Lloyd Alexander’s five-part The Chronicles of Prydain is essential reading for anyone, regardless of age, gender or reading preferences. Although they are classed as both fantasy and children’s literature, these books can be enjoyed by everyone, not just for its fantastical elements and the broad good vs. evil conflict, but for their gentle humour, loveable characters and vindication of humanity over, not just fantasy-evil, but the more base qualities of greed, ignorance, spite and pride. At their core, the books are a coming-of-age story for our protagonist Taran, as he journeys from boy to man in troubled times, acquiring wisdom, humility, kindness and responsibility as he goes. The best part is that this process is gradual, but not stagnant. In each book, Taran has grown, and yet there’s always more to learn on the path to becoming a man.
As such, this third volume of the series The Castle of Llyr, concerns Taran’s developing feelings for his friend and companion Princess Elionwy, who is being sent to the Isle of Mona in order to become a proper lady. The enchanter Dallben, with whom the young people live with, has himself ordered it. Neither are particularly pleased with the decision, and Taran is even less pleased to discover that Elionwy’s new guardians have plans to betroth her to their son. Prince Rhun of Mona is hapless and clumsy, and jealousy rears its ugly head when Taran becomes acutely aware of his position in life as an Assistant Pig-Keeper.
And yet all that must take a backseat when Elionwy is kidnapped, and Taran must work with Rhun, along with harpist Fflewddur Fflam and the faithful Gurgi, in order to bring her safely home. Their journey takes them into subterranean caves and across mysterious islands, only to find that the object of their adventure has been bewitched by the evil enchantress Achren who plans to use the Princess’s latent powers to reclaim control over Prydain.
As well as this, there are other familiar faces, such as the warrior Gwydion and the talkative crow Kaw, (though sadly, Doli doesn’t make an appearance) and several other characters that play a part in the action both here and in stories to come: Glew, the “smallest” giant in fiction, the beautiful cat Llyan (who Lloyd Alexander called “the prototype of cat-greatness”) and Prince Rhun, whose clumsiness is offset by his endearing cheerfulness and awareness that he isn’t quite the prince he should be. We learn more about Elionwy’s heritage, particularly the purpose and nature of her glass bauble, though the full story of her people won’t be fully explained until Taran Wanderer. And of course, we get the first romantic overtures between Taran and Elionwy that are both poignant and typically awkward, as you’d expect from adolescents.
The entire series takes place in the land of Prydain, which is heavily influenced by the mythology of Wales, as found in The Mabinogion. Though it sounds like your typical fantasy-setting, there is a particular charm to this series, born out of Lloyd Alexander’s love and respect for life, his wit and wordplay, and the wisdom that he manages to infuse into his story without ever sounding preachy or pretentious. These five books, and the companion anthology of short stories set in Prydain’s past, are essential reading for any child, to be put on the shelf right next to The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter.~Rebecca Fisher
Here’s Bill’s review of the entire series:
Lloyd Alexander’s THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN, loosely based on Welsh myths, is a classic work of fantasy that no one should miss. If you think you won’t get anything out of it because it’s “young adult,” think again. If anything, a mature reader probably gets more enjoyment out of it.
The series begins with The Book of Three, which introduces the main character, Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper. He is a foundling who lives with the great enchanter Dallben, who to Taran’s eyes never actually does any great enchanting. He shares Dallben’s home with the seemingly useless gardener Coll and the strange part-beast-not-quite-human Gurgi. Life at Caer Dallben is far too dull for a young boy who dreams of becoming a great warrior like his idol Prince Gwydion.
Events, as one would expect, soon expel Taran from the dull but safe world at Caer Dallben and soon he is battling for his life against fell creatures, including the witch Achren and the Horned King himself, battle-leader for Arawn, Lord of the Land of Death who threatens to destroy Taran’s land of Prydain.
Along the way, Taran meets Fflewddur Fflam, a bard whose harp breaks a string anytime he exaggerates (he goes through a lot of strings); Doli, a gruff dwarf who has his own problems; Eilonwy, the strong-willed princess with a sharp wit and even sharper tongue; and even Prince Gwydion himself, all with faithful Gurgi at his side. All of these characters continue throughout the series, and are joined by what becomes a stable cadre of familiar secondary characters.
Alexander’s strengths are too many to list. The major ones are what one would expect in an award-winning series long recognized as a classic. His characterization is precise and deep from the beginning, but more importantly, these characters all change and deepen and mature as the series continues. And they do so realistically, with all the pain that such maturation often entails. Hidden depths and strengths are revealed, as well as flaws that lead to at times harsh consequences. The secondary characters, though given less time, are drawn equally sharply, if not as richly due to the space constraints. Impressively, they too change and mature over the course of the series. By the end, you care deeply not just about the major four or five characters, but even about the half-dozen or so minor characters — a trick that is hard to pull off as an author.
The plots are compelling, both in terms of suspense with regard to various quests and with regard to the impact on the characters. The books darken as they continue, and the stakes rise ever higher, but even at the start Alexander is not shy about presenting us with glory’s darker side, the side Taran never considers as he play-acts with his sword around his home at Caer Dallben. Honor, glory, war, bravery, nobility — these are mere words to the young, inexperienced Taran, and they have sharply narrowed definitions in his worldview. He learns, not always soon enough, not always easily, and not always at the first lesson, that the world is much more complex.
Though they should be read in order, each story is relatively independent in that it starts and stops on its own — one could read book three without having read the first two, though it would have far less impact. And one could stop reading at the end of Book Three and have a complete close to that particular story, but nobody should stop there. There are too many heartbreaking scenes, too many scenes of joy, too much reward to come, bittersweet though some of it may be. The two strongest books in the series are the last two (the last won a Newbery and for good reason), but that is more testament to their strength than to any weaknesses in the first three. Alexander maintains a high standard of excellence throughout the entire series, and unlike some authors, he knew when and how to stop. The series is not only recommended, but is pretty well required, regardless of age.