SEPTEMBER 24, 2014
I RECENTLY came upon my tattered paperback of The Book of Three. The stylized drawing on the cover of a young boy, a red-haired girl, and a white pig was like a forgotten photo of old friends. Taran, the young boy, struck a special pang of remembrance; at various points while reading of his exploits I wanted to be him, befriend him, and date him (or at least, the prepubescent equivalent). His creator, Lloyd Alexander, remembered that children both long to grow up and fear it, and gave me a protagonist with whom I could empathize. In The Book of Three and its sequels, Alexander tells a complex tale of fear, grief, pride, compassion, dawning knowledge of romantic love, and the terrible sadness of looking for an answer to the riddle of one’s own identity. But he never forgets to speak directly to his target audience: children.
The book, the first of Lloyd Alexander’s five-book high fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain, came out 50 years ago this past August, and in honor of the anniversary, the original cover, by famed illustrator Evaline Ness, is being re-released by Henry Holt in a tasteful red, black, and gold hardback version. (Ness was married to Eliot Ness, whose work as a Prohibition agent in Chicago was made famous in the book and then movie The Untouchables, but she divorced him during his very public downfall.) My copy, however, is from the 1990 reprint, with hilariously ’80s cover art by Jody Lee that seems modeled directly after a Renaissance Faire; let’s just say that everyone is wearing some sort of circlet, always. This version will forever be my gateway to Prydain.
The series revolves around Taran, a young orphan living with his guardian Coll and the enchanter Dallben in a sleepy homestead. Frustrated by farm life and forced to make horseshoes instead of swords, Taran sulks and whines until Coll bestows a title on him, though it is not the one young Taran had hoped for. Instead of Taran the Knight or, even better, Prince Taran, he becomes Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper. After all, our young hero’s job is to care for Hen Wen, an oracular pig.
This humble title will follow Taran through his adventures, chronicled in the five books of the series. Much as they do in Harry Potter, these books grow in scope and ambition as their protagonist ages, reaching a peak of sophistication with the final volume, the Newbery Award–winning The High King. At the beginning, however, there is just young Taran, dutifully minding his porcine charge when she takes fright and runs into the forest. He heads in after her, and his adventures begin. After barely escaping from the roaming warriors of an evil king, he stumbles upon Gwydion, prince of the land, who is journeying undercover through the realm. They, in turn, meet Gurgi, a furry, vaguely humanoid creature who speaks in childish rhymes and whose provenance is never fully explained. (We never meet another creature of his kind, and he’s vaguely referred to as being something between a human and an animal, making him some sort of Prydainian missing link.) Taran disregards Gwydion until his status as royalty is revealed, and reviles Gurgi for his seeming weakness. As Gwydion tells him, “It is not the trappings that make the prince, nor, indeed, the sword that makes the warrior.” But Taran, like most of us, doesn’t learn this lesson the first time. Throughout the series the young boy struggles with yearnings for grandeur and with a prickly pride born of his own insecurity.
Taran and Gwydion are soon apprehended by the evil Queen Achren, who throws them into her standard-issue villainous dungeons. When all seems lost, Taran meets the chattering, willful Princess Eilonwy of the red-gold hair. She lives in the castle as Achren’s ward and leads our young hero to safety through a series of hidden tunnels she uses to evade her cruel guardian. Through a case of mistaken identity, they meet up not with Gwydion but with Fflewddur Fflam, a king attempting to be a bard, plagued by a harp whose strings snap when he succumbs to his penchant for exaggeration.
While most of these central characters are his own creation, Alexander drew heavily on the Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh myths, as well as on scholarly works such as Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. From these influences and others Alexander developed his own version of what Joseph Campbell called the monomyth: the universal pattern of many epic stories. The parallels between this series and Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and countless other fantasy epics are clear: an unrecognized hero accepts a quest despite great odds against him, learns he is stronger/greater/more important than originally thought, defeats an evil leader, and returns home in triumph. That could as easily apply to young Skywalker as to our own Assistant Pig-Keeper.
Like Bilbo before him and Harry after, Taran is an unlikely hero, and he stumbles his way through the book, realizing fairly quickly that he is in over his head. “At home, nothing ever happened,” he says. “Now, everything happens. But somehow I can never seem to make it come out right.” He leans heavily on Fflewddur, Eilonwy, Gwydion, and even Gurgi, whose bravery and selflessness become clear. At the end of The Book of Three, Taran laments that he actually did very little except make poor decisions and fail to complete his mission. Dallben, who tends to bookend the adventures with some helpful nuggets of wisdom, replies, “There are times when the seeking counts more than the finding.”
Alexander certainly understood what it meant to toil in a world without guarantees. He was determined to be a writer at a young age, but his parents, worried about his financial security, discouraged him, and found him a job at a bank instead. (Alexander later used the experience as the basis for his first novel, published 15 years later, And Let the Credit Go.) The would-be artist then decided to enlist in the army, seeking an adventure that would inform his writing. It was during his military service that he was sent to Wales, an experience that piqued his interest in Welsh culture and its myths. Alexander would write for seven years before his career began to take off. That was not his only struggle: his (now out of print) biography, My Love Affair with Music, chronicles his decades-long attempt to become a musician and his eventual realization that he would never succeed.
