Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain #1) by Lloyd Alexander

Some books have gorgeous writing that create a whirlpool of words that swooshes me into the plot like water swirling down a drain. Other books are full of action, humor, and distinct characterizations that have me laughing out loud. This book is more of the latter than the former, the start of a five-part well-crafted series. It is a coming-of-age story that follows the traditions of high fantasy as the protagonist, Taran, goes on a quest to defeat the evil Lord Arawn with the help of the good Prince Gwydion and search for his self-identity. Taran in "The Book of Three" is impulsive, headstrong and temperamental who learns throughout the series to become a leader who is empathic, loyal, and honest to friends and foes. These qualities make Taran a protagonist that most readers can identify with because he does not overcome evil by relying on any great strength or brilliance, but instead on his humanness and moral choices. The characterizations and bubbling humor wowed me more than the descriptive writing.

In the land of Prydain, Taran is the keeper of an oracular pig, Hen-Wen, who can prophecy the future. He wants to be a hero like King Gwydion and go on adventures, not be a lowly assistant pig-keeper. As an orphan being raised by the wizard, Dallben, and Col, he is ambitious to prove himself. When the pig escapes Taran finds he's not the only one after Hen-Wen. The evil Lord Arawn wants her because she knows his secret name. “Once you have the courage to look upon evil,...naming it by its true name, it is powerless against you,” he says. Not only does Taran get his wish for adventure, he begins to ponder the definition of a hero; one that grows to a satisfying resolution in book five, "The High King."

Taran's search for the pig has him meeting companions and friends who join his quest. He is a clod who is endearingly sincere. When he makes bad choices he is quick to apologize to friends. When he treats Princess Eilonwy like a weak girl rather than a respectful equal, she is quick to point it out and he usually comes around to seeing his weaknesses. This makes him an accessible and authentic character. One that the reader can vicariously make mistakes through and learn how to correct. Taran takes responsibility for his actions and accepts consequences. Many will notice the similarities between this series and works of J.R.R. Tolkien's and while the author uses well known legends and myths from Wales, the story is his own, original  and kid-friendly.

Alexander wrote these books in the 1960's and some Goodreads reviewers have complained about the simplicity of style. I would describe the style as more didactic as the adults usually give wise advice. Perhaps the vocabulary isn't as complex as many fantasy novels today. Alexander creates distinct voices with characters that are brilliant and would make a good mentor text for teachers or writers. His companions include Gulgi, a hairy-type pet who uses gerunds at the end of just about every sentence. His favorite line ending is "crunchings and munchings." Princess Eilonwy is the orphaned daughter of a line of enchantresses who helps Taran escape from the castle of the wicked Queen Achren. She speaks using similes in just about every sentence" "Besides I'm not sure I'm going to help you any more at all, after the way you've behaved, and calling me those horrid names that's like putting caterpillars in somebody's hair." She is also unaware of her wisdom she imparts to others in the story that points to heroic and good human qualities. She helps Taran become a better person but in a funny, not condescending way: "Thank you for saving my life," said Eilonwy. "For an assistant Pig-keeper, I must say you are quite courageous. It's wonderful when people surprise you that way."  Flewddur Fflam is a king who wants to be a bard. He has a magical harp that snaps a string every time he lies or exaggerates the truth. He's a hysterical twist on Pinnochio. His dialogue consists of, "A Fflam would never..." or some other boastful comment. Doli, the dwarf, wants to be invisible and his dialogue consists of whining about how whenever anything needs to be done that no one wants to do the Fair Folk (dwarves) get "good old Doli."

These companions help lighten the mood of the dark quest and I found myself laughing in-between action scenes. Eilonwy never panics either. Even though they are in the midst of a serious situation, she just plows along like there is nothing to worry about because things will come out all right in the end. She is a good example of choosing your attitude. My only complaint is that I would have liked her presence even more in the stories. When the group makes decisions, she never speaks up and gives her input. I did like how Taran changes in his attitude toward her. He doesn't treat her with respect in the first book but grows to respect her by the end. A series of quests leads the group to a battle with the Horned King, the evil Lord Arawn's right hand, and main pursuer of the pig Hen-Wen. A magical sword is found that's power becomes more important in subsequent books.

Fantasy is a medium where readers can work through their own personal issues in their lives and Taran is a character that the modern child can relate to inspite of this story being 50 years old. Alexander's story begins with characters' feeling unhappy with themselves and believing that finding magical objects will bring them contentment. Taran thinks that being a hero will make him be important and he pursues the glory before he realizes that being a hero means being motivated intrinsically rather than by prestige. He also learns that evil exists inside all of us and it is the choices made in life that help us cope with it. As characters' give up magical powers they learn they can deal with reality and don't need the fantastical - a lifelong lesson for all.

4 Smileys

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