Monday, August 20, 2007

Review of The Book of Three -- Lloyd Alexander

The fairy-rich world of Welsh mythology has given birth to countless fantasy stories in the past 30 years. The mythology of the Mabinogion has created for itself an entire subgenre of literature which has had resounding influences on diverse modern figures such as Charles De Lint, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Susanna Clark.

One of the earliest authors to explore Welsh imagery and themes for young adult literature was Lloyd Alexander. His Chronicles of Prydain cycle of novels have been best sellers for decades, still read with joy by young and old alike.

The first of five Prydain novels, The Book of Three begins with Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper and his dreams of adventure. By the end of a short chapter one, Taran is already trying to forge a sword out of steel better put to use in horseshoes. Hen Wen, the oracular pig which Taran tends escapes into the woods beyond his small village, and Taran carelessly chases after her despite warnings from his master. It is said there is a new war captain abroad, the Horned King, which rides at the head of the hosts of Annuvin, the dark underworld of Prydain.

Heedless and headstrong, Taran wanders into the woods alone, and stumbles upon a famous prince named Gwydion, who turns out not only to be a swordsman but a wizard as well. Taran quickly falls into step with Gwydion, learning more of the Horned King and his master, Arawn Lord of Annuvin. Their adventures introduce them to other characters: the smart and plucky heroine Eilonwy, the beast-child Gurgi, the colorful bard Fflewddur Fflam, and the dour dwarf Doli. Together, the companions move from one adventure to the next, eventually facing the Horned King himself in the midst of a great battle between the forces of Annuvin and Gwydion's Fortress of Don.

Above all, The Book of Three is the story of Taran beginning his journey to manhood, along the way discovering that heroism is usually pressing on in spite of fear and gloom because there is no other choice. Near the end of the book, Taran, back at home, is talking with his old master Dallben, fearful that he didn't make much of a hero during his adventures:
"Well, now," Dallben said, "I should like the two of us to speak quietly to each other. First, I am interested to learn what you think of being a hero. I daresay you feel rather proud of yourself. Although," he added, "I do not gain that impression from your face."

"I have no just cause for pride," Taran said, taking his usual place on the familiar bench. [he explains how he had little to do with victory during each step of the adventure, his companions doing most of what seemed like the real work]..."As for me, what I mostly did was make mistakes."

"My, my," said Dallben, "those are complaints enough to dampen the merriest feast. Though what you say may be true, you have cause for a certain pride nevertheless. It was you who held the companions together and led them. You did what you set out to do, and Hen Wen is safely back with us. If you made mistakes, you recognize them. As I told you, there are times when the seeking counts more than the finding."

..."Yes, but that is not all that troubles me. I have dreamed often of Caer Dallben [Taran's home village] and I love it--and you and Coll--more than ever. I asked for nothing better than to be at home, and my heart rejoices. Yet it is a curious feeling. I have returned to the chamber I slept in and found it smaller than I remember. The fields are beautiful, yet not quite as I recalled them. And I am troubled, for I wonder now if I am to be a stranger in my own home."

Dallben shook his head. "No, that you shall never be. But it is not Caer Dallben which has grown smaller. You have grown bigger. That is the way of it."

Finding Your Way in the World

The Book of Three, and in many ways, the whole cycle of Prydain, is the story of a young man growing up, at that verge when the hearth is oppressive and all the world is a stage for adventure. This is not an unknown storyline; Joseph Campbell's hero's journey admirably describes the trajectory and major movements of the novel, though with four books to go, The Book of Three is only the beginning. But here we sense that we will grow up with Taran, and unlike many books who attempt to lead us through the hero's journey, this one resonates powerfully with the shared experience of the would-be hero in all of us.


This is a book to read aloud to your children. It has action, adventure, vivid imagery, easy to read pages and short chapters. Very likely, Taran's adventures will linger long in their minds, a memory of literary adventures they will treasure. It is also a book to be enjoyed by adults who look back fondly on their own steps of leaving the hearth to seek adventure in the wider world, a wistful remembrance of headstrong youth, and yet sometimes also long for the comfort of home never quite to be found again.

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