All the wizards have long since departed this land for Vale Innis — but one has been left behind. When Mallory’s favorite oak tree is felled, she finds a surprising discovery inside: an old wizard named Arbican who’s desperate to follow his fellow wizards across the sea. The orphaned Mallory has grown up with stories of magic and enchantment, and couldn’t be more delighted with the discovery — especially if there’s a chance that she can go with him. Mallory does not have the most wonderful life as scullery maid to the nasty Mrs Parsel, but Arbican has bigger problems: his magical powers have been severely depleted, and if he does not reach Vale Innis soon, he faces imminent death.
It sounds like another wonderful Lloyd Alexander story, but sadly The Wizard in the Tree falls short on several levels. It is a very slim novel, and so does not have time to delve very deeply into character or plot development — instead the story is made up of Mallory and Arbican running from various members of the neighborhood who are intent on exploiting Arbican and harming Mallory. This complete lack of likeable secondary characters is surprising for Alexander, since friendship and teamwork is a major theme of many of his other books (particularly his beloved Chronicles of Prydain). Although Mallory is a spunky young heroine, Arbican is not as easy to like. He’s bad-tempered and arrogant, faults that are not balanced or made endearing with the inclusion of more likeable traits. The more intriguing magical elements of the plot are overshadowed by the sinister designs of the corrupt Squire Scrupner who is too much of a one-dimension villain to be particularly interesting (a greedy land-developer who’s out for all he can get). There’s also some surprisingly strong language: Mallory is called “slut” throughout the novel by various characters.
Alexander also adds a general theme of environmentalism and love of countryside that is much akin to Tolkien‘s use of the topic with his Ents versus Saruman subplot. However, his general setting of early 19th century countryside, with rustic occupations and dialect is quite appealing, and his commentary on the true nature of magic is thought-provoking (though sadly there’s not enough of it).
Laszlo Kubinyi provides simple, but lovely illustrations that portray Mallory particularly well and capture the time-period of the story in the clothing and hairstyles of the characters.
Ultimately, The Wizard in the Tree is a harmless enough story, but is simply not up to the exceptional standards of other Lloyd Alexander publications.