Having a 7-year-old and working in a high school, I don’t usually play the “kids today have it so easy” card. Being a kid is HARD now. However, modern kids do have one big advantage over those of us who grew up in the 80s, and that is the incredible range and scope of children’s literature. When I was a kid, I had the Chronicles of Narnia, the Chronicles of Prydain, and a now-out-of-print series called the Seven Citadels, and that was about it for good fantasy series. There was Tolkien, of course, but not a lot of little kids are ready for Tolkien. Today’s kids have the Warriors, the Owls of Ga’Hoole, How to Train Your Dragon, Harry Potter (of course), and the list goes on and on.
I recently read the Underland Chronicles, which were very good, but I convinced the little pug to let me read the Chronicles of Prydain to him at bedtime, and I was reminded of how much I love these books. Reading them again was like meeting up with old friends, and, somewhere around book three, I remembered that one of the outstanding features of these books is that they each contribute an integral piece to the story, unlike some more modern series in which some of the books feel a bit repetitive or, unfortunately, like filler. For example, even though I really like the Underland stories, in each book, you have the same basic set-up: Gregor goes to the Underland and has to go on some terrible quest. In the Harry Potter series, each book (except the last) centers on Harry’s return to Hogwarts and eventual showdown with evil.
In Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, however, each novel tells a distinct story that reveals a step in the maturation of Taran, the main character. In book one, The Book of Three, young Taran is frustrated by his secluded life on a small homestead known as Caer Dallben where he has been raised by a farmer, Coll, and an enchanter, Dallben. Because he has no title and doesn’t know his parents, Taran complains to Coll who gives him the title Assistant Pig-Keeper because of his work with the enchanter’s oracular pig Hen-Wen. When Hen-When escapes, Taran takes his new title seriously and dashes off into the forest after her, launching himself on an adventure in which he meets one of Prydain’s greatest warriors; joins a band of companions that includes a hairy, half-man half-beast creature called Gurgi, a king named Fflewdur Flam who prefers barding to ruling, and a lovely and chatty young princess named Eilonwy; and confronts one of the evil henchman of Prydain’s worst bad guy, Arawn. In the second novel, The Black Cauldron, Taran re-unites with his companions to join a raid on Arawn’s stronghold to re-capture a giant cauldron which Arawn uses to produce deathless warriors known as the cauldron-born. In The Castle of Llyr, Taran escorts Eilonwy to the Isle of Mona so she can learn to be a lady and discovers his true feelings for her when she is kidnapped. Taran Wanderer focuses on Taran’s quest to find his parents so that he can, hopefully, ask Eilonwy to marry him when she returns from Mona, but those plans are waylaid when, at the start of the fifth novel, The High King, Taran and his companions learn that the evil Arawn is making his move in an attempt to control Prydain completely.
The last novel in the series won the Newberry Award, and it is the most like a traditional heroic journey tale, which causes some people to unfairly (in my opinion) call the novels a rip-off of Tolkien’s work. They’re working in the same tradition, but Alexander’s work is obviously geared toward children and is more of a coming-of-age story. Even though Alexander had a young audience in mind, he’s never condescending. As I hoped, the books introduced my son to classical fantasy. He enjoyed them, and I hope, will eventually tackle longer, more elaborate series.