Sunday, August 7, 2011

My Adventures in Prydain, Then and Now

Some may remember that in 1985 Disney made an animated version of The Black Cauldron. If you were unaware of this or had forgotten it, lucky you.  It is an atrocity.  I saw it when it finally made its way to the theater on the Air Force base my dad was stationed at in England in the 80's, so sometime after January of 1986. Fortunately, our school librarian introduced us to the book first so I was interested in reading it despite the horror that was the movie (and yes, I even thought it was awful as a child).  But for some reason I only read The Black Cauldron and The Castle of Llyr.  Not sure how I missed out on the existence of the other three books, The Book of Three, Taran Wanderer, and The High King.  I remember enjoying them immensely at the time and for a couple of months little eight year old me spent much free time pretending to be Princess Eilonwy.  I recently reread the books, this time reading the rest of them too.

I really enjoyed reading this series and wished someone had insisted I read the whole thing as a child.  When I first began reading The Book of Three a few months ago I couldn't help thinking......this is familiar.  Unlikely hero of uncertain parentage who has never strayed far from home is suddenly way over his head and on a quest of daring and dangerous proportions.  Old Enchanter who is wise but not forthcoming with pertinent information.  Noble Prince who rides around disguised as a common traveler.  Odd little creature way too attached to food who can not speak in proper sentences.  Mysterious shadowy Lord of Death who has citadel from which he sends flying scary things and manufactured soldiers that can not die.  Grumpy little dwarf with axe and heart of gold.  Obviously, there is a lot in these books that is similar to Tolkien.  I am pretty sure that is because Lloyd Alexander and J.R.R. Tolkien were using some of the same mythology to build their worlds.  There are differences too and by the time I finished all five I could see why two of them were given the honor of bearing those shiny Newbery medallions.

Taran is Assistant Pig Keeper at Caer Dallben.  His duties involve caring for the oracular pig, Hen Wen.  He has no idea who his parents are and has been raised by the enchanter Dallben, keeper of the mysterious Book of Three, and Coll, who tends the farm.  Taran longs to be a hero and have adventures.  When Hen Wen runs off one day in fear Taran follows her, vowing to return her.  Soon after leaving home he meets Prince Gwydion (who rescues Taran from his own foolishness many many times) and learns of the rising threat of Arawn, the Death Lord.  During the first book Taran meets the companions that will have the largest impact on his life and future:  Gurgi (the faithful hairy always hungry creature), Fflewddur Fflam (the wannabe bard and sometimes king), Doli (grumpy dwarf), and Eilonwy (beautiful golden haired Princess of obnoxiousness Llyr).

The course of the five novels follow Taran's journey from boy to man and it is a remarkable story.  His character arc is what made the story  engrossing for me.  He goes from wanting to be hero to simply wanting to be Taran.  And in simply being Taran finds that a hero is what he is.  This is a complicated and painful process.  He gains much wisdom and patience, all of which will be required in his future (particularly the patience as Eilonwy will probably always be trying his).  Watching his relationship with Eilonwy as it grew and changed was just good fun.  I have to say that I really like Eilonwy (and not just because I have fond memories of pretending to be her).  Her character is rather grating in the first part of the series.  She is opinionated and not afraid to let her opinion be known.  She is headstrong, stubborn, prefers swords to crowns and  sleeping outside to feather beds.  Her character became less obnoxious as the series progressed and I don't if it is because she changed or because Taran's perception of her changed, and therefore mine as the reader did as well.     

These books make a great introduction into the world of sword and sorcery fantasy for children.  And there is a lot of wisdom in the books that would benefit any age reader.  So, if like me, you missed out on these as a kid I recommend reading them now.  They are worth it.  And you should definitely give them to your own kids.

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