Wizards, dwarves, goblins and elves - Tolkien, right? Wrong, it's Alan Garner's "Weirdstone of Brisingamen," a spellbinding story in the true tradition of imaginative and inventive fantasy. Garner isn't as well-known as he deserves, but fantasy fans will gobble this right up.
Colin and Susan, a pair of English schoolkids, are sent to Alderly for a six-month vacation with their mother's old nurse and her husband. Things start off normally enough, with the kids exploring the area and the myths, legends and superstitions surrounding it. But things begin to take an eerie turn when they encounter a spell-chanting old woman named Selina Place - and then a horde of svart-alfar, hideous and hostile goblins.
They are unexpectedly rescued by the wizard Cadellin, who is the keeper of a company of knights sleeping deep under Alderly. They will awaken at some time in the future, to combat the evil spirit Nastrond and his minions in the final, magical battle. There's just one problem: long ago, Cadellin lost the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the magical jewel that bound the knights there in the first place. Susan realizes too late that the little misty teardrop gem in her bracelet is the Weirdstone - and it's been stolen. The kids team up with Cadellin, the dwarves Fenodyree and Durathror, the lios-alfar (elves), and their friend Gowther to find the Weirdstone - and save the world.
Written in the 1960s, this book effectively combines the English-schoolkids-swept-into-magical adventure subgenre with mythology and the overlap of our world with another. Garner's wizards, dwarves, elves and goblins are as legit as Tolkien's, as Garner draws heavily from mythos and legends. There are similarities to Tolkien's creations, but they are sufficiently different that not once do you feel the need to compare. Garner lifts from Norse and Celtic mythologies for this book (mentions of the Morrigan and Ragnarok are featured within pages of one another) and manages to cobble it together into a coherent and believable whole.
Alderly is effectively shown - from the moment the kids venture out of the farm, you get the sense that enchantment is thrumming through the land, and that a magical creature could be lurking nearby. The sense of atmosphere is somewhat stunted by the fact that we rarely hear the characters' thoughts, though, but such creatures as the svart-alfar and the lios-alfar are effective in the simple, evocative descriptions.
This is a book more for Tolkien fans than Diana Wynne-Jones fans. Though there are a few funny parts, it is overall a relentlessly serious book, with many of the characters using archaic-sounding language. Another good thing: the kids speak like twentieth-century preteens ("That WOULD have made a mess of things!") while such characters as Durathror speaking like warriors from centuries ago ("... for there I think it will be, and so to Fundindelve, where I shall join you if I may.") In addition, there is no cutesy magic or gimmickry, or casual magical elements popping up every page or two. The magic featured in here is deadly serious and very intense.
Colin and Susan are the archetypical kids-on-holiday-in-magical-place: brave, respectful, inquisitive, curious, and in completely over their heads. Cadellin is an excellent wizard, dignified and powerful but sufficiently human to be sympathetic, such as his reaction when he hears that the Weirdstone has been stolen from Susan. This guy deserves a seat right below Gandalf, and alongside Merlin, Ged and Ebenezum. The dwarves are serious and unusually cool-headed for the fantasy portrayal of dwarves; the lios-alfar are featured less prominently, but the "elves of light" passage is one of the most moving paragraphs in the book, both sad and beautiful.
The only problem with this book is its shortness, and its presence as only one of two. The tales of Alderly are so rich that you feel that Garner could have churned out fifty books and never grown stale. If you are a fan of serious fantasy, for any age, read this book, and the sequel "Moon of Gomrath."