The Book of Three
by Lloyd Alexander
Square Fish, 2006
(Originally published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964 )
[ Challenge # 23: Read the first book of a series. ]
The Chronicles of Prydain is a much-loved children’s book series originally published in the 1960s. It consists of five books that follow the adventures of Taran, an orphan growing up on a farm with a wizard, a retired warrior, and a magic pig, Hen Wen, whom he cares for as “Assistant Pig-keeper.” In many ways, it’s an American analog to the Narnia series, but without Christianity, and a school-age analog to Tolkien, but based on Welsh myth including The Mabinogian. The series is frequently mentioned in best-of fantasy lists of the 1970s and 80s, but it’s one I never read despite growing up in those times. I found the first book recently in a Little Free Library (can’t praise them enough) the next block over so decided to try it out.
At first I found it merely OK. Engaging, but nothing that knocked me out of the park. To the author’s credit, it was not as twee as how Narnia or The Hobbit got in places. I lay this on the American emphasis on realism. The plot begins with the time-worn trope of Evil Afoot in The Land, which causes Hen Wen to run off and Taran to chase after her, which makes him leave his childhood home. On the way he meets a Gollum analog named Gurgi and a Sauron one, The Horned King (we know the Horned King is EVIL because he wears a mask made of a human skull, with deer antlers) a warlord who is out to oust Prydain’s ruling family, the Don. The Aragorn analog is Gwydion, a prince of the Don, who Taran also meets. There’s also a girl along for the fun, spunky princess Eilonwy, who was annoying at first but later grew on me.
The adventures were pretty standard — capture, escape through a labyrinth, the finding of a magic sword, companions assumed dead but later found alive, on offhand act of kindness that later saves the day, etc. Perhaps the plot relied too much on lucky coincidences: I mean, the boy-girl pair just happen to find the magic sword under the castle when they get lost in the labyrinth. But, there’s a reason for that. And the reason is a moral lesson: everyone, no matter how minor, plays a role in an adventure, and even companions you find annoying or useless can come back later to save the day. The lesson is made clear in the book’s final chapters, when Taran realizes the dream he had of derring-do in the book’s beginning turned out to be different than he expected.
In the end, the book won me over. I’ll be reading further when I get the chance.
I was also surprised by the author. I’d assumed all these years he was English, and a scholar ala J. R. R. Tolkien, but he was born in Philadelphia, PA! And developed a love for Wales while stationed there in the military.