Sidebar article to:  "Charms and Enchantments of Fantasy" (July/August 2003) 

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
A novel in three books: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.
 

In the continent of Middle-earth, a terrible power is re-awakening. The evil wizard Sauron has returned, he who forged the ring of power to bind all the magical rings he had bestowed on elves, dwarves, and men, and who was defeated in ages past. He is raising armies of twisted orcs in his mountain-girded land of Mordor, while his burning eye and his nine ghostly servants scour the land in search of his lost ring. Under the guidance of the wise wizard Gandalf, a fellowship is formed to bear the ring to its place of forging to destroy it before Sauron can find it. But that place is the volcanic Mount Doom in Sauron's own realm. No man, dwarf, or elf has the inner strength to carry the ring, for it bends the mind to power-seeking, paranoia, and hatred. So the task falls to humble Frodo Baggins, a genial, mild-mannered, pipe-smoking hobbit, or halfling, from the Shire, the rustic, jolly, and rather England-like home of the hobbits. While Frodo and his gardener, Sam, suffer inner and outer tests attempting to sneak into Mordor, their companions ride to aid Gondor, the last bulwark of free humanity, in an apparently hopeless war against Sauron. But among them rides Strider, a.k.a. Aragorn, the lost heir to the crown of Gondor, whose character is so noble that an immortal princess of the elves has pledged her life to him. He will bring the dead heroes of the past to Gondor's aid, while Frodo, crushed under the power of the ring, drags it to its end in the fires that forged it. Tolkien writes in a plain, pseudo-archaic style and weaves into his novel a rich backstory of history, myth, and poetry in well-developed imaginary languages.
 

The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan

A novel in ten books and counting. The first is The Eye of the World.The title of the third gives the real theme of the story: The Dragon Reborn. The most recent is Crossroads of Twilight.
 
Five young people from an obscure shepherding village are forced to flee their home by evil forces. One of the young men is "the Dragon Reborn," a reincarnation of a controversial and often-demonized savior figure who is destined, according to an ambiguous prophecy, to face the forces of evil in a "last battle" to decide the fate of time itself. Three thousand years before the main action, the world was paradisiacal, dominated by the "Aes Sedai," practitioners of the arts of mentally "channeling" the masculine and feminine halves of the energy source that drives all creation. But ambitious Aes Sedai tapped a new source of power, the fount of fundamental chaos and destruction now known as "The Dark One." The previous incarnation of the Dragon imprisoned the Dark One, but the Dark One's counterstroke tainted the male source and drove all male Aes Sedai mad. Now the Dragon Reborn must master the arts of the male Aes Sedai in a world where female Aes Sedai hunt down any man who can "channel." But first he must be convinced that he actually is the Dragon. Can his talented friends pave the way for his ultimate victory? Will he be a savior or a destroyer? And will he go mad before the last battle takes place? Read on and on and on in Jordan's amazingly detailed, occasionally resonant, and surprisingly engaging super-serial.
 
His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman
Three linked novels: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass
 
Lyra Belacqua enjoys a free-spirited childhood in a pseudo-Victorian university, until her guardian, Lord Asriel, broaches in her hearing a mysterious tale concerning "severed" children. In a world where all people wear their souls out in the open in the form of animal-like "daemons," there is no fate worse than being severed from one's daemon. When Lyra is captured by forces allied to the Church and sent to a Dickensian camp in the far North, she discovers that fanatic religionists are experimentally severing children to prevent the accumulation of a mysterious sub-atomic substance known as "Dust" in their minds as they mature. Questing across worlds with the aid of a sentient, armored polar bear, insouciant witches, and a boy with a "subtle knife" that can cut anything, Lyra discovers that ethereal beings have spread the Church through all the parallel universes of existence in a scheme to rob people of their life-forces. The "Dust" is not Original Sin: it is the immanent source of rationality in human beings, accumulating as the mind reaches full adult reason. Lyra attempts to use the "subtle knife" and her allies to aid Lord Asriel in his fight to kill the Angel who calls himself "God." Pullman creates vigorous characters and inventively develops his plot, but the tale is darkened by his frequent evocation of horror and fear.
 
Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
Five novels and counting. The latest is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
 
Harry Potter is an abused foster child in a crass middle-class English family, when it is revealed that he is a wizard and has been admitted to Hogwarts, the English boarding school for witches and wizards. Each novel covers a year of Harry's schooling as he and his friends learn magic and play Quidditch (a magical ball-game played on flying brooms), while solving mysteries and having adventures. Unfortunately, Harry has since birth been the arch-enemy of Lord Voldemort, a very powerful and evil wizard who just will not die. Indeed, Voldemort killed Harry's parents. A final battle between good and evil seems in the (distant) offing. Rowling's enormously popular novels somewhat wittily locate this magical world of wizards, Ministry of Magic and all, within the cracks of the ordinary world of modern Britain. Neither the magic nor the school setting are very original, but the whole is greater than its parts.

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