Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander

Today I'm looking at The Chronicles of Prydain a collection of five books which I've decided to look at together as one series rather than as individual books because they're all fairly short novels and I felt it was more efficient to group them together. Although there is a lot that can be said about each individual book and as Alexander himself says, you don't have to read all the books to enjoy Prydain, although the experience is significantly enhanced in doing so. For those of you who are interested, the books within the series are: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King. And yes, this is the series that Disney's oft-forgotten animated film The Black Cauldron is based on. I actually read The Black Cauldron ages ago when I was a kid, but I'd forgotten quite a bit about it and I hadn't read the other four books in the series so when I saw I could get them as audiobooks from my library, I figured there was no time like the present.

The stories within these books are loosely based off of old Welsh legends, to the point that some characters such as Taliesin and Gwydion, who I've bumped into in various reinterpretations of Arthurian myth, make reappearances in different guises. But the story doesn't focus on major people like Prince Gwydion. (That's Gwydion on the cover, by the way. Big important dude. Magical sword, so on and so forth.) The stories are about Taran, a boy who starts out the series as an assistant pigkeeper to the oracular pig Hen Wen. Taran is not terribly thrilled with his lot and desires to become a great hero like Prince Gwydion. When Hen Wen runs off and Taran goes to search for her, he soon gets caught up in larger events involving the Death Lord Arawn and Taran may get his wish after all.

Over the course of the books Taran has adventures with his companions such as the half-man-half-beast Gurgi, the bard Fflewddur Fflam, and the princess Eilonwy and helps Prince Gwydion and the Sons of Don save Prydain from the designs of Arawn. With each new adventure we get to see Taran grow and develop as an individual, starting out as an impetuous boy but gradually becoming a mature and responsible man. It is really astounding to see the boy who begins the series by desperately trying to forge swords in the smithy in the beginning of the series and see how much he's changed by the very end. So I give Alexander total props for really developing Taran as a character in this series and having him go through an arc.

Another thing that I like about this series is I feel that it's aged rather well. This series was written in the 1960's and a series that old can look dated, especially with its characters, but I feel like Prydain has managed and that's in large part because of Eilonwy. Now, to be fair Eilonwy is kind of a stereotypical ''princess who isn't interested in being proper''. She doesn't see the point of curtseying and embroidery and is much more at home in a scullery or camping out in the woods and I've read that this is kind of old hat for nowadays but the result is Eilonwy ends up being an actual character. Unlike say, Arwen, she goes out on adventures with the boys and helps in her own way with her unique skills. And the characters don't really comment on this, they take it as perfectly normal that Eilonwy would follow Taran, Gurgi, and Fflewddur Fflam around on adventures. So I rather appreciate that.

And maybe, on some level, these books get a little too serious. Alexander has a habit of talking about Big Ideas like what it truly means to be a hero, what our purpose in life is, and so on. But I think that can be a good thing for families because it exposes children to new ideas and encourages them to think bigger. I'm a firm proponent of giving children challenging books because that's the only way they're going to get better at reading, and I think these books might be a good example. Plus parents can talk to their kids about the ideas in the books and bond that way. I love it when families can bond over books.

Overall I think this series is pretty good. Out of the five I think I would say Castle of Llyr, the middle book, is by far the weakest. I feel like it didn't really add anything to the series that wasn't already done in the other books, but otherwise it was okay. If you're looking for a fun fantasy adventure, or maybe something to share with your kids, this series is definitely worth reading. Or maybe re-reading.

- Kalpar

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