January 24, 2004

The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander

This is the first book of "The Chronicles of Prydain," a five-book series intended for younger readers which I first read in high school, and which I'm now reading at bedtime to my almost seven-year-old, Dave. (In fact, I'm reading it to him from the same copies I bought then.) He's eating it up.

A boy named Taran lives on a farm called Caer Dallben. He has no mother or father; he's being raised by Dallben the wizard and Dallben's assistant Coll. He's not learning to be a wizard; he's not even learning the manly art of swordfighting, which is a great trial to him. Mostly he's learning how to grow vegetables and make horseshoes and tend to Dallben's pig, Hen Wen, none of which is terribly exciting. He yearns for adventure, and to be a hero. Instead, he's stuck being Dallben's Assistant Pig-Keeper.

Adventure has a way of seeking you out in books like this. Hen Wen is no ordinary pig, but an oracular pig capable of telling the future. For this reason she was once stolen by the dark lord Arawn, Lord of Annuvin. Now Arawn is plotting once again to take over the land of Prydain through his servant the Horned King, and he needs Hen Wen to be sure of victory. As the Horned King approaches Caer Dallben, Hen Wen runs away in fright. Taran chases after, and is soon lost--and has two conflicting missions: he must find Hen Wen, and he must warn the High King at Caer Dathyl that the Horned King is on the move.

I hadn't read [btitle "The Book of Three"] in years, and never aloud (It reads quite well aloud, I might add), and it's been interesting to revisit it. It's much more clearly a juvenile series than I remembered; Taran begins the series as an impetuous and foolish (if stout-hearted) boy, dealing with the kinds of interpersonal problems boys are heir to; much of the book is about how he learns to deal with these problems, and thereby grows up. Indeed, the book hovers just on the edge of being preachy without quite crossing the line--several of the other characters have no compunction about rebuking Taran if he does something foolish or inconsiderate, while others appear to be there mostly to serve as moral exemplars (both good and bad).

Thus, the aim of the story is partly didactic: if Taran is to grow up to be a virtuous, wise, and considerate man, he must first learn how--and despite all the fantasy elements, growing up is the real story here. But though didactic, the author isn't heavy handed about it; and it certainly won't do Dave any harm to watch Taran mature into a decent human being.

Meanwhile, Dave is simply thrilled. It's got a hero he can identify with, and a villain with horns on his helmet, and sword fighting, and amusing companions who say funny things, and lots of excitement, and a pretty girl. We finished it up the night before last, and last night nothing would do but to start the second book in the series. More on that in a few weeks.

Posted by Will Duquette at January 24, 2004 06:44 AM

Jaquandor said:

Oh, what a great series this is. I hope your son isn't too overly emotional, because there's stuff in The High King that will have him in tears, if he is.

What impresses me now about the Prydain books -- I still re-read them every couple of years, and I'm a year or two away from being able to read them to my daughter -- is the degree to which Alexander draws from various mythologies, in such a way that to this day I'll be reading the actual source myths like the Mabinogion and spot things Alexander borrowed.

(And my I say, I'm glad you've been reviewing books I've already read over the last couple of weeks -- this site has had a serious bloating effect on my "To Read" list since I discovered it!)

Will Duquette said:

I rather think it's more likely to have me in tears than Dave. But then, I'm a softy about some things.

Re: mythology, the thing that amazed when I finally read a little Welsh mythology (courtesy of Evangeline Walton) was that Arawn of Annwn wasn't a bad guy. He just had a job to do; and Pwyll of Dyfed got along with him pretty well.

Have you read any of Alexander's other books? I've not, but David's enjoying these enough that I'm planning to see if I can find them.

Jaquandor said:

His Westmark trilogy is another favorite of mine -- it's kind of a "French revolution in a made-up land" story. It's excellent, and it was at long last reissued a year or two ago after a long while out-of-print. I have a few of his stand-alone novels on my shelf that I haven't read yet.

I've mentioned it on my blog before, but my mother (who was a teacher and knows a great deal about children's fiction) had a wonderful way of punishing me whenever I did something that warranted grounding or "No TV for a week" or something similar: She'd give me a book to read, with orders that I could watch no TV until I finished it. The Book of Three was one of those. (Funny, also, how she invariably chose the first book of a series, so I'd clamor for the rest of it.)

Will Duquette said:

Gosh, I wish my mom had tried that.

Though, I must admit, my nice hardcover editions of _The Hobbit_, TLOTR, the Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales were all presents from Mom over the years. Not that she ever read them, so far as I know.