The Book of Three

Whenever I'm at my parents' home, surrounded by the books of my childhood, I will inevitably pick one up and read. (Especially when I'm supposed to be doing things like reading serious book club books or writing business school application essays.) This time, I selected the first of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles: The Book of Three. If you haven't read Lloyd Alexander at all, then I feel terribly sorry for your sad and empty childhood.

The basic plot should seem quite familiar: a peaceful land threatened by evil and the people who must band together to save it. It's the telling of the story that really makes it unique, though.The Prydain Chronicles consist of five books with an epic fantasy storyline, heavily modeled upon Welsh lore. The first book in the series is The Book of Three, where we are introduced to our key players and get our first taste of the threat to Prydain. The dark lord Arawn is mustering forces in his kingdom of Annuvin, led by his champion the Horned King. For years the Sons of Don, who rule Prydain, have kept Arawn in check, but nevertheless, Arawn appears to be making movements to start a war.

Taran is a young man, hungry for adventure and excitement, though he spends his days working on the farm of Caer Dallben. Of course, it isn't quite a normal farm -- among the animals is Hen Wen (an oracular pig of great fame and importance, though Taran has seen no evidence of her powers) and the owner of the farm is Dallben (a scholar and wizard who is over three hundred years old). Still, Taran wishes to learn swordplay and fight like his hero, Prince Gwydion. When he longs for a title and destiny, Coll (a middle aged farmer that is clearly more than he appears to be) names Taran "Assistant Pig Keeper." So when a disturbance causes the animals to flee and Hen Wen to escape, Taran feels responsible and so he runs after her. Almost immediately, Taran discovers that the animals fled because the Horned King is near and Taran becomes injured. He wakes up to find his hero, Prince Gwydion, caring for his injury. Gwydion had been traveling to learn something from Hen Wen, and so he joins Taran in his search for the pig.

As they search, we meet several important characters along the way. Gurgi, a half-animal/half-human creature, tells them that he saw Hen Wen being pursued by the Horned King. After being captured by some of Arawn's fearsome Cauldron-Born (soulless warriors created from the dead), they meet the evil enchantress Queen Achren, who offers Gwydion the chance to join her and with her help, rule Prydain and overthrow Arawn. When he refuses, she throws him and Taran into separate dungeon cells. Taran then meets Princess Eilonwy, a young enchantress of the House of Llyr who is supposed to be learning from her Aunt Achren (though Eilonwy is not convinced that they're related). Eilonwy helps Taran escape and also manages to free "his companion in the other cell," though once they escape and the castle has somehow collapsed, killing everyone still inside (which we later learn is due to Eilonwy's removing a particular sword of power from the castle as they fled), it's discovered that the man Eilonwy rescued from the other cell is not Gwydion. He is Fflewddur Fflam, a king who has given up his kingdom to be an unofficial bard, though he owes his talent to his magic harp, whose strings snap when Fflewddeur bends the truth -- which is quite often. Believing that Gwydion must be dead, Taran takes it upon himself to travel to Caer Dathyl to warn the House of Don, but he is not alone, as Gurgi, Eilonwy and Fflewddur (not to mention Gwydion's very wise horse Melyngar) insist on accompanying him. After a chance meeting with Medwyn, a healer who protects animals, and an encounter with the Fair Folk adds a dwarf named Doli (who cannot turn invisible, unlike the rest of his family, to his intense irritation) to their party, they ultimately must fight and stand against the Horned King.

Not to worry -- we're just at the beginning of the story, so all ends well (Hen Wen is found! Gwydion isn't dead! The Horned King is defeated!), but it's clear that there is real danger afoot that will enter into future books. I challenge you to try and not fall in love with Taran, a very real young man with a good heart who gets the adventure he wants, yet still comes to understand the importance of home and peace. He learns and matures through lots of errors, but is also capable of making the right decision in the face of pressure. He ultimately prevails in this first challenge with the help of his traveling companions. As with all Lloyd Alexander novels, the best part is the sense of comedy and whimsy. Eilonwy talks a great deal and is quick to take Taran down a few notches whenever he's too uptight. As a princess with red-gold hair, it's not hard to understand why this redhead always loved her, but she is a charming and outspoken girl, an excellent role model for young ladies, as she never shies away from a fight and always speaks her mind. Fflewddeur is charming as he repeatedly exaggerates, causing harp strings to snap. And Gurgi, well... Gurgi is a bit annoying, but he means well, so the reader, like Taran, ultimately decides that Gurgi isn't so bad.

As a kid, I loved these books. They're notable in my past as being responsible for my first (and only) request for an extension on a paper. In sixth grade, I asked for a single day extension on a book report, which was granted, as I was writing about the whole series and not just one book. I rather wish I still had that paper, as I'd be curious to read my initial impressions. I'm sure it touched on my elementary understanding of Welsh mythology, but I seem to remember a lot of summarizing of the books... kind of similar to this. Hm.

So if you know a young reader aged 10-12 and they're not quite ready for Tolkien or other, similar fantasy novels, you might point them in Alexander's direction. A bit of a warning for the kiddies, though: there's frequent violence and people do get hurt. Also a word of warning to parents: if you buy the first book, you might as well just buy the whole series for your kid, as s/he will certainly want to keep reading about Taran, Eilonwy, and their friends. When they've finished those, you can then start buying the rest of Alexander's oeuvre. He wrote many gems (my favorite series being, of course, the Vesper Holly books) and frequently played with mythology. He's a funny and charming writer and whether the reader is young or old, I think everyone can find something compelling and delightful about this series.

No comments: