The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
|Book Name:||The Chronicles of Prydain|
|Publisher(s):||Henry Holt and Co|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook|
|Release Date:||1964 - 1970|
This is the first in a semi-occasional series that examines classic or influential YA and children’s fantasy—the sorts of books that fantasy fans remember as the stories that brought them into the genre-reading world and ones that provide entry points of new readers of every age.
The Chronicles of Prydain, a series written by author Lloyd Alexander, is comprised mainly of the five novels The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King. (There is an additional volume of tangentially-related short stories set in the same world, which did not make it into this article.) The series is both well-known and highly-decorated—The Black Cauldron was a Newbery Honor book of 1966 and The High King won the Newbury Medal, the most prestigious honor in American children’s literature, in 1969. It has stood among the ranks of classic children’s books for more than forty years.
The settings of The Chronicles books, as well as many of the character names and personas, are taken from the traditions of Welsh mythology, specifically the myths that appear in the Mabinogion. Alexander doesn’t retell the traditional stories so much as incorporate the motifs into a story of his own invention. This story centers on the adventures of the young Taran, assistant pig keeper and would-be hero, and his companions throughout various exploits.
I read The Chronicles as a tween-ager (perhaps 11 or 12, but not much older), and liked them enough to merit several rereads. Actually, to be more honest, it was only the final book in the series that I loved and went back to over and over. I felt deeply frustrated with the earlier books in the series, because I felt as if Taran was never rewarded or recognized for his efforts until the very end, and his adventures up until the events of The High King were nothing but a series of humiliations and instances in which other characters got the glory and the rewards.
While rereading the books for this article, though, my impression was somewhat different. Now that I am not a child myself, I can see that the Taran of The Book of Three has a lot of growing up to do. When I first read that story, I was jealous, on Taran’s behalf, of the exploits of Prince Gwydion, the war leader of the Sons of Don. I saw Gwydion and Taran as standing on the same footing, with Gwydion coming out unaccountably ahead. Revisiting the story again from an older perspective, however, I could see that Gwydion is a grown man and a warrior, while Taran is perhaps 13, with a boy’s over enthusiasm and lack of judgment. Gwydion’s role in the story is not really a peer or rival, but rather a mentor—an older brother figure who helps teach Taran about what it means to be a grown-up and a hero.
The theme of growing up and gaining not only abilities, but knowledge of yourself and your role in the world, is by far the most important organizing principle of the series. As an older reader, I could see clearly how the events of each book help Taran mature, and teach him lessons (often humbling ones) in adulthood. Although the individual books do stand alone as adventures, it is most satisfying to look at the series as one complete narrative arc, one that tells as classic a coming-of-age story as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—or Star Wars, for that matter.
The coming of age narrative is not the most original in the repertoire of plots, and there are definitely aspects of Alexander’s story, and of the world he created, that prompt a “Haven’t I seen this somewhere before?” response. It may just be their common use of British Isles mythology for inspiration, but comparisons between The Chronicles of Prydain and Tolkien’s work are even more inevitable that usual for an epic fantasy series. The ultimate villain is a shadowy and mysterious lord of death who rules from a craigfast black land; the hero is accompanied by a fawning and not-quite human minion/sidekick; at the end, when evil is defeated, magic fades out of the land and the elders of the land have to set sail for distant and immortal shores…It all seems a little familiar.
However, the strength of the story—and one that outweighs its inventive weaknesses—is the tightness of its plotting, both on the level of each individual book, and on the level of the series as a whole. Alexander has a great sense of pacing, and an ability to convey setting, mood, and tension with just a few words—one of the reasons that each book is a slim volume that a young reader could polish off in a couple days. Each adventure builds on the one before it, and everything comes together with a rush at the end.
Even though I didn’t have the same impatience with the earlier adventures during my reread, I still got the greatest satisfaction from the last volume. The ultimate crisis and resolution of the series has all the elements that make an adventure great—trial, sacrifice, tragedy, redemption, romance, the surmounting of daunting odds…it is the coming-into-ones-own that we all dream of attaining, accompanied just enough harsh reality that it rings true to the suffering that we know is part of life. The Chronicles of Prydain tell a human story in a fantastic setting, an accomplishment that should be the one of the basic accomplishments of any book, which we have elevated to “classic” status.