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.
These are good stories, well told. In the realm of books for children, and specifically with respect to preparing children for more sophisticated works, the series is excellent.
One thing that makes The Chronicles of Prydain stand out from many other children’s books are its characters. Although many of them are reminiscent of those in the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings, Alexander’s characters, like his stories, are in some ways more heroic and more American. This is especially true for some of the lesser characters.
Consider, for instance, Adaon, a man thoroughly in love with life. Adaon is described as having on his face “a look that Taran had never seen before and could not fathom. In it was pride, yet more than that, for it held, as well, a light that seemed almost joyous” (TBC, p. 71). Here’s a taste of what Adaon says about life and work and war: “There is greater honor in a field well plowed than in a field seeped in blood.” What is important to him becomes even clearer when, in response to Taran looking for glory in battle, Adaon asks, “Is there not glory enough in living the days given to us?”—and when he says, “You should know there is adventure in simply being among those we love and the things we love, and beauty, too” (TBC, p. 72).
Many more such characters appear in Taran Wanderer when Taran visits the Free Commets, a realm where “what matters . . . is the skill in a man’s hands not the blood in his veins” and where “no man lords it over his fellows because he had the luck to be born in a king’s castle instead of a farmer’s hut” (TW, p. 112). If this sounds like an echo of the spirit of America, the wide variety of characters Taran meets in the Free Commets make it sound all the more so.
Among these is a man who trusts in “luck” and knows that the secret of it is using one’s mind and working with one’s resources. To him, “there was nothing—an egg, a mushroom, a handful of feathers delicate as ferns—that was not held to be a treasure” for its potential use (TW, p. 172). He believes “a man’s bound to find what he seeks one day or the next” and that “you need only sharpen your eyes to see your luck when it comes, and sharpen your wits to use what falls into your hands” (TW, pp. 169, 174).
Other characters Taran encounters include a forger who advises him not to rely on “luck” but to “force the pounding,” a potter whose “joy is in the craft,” and an old weaver who teaches Taran how all work is done—“step by step, and strand by strand” (TW, pp. 181, 192, 185).
Such men are not nearly as rich as Americans today. But in valuing what they have, in earning it by thinking and working hard at a career they love, and in knowing that they have every right to what they own because they earned it, the Commet folk are in some ways even wealthier.
Indeed, one of the men Taran meets on the way to the Free Commets is content to continue working his farm despite the fact that everyone else has left the area, leaving him with insufficient manpower to run it properly. “It is mine,” he says in explanation. He stays “To be free . . . To be my own man. Freedom was what I sought. I had found it here, and I had won it” (TW, p. 136).
Although these books contain much wisdom, they also include some nonsense. It is mostly limited to the cliché idea that acting for yourself is a bad thing and that placing others before yourself is a good thing (THK, p. 238). Such twisted ideas are unfortunate, but they are far outweighed and largely defused by the protagonists’ actual selfishness and heroism throughout the books, and by the many good ideas and nuggets of wisdom woven into the story.
The latter include the truth conveyed by Prince Gwydion that “once you have the courage to look upon evil, seeing it for what it is and naming it by its true name, it is powerless against you, and you can destroy it” (TBT, p. 179); the statement by Adaon that “there is much to be known [in this world] and above all much to be loved, be it the hum of the seasons or the shape of a river pebble. Indeed, the more we find to love, the more we add to the measure of our hearts” (TBC, p. 28); the observations that “only what is worth earning is worth having” (TBC, p. 122); that “there is nothing like work to put the heart at rest” (TCL, p. 5); that “it is not wisdom that a man should seek his own death” (THK, p. 187); and that “the deeds of a man, not the words of a prophecy, are what shape his destiny” (THK, p. 239).
Some of this wisdom will, of course, go over the heads of some children. And some readers will only grasp these ideas when they become adults and read these books to their children. Regardless, the wisdom is there for them when they are ready for it; in the meantime, they will enjoy a wonderful story and heroic characters.
As a series of books for children, and particularly for those not yet old enough for the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Prydain is a fantastic introduction to the world of romantic literature.