And so Alexander doesn’t shy away from having his characters pursue different paths on their way to a vocation. In Taran Wanderer, the fourth book in the series, Taran sets out to find his parents and, he thinks, his identity. He is beset by false starts and, in a particularly nuanced plotline for a children’s series, wrestles with guilt over his disappointment after finding a man he believes to be his father. Alexander charmingly weaves in archetypical philosophies of life, pairing them with a series of apprenticeships that Taran undertakes. There is one with a blacksmith, who tells him life is like a forge (“You’ll be roasted, smelted, and pounded […]. But stand boldly to it!”), another with a weaver (“Life a forge? A loom, rather where lives and days intertwine.”), and one with a potter, whose lessons are a bit too complicated for a simple slogan. He speaks to a very real question for children: What will I do with my life? Will I be a veterinarian or an astronomer or a poet (as I once wondered)?
Alexander doesn’t leave his characters with the boundless possibilities of childhood, however; he is willing to let them fail, sometimes in ways that are binding. After spending time as a potter, Taran decides this is what he wants to do, only to realize he doesn’t have the touch that would make him a master artisan. Fflewddur is not an official bard, lacking the skills to pass his entrance exams. Eilonwy loses most of her powers as an enchantress, trains as a court lady, and is predictably bad at that, too. Doli, the ill-tempered dwarf, is granted the power of invisibility that he longs for, only to find it intolerable. Like all children do, they sometimes realize what they want just in time to learn that they cannot have it. But Alexander doesn’t let them wallow, or at least not for long. He prods them gently along, showing his young readers how each failure adds to who these characters eventually become.
The series is not without problems. At times, Alexander is so ham-fisted that to call his endings deus ex machinas is generous. And what do you do with a problem like Eilonwy? When we meet her in The Book of Three, she is relatively plucky for a young girl in a fantasy epic, a genre not known for its progressive representations of women. (Hence the decision to plant a female character in the film adaptations of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which would otherwise be almost entirely male.) Eilonwy saves Taran from imprisonment, steals the sword that turns out to be pretty much the most important object in their world, and throughout the series does her fair share of sword fighting, horse riding, and the rest. Especially considering that the series began in 1964, it’s not a bad showing. But at the end of the series (spoiler alert) she flippantly casts away her powers as an enchantress — not to mention the possibility of eternal life — to marry Taran. A moment of careful consideration might have helped (after all, Taran spends days agonizing over whether or not to leave Prydain for paradise himself), but instead, Dallben, dispenser of wisdom, intones, “Yet you shall always keep the magic and mystery all women share. And I fear that Taran, like all men, shall be often baffled by it.” Personally, I have always found and continue to find Eilonwy a supremely annoying character: her chatter, meant to be endearing, is not, and her endless silly similes (“I hate crying; it makes my nose feel like a melted icicle,” she’ll exclaim) are like nails on a chalkboard to my ear. Young readers of course will have their own opinions.
But on the whole, Alexander’s strengths outweigh his weaknesses. The humor and vulnerability with which he imbues his characters makes them more than vehicles for life lessons; at the same time, the noble ideas on which the story rests speak to the universal contradictions of growing older. These are books that revel in the absence of adult supervision while simultaneously expressing a deep longing for the security of home. We want to be free, we want to be safe; we long for one when we have the other. After each of his adventures, Taran returns to Caer Dallben, a place of golden fields ringed by forests, where the scent of apple blossoms seems always to be in the air. As a child, I loved the battles and strange encounters abroad. I’m almost sad to admit that as an adult, I find myself longing — like Coll, the warrior-turned-farmer who serves as a father figure for Taran — for the sunny rooms and well-plowed fields of Caer Dallben.
Alexander reminds his young readers that it is up to them to reconcile these competing needs; their happiness and security is largely their own to create. While help is available, it comes not in the form of the divine but from old farmers, new friends, wise weaver-women, and many others, if you’re willing to ask them. Taran does have run-ins with three powerful, changeable hags — Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch — who serve as not-so-subtly disguised Fates. Like so many of us, including, one guesses, Alexander himself, Taran tries to bargain with them, willing to sacrifice “the greatest treasure that comes into my hands” for favors and information in Taran Wanderer. But as the series draws to a close, they appear to him one last time, handing Taran a tapestry with scenes from his own life. Taran is amazed to realize that it was he, not they, who has chosen the pattern. They reply:
“Naturally,” said Orddu. “You must still choose the pattern, and so must each of you poor, perplexed fledglings, as long as thread remains to be woven.”
“But no longer do I see mine clearly,” Taran cried. “No longer do I understand my own heart. Why does my grief shadow my joy? Tell me this much. Give me to know this, as one last boon.”
“Dear chicken,” said Orddu smiling sadly, “when, in truth, did we really give you anything?”
Perplexed fledglings we are indeed — or as Alexander might put it, assistant pig-keepers — without fate’s help to guide the way. But in Alexander’s Prydain, there are sources of wisdom that can aid Taran, in the form of experience and friends, if he is willing to work hard and seek them. In our own world, children could do worse than to begin their own journey alongside this hero.