My last two blog posts have been about my difficulty in finding anything worthwhile to read. I had been in search of a contemporary novel suitable for light summertime reading, but my choices had disappointed me. Last week, however, was a change of pace.
In the name of doing research for our next family read, I finished up The Chronicles of Prydain.
I stumbled across these five children’s books by Lloyd Alexander as I wandered the stacks of our public library with the kids. I vaguely recalled seeing them around my elementary school thirty years ago, and I vaguely recalled Disney’s adaptation of the second book, The Black Cauldron. However, I don’t think I ever actually read them. The first book was decent enough, but the second was crazy good, and after reading it I was hooked.
Written in the 1960s, these novels are old-school fantasy, and they owe a debt to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkien drew upon northern European folklore in creating his mythic Middle Earth, and Lloyd Alexander does the same with Welsh mythology to create the land of Prydain.
The novels follow the adventures of a boy named Taran, who is the assistant pig-keeper of Caer Dallben. Prydain is a land locked in a struggle between the Arawn the Death Lord and Prince Gwydion of the Sons of Don, who represents the forces of light. Taran dreams of glorious battles against the forces of darkness, but his immaturity frequently gets him into scrapes.
Probably the best thing about these five books is that we get to see Taran grow up. He doesn’t merely grow in stature and strength; more importantly he grows in wisdom and gains a sense of responsibility. Taran’s adventures reinforce many important themes for young readers. We are reminded of the importance of humility and kindness. We learn, along with Taran, that hard work and patience are better than wealth and rank. Sprinkled throughout the narrative is the idea that perhaps the quiet glory of the farmer or craftsman is more important than the spectacular glory of the warrior. We also see examples of love and loyalty, as well as characters willing to sacrifice themselves for their friends and their country. One of the strongest themes in these books is that true leadership is characterized by service. These are messages that both children and adults need to hear and hear again.
Adventure and magic fill these books, and the narrative moves quickly, so a young person’s attention won’t flag. The writing is quite good, and I was especially impressed with Lloyd Alexander’s economy of style. Most of the books have fewer than two hundred pages, but his sparse prose manages to include a surprising amount of detail regarding character, setting, and story. I will admit, however, that the mock-medieval dialogue sounds a bit ridiculous at points.
Traveling with Taran through Prydain will be an emotional journey for many readers. The books are funny and frightening and joyful and sad all at once. I don’t think many parents could read these books aloud to their children without shedding a few tears along the way. It’s easier to protect oneself from emotion while reading silently, but even reading them silently to myself, I cried once. When the tears came, however, they were tears of delight rather than sadness. An episode of joy caught me quite by surprise.
I look forward to visiting Prydain again soon, this time in the company of my children.