter are part of the wider tradition of boy wizards in fantasy fiction (a genre which Rowling has, it is true, been sniffy towards, once claiming she’d rather curl up with the latest Roddy Doyle rather than Tolkien).
All the way back to 1955 and CS Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew pale young men with the weight of creation on their shoulders have been getting tangled up on magic. Conceived by Lewis as an origin story for his Narnia chronicles, The Magician’s Nephew features the proto-Potter figure of Digory Kirke, who stumbles into a world of sorcery and wonder (all lathered in Lewis’s patented Christian allegory) and, en route saving mankind, learns what it is to be an adult.
However, it was post-Wizard of Earthsea (which Le Guin followed with a series of increasingly metaphysical sequels) that this micro-genre took flight. In Raymond E Feist’s 1982 doorstopper Magician, for example, the boy Pug is discovered to have innate powers and is apprenticed to court wizard Kulgan, later becoming the most powerful mage in the kingdom of Midkemia.
With a gritty streak and expletive-heavy dialogue, Magician will appeal more to Game of Thrones fans than to Potter-heads. Nonetheless, those who appreciated Harry Potter for its world building rather than for its Billy Bunter qualities will find much here worth delving into. Pug is a sweet kid trying to abide by a moral code in a brutally reactionary environment and, though some may find the Tolkien-esque Elves and dragons off-putting, the character’s arc from scrappy urchin to quasi-immortal is powerfully drawn and affecting.
Post-Potter, the boy wizard trope has received an engaging upgrade with Lev Grossman’s Magicians sequence (not to be confused with Feist’s Magician novels). Here, Rowling is a vivid influence, as we follow moochy teenager Quentin Goldwater from his home in Brooklyn to the parallel universe where resides Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Grossman’s books were this year adapted into a big-budget SyFy channel series which locates the originals’ haunted whimsy even as it lathers up the soapier elements. Both are worth investigating should you yearn for Potter-esque escapism but have been unable to secure a seat for the Cursed Child (with tickets going for up to £1,500 on the secondary market, take comfort in knowing you are not alone).
And what of Earthsea, the original of the boy wizard species? It is recommended, but with qualifications. If you enjoyed Harry Potter when it got dark and weird, you’ll take to Le Guin’s fundamentally gloomy outlook. However, if you’re just here for tuck-shop larks and Quidditch the bleakness may strike you as oppressive. Note, too, that Le Guin herself considers the Harry Potter novels fundamentally objectionable and is not at all fond of comparisons with her work.
“When so many adult critics were carrying on about the ‘incredible originality’ of the first Harry Potter book, I read it to find out what the fuss was about, and remained somewhat puzzled,” she told the Guardian in 2004. “It seemed a lively kid’s fantasy crossed with a ‘school novel’, good fare for its age group, but stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited.”