The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. New York: Square Fish, 2011. 1,134 pp. $34.95 (paperback box set).
In his introductory remarks to The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander notes that the story is fantasy, yet not far removed from reality. Although the series includes enchanters, invisible dwarfs, and other impossibilities, the protagonists must strive constantly to live up to their highest potential in order to achieve their goals; and they must judge other people, who may not be completely good or evil and who may be much better or worse than they initially appear. So, too, notes Alexander, must we all. This is the way the real world is.
The Chronicles of Prydain is ideal for young readers from about fourth through sixth grades, or for parents to read aloud to third or fourth graders. The series consists of five books: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King.
The Book of Three introduces the main character of the series: Taran, a young boy nicknamed “assistant pig keeper” for his role on the farm where he lives and works. At the start, he is worried that he will never become anyone special, but after setting out to retrieve the escaped pig he is in charge of, and over the course of many adventurous trials that ensue, Taran develops into a heroic young man. He learns how to make tough choices, to weigh his alternatives by means of his best judgment, to judge individuals’ characters, to acknowledge his errors, and to persist in the pursuit of his goals even in the face of grave danger. In short, he learns how to fight for the people he loves and the world he wants.
In proving himself far more capable than he initially appears, Taran is much like Eilonwy, Gurgi, Doli, and Fflewddur Flam, the other four main characters and his close friends throughout the series.
Eilonwy at first seems like a scatterbrained, excessively talkative girl of little substance. Although she remains talkative to the end, seemingly having a simile for everything, she proves to be wise and as courageous as they come.
Gurgi at first seems like a disgusting and shifty creature, half man, half beast, and grossly incompetent. Nevertheless, he proves to be loyal, competent, even lovable.
Doli initially seems like a dwarf among enchanted dwarfs. Among other quirks, he repeatedly fails at turning invisible and apparently excels at being irascible. Although his grumpy exterior never changes, it proves to be only on the surface—unlike his abilities, which turn out to be deep and vital.
Finally, among the main characters, is Fflewddur Fflam, who at first seems to be the last person you would want on your side on a long and dangerous quest. Flam, as his friends call him, routinely exaggerates the truth and thus gives the impression of being unreliable. But he, too, proves the opposite: He is a loyal friend and a brave man who can be counted on, no matter the danger.
By the end of The Book of Three, these characters have experienced much together; and, with their help, Taran has completed his initial quest of retrieving the aforementioned (and highly remarkable) pig—along with another victory of much greater import.
In the books that follow, Taran sets out on many more adventures. He seeks to destroy an instrument of evil in The Black Cauldron, seeks to rescue Eilonwy from a fate worse than death in The Castle of Llyr, sets off to discover his own identity in Taran Wanderer, and, in The High King, strikes at the very source of all the evil in Prydain. . . .