Friday, January 4, 2008

Lloyd Alexander

The Prydain Chronicles
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Age: 10+

The first official Walt Disney feature-length animation that ever earned a PG rating was The Black Cauldron, based not so much on the book by that name as on the entire Prydain series by Philadelphia-based author Lloyd Alexander.

Loosely modeled on Welsh mythology, the Prydain Chronicles tell the adventures of an Assistant Pig-Keeper named Taran, as he grows from boyhood into manhood. In five magnificent books, Taran finds his true place in the world, as well as good friends, true love, and the means of preventing evil from destroying his world. He also learns that war isn't particularly glorious, and all about sacrifice and loss.

This funny, poignant, exciting series has a great deal in common with J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The five books of Prydain, written in the 1960s, are The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron (a Newbery Honor Book), The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King (winner of the Newbery Medal of 1969).

The Book of Three
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Age: 10+

This first of five books about an Assistant Pig-Keeper named Taran draws its inspiration from Welsh folklore, and vaguely bases its settings and characters on the people and places of Wales. Thus American storyteller Lloyd Alexander has created a rich and exciting fantasy world. It is the long-ago (fictional) kingdom of Prydain, which is divided into any number of sub-kingdoms ruled by what I suppose we would call local warlords--some of them big, some small; some good, some evil.

The most powerful of the evil warlords is Arawn, king of Annuvin, the land of the dead. Among his enemies are the valiant prince Gwydion and the ancient and wise enchanter Dallben, who both come into these stories. Dallben is pushing 380 years old, and the first novel in the series, The Book of Three, is named after the magical tome in which he keeps all his power and wisdom. Dallben lives in a wee cottage on a wee farm populated by unremarkable chickens and bees, like I suppose any farm of that time. But he has several very remarkable individuals living on the farm with him. One is the great warrior Coll, whose past career is unknown to his Assistant Pig-Keeper because to Taran, Coll is just an old bald man who takes care of the vegetable garden, feeds the pig, and makes horseshoes in the forge even though there isn't a horse anywhere in Caer Dallben.

The other remarkable individual is an "oracular pig" named Hen Wen, which is to say, a perfectly ordinary sow who happens to be able to tell the future (though you have to be able to understand pig language to find out about it). And one day, when Taran has been instructed to bring Hen Wen to their master, the pig takes fright for no apparent reason, and runs away. Taran chases after her and before he knows it, he's up to his noodle in high adventure. He meets Gwydion, he falls into the clutches of the evil sorceress Achren, he makes friends with a chattery girl named Eilonwy, a wild man named Gurgi, a bard named Fflewddur Fflam whose magic harp always breaks a string whenever he fibs, and a dwarf named Doli who is very grouchy because he can't figure out how to make himself invisible.

These motley companions aren't much good at anything except making mistakes, but somehow they manage to confront the monstrious Horned King (one of Arawn's evil generals), save Hen Wen, and stave off a devastating ambush by the forces of evil. Not a bad day's work for an Assistant Pig-Keeper!

The Black Cauldron
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Age: 10+

Taran is back at his pig-keeping and garden-weeding duties when Gwydion comes to Caer Dallben in this, the second book of the Prydain Chronicles. This book was a "Newbery Honor Book," which I guess is the young readers' literature equivalent of an Oscar nomination (but no statue).

Gwydion has decided that it is time to take away the foul Black Crochan, or Cauldron, which Arawn uses to brew up his terrible Cauldron-Born warriors. These are more or less zombies, created by steeping the bodies of the slain in Arawn's cauldron until they become silent, unfeeling, unthinking, unkillable monsters. Arawn is using these fearsome killing machines, along with other creatures nearly as terrible, to gather strength for another attempt to conquer all Prydain. And lately he has even turned to murdering the living and enslaving their corpses to do his foul deeds. This is quite a chilling evil to contemplate, isn't it?

And to go right into the heart of Arawn's realm, and steal the Cauldron, and take it out again to be destroyed so that he cannot make anymore Cauldron-Born--that is Gwydion's plan. Obviously they have to be prepared to face the Cauldron-Born, but there are also the Huntsmen, bands of heartless killers magically bound to each other so that, if any member of the band is killed, the surviving Huntsmen become proportionally stronger.

Among those Gwydion picks for this complex and risky campaign are, of course, Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper, his dwarf friend Doli (who now can become invisible), and the bard Fflewddur Fflam. Somehow Taran also ends up thrown together with the Princess Eilonwy and Gurgi again, as well as a brave and wise hero named Adaon and an arrogant piece of work named Prince Ellidyr.

Naturally things do not shake down as planned. The Crochan has fallen into the hands of three gnarly enchantresses who live at the far end of an evil swamp. All the great kings and war-leaders who have joined in the enterprise have been separated from Taran and his companions in the confusion, and it falls to Taran to make the decisions to go after the cauldron and bring it back to be destroyed.

Taran has not yet learned all that being a man, much less a hero, is about... and in this much deeper, richer, and darker tale than The Book of Three, he finds out a great deal. Before he completes his mission he experiences grief and betrayal the likes of which he had never imagined before going on this quest. He also witnesses redemption and self-sacrifice. And though he doesn't always have the strength or the wisdom he needs to do what a hero ought to do, he is always brave, honest, and kind. So there is never any doubt in your mind that, win or lose, Taran is a hero to pull for!

The Castle of Llyr
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Age: 10+

The third book in The Prydain Chronicles again involves young Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper and his loyal companions, in a somewhat more romantic adventure. Each of the books shows Taran a little older and wiser. He began as a boy who dreamed of adventure and glory and honor in battle, and is developing into a man who knows that honor is not won on the battlefield. Men of honor are sometimes needed there, to be sure, to defend good against evil.

In this story the Princess Eilonwy, who was really quite a little girl when Taran rescued her from the fortress of Achren in the first book, has grown into what used to be called a "young lady" in need of finishing in the manners of ladyhood. So the aged enchanter Dallben has decided to send her to the Isle of Mona, where she can get her manners from the royal court of King Rhuddlum.

Taran, who has begun to realize he is in love with Eilonwy, is at first saddened, then alarmed as he finds out that she is to be betrothed to the gawky, clumsy, and in all ways useless Prince Rhun. He is finally horrified when Eilonwy is abducted by the evil Steward Magg and the even eviller (gasp! shock!) enchantress Achren. Aided by faithful wild-man-of-the-forest Gurgi, humurous yet perilous bard Fflewddur Flam, the hapless Prince Rhun, and the ever-dependable warrior-prince Gwydion, Taran goes on a gallant quest to save his princess only (perhaps) to face heartbreak at the end.

On the way the companions encounter a giant music-loving cat named Llyan, a self-pitying giant human named Glew, and many other intrigues and dangers. Like all of the Prydain books it is full of adventure, danger, humor, and camraderie, plus a good dose of romance.

Taran Wanderer
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Age: 10+

The fourth book of The Prydain Chronicles begins pretty much where The Castle of Llyr left off. Taran has returned to Caer Dallben from escorting the Princess Eilonwy to her finishing-school on the Isle of Mona. After a spell helping Coll weed the garden and tend the oracular pig Hen Wen, Taran asks the enchanter Dallben for leave to go off in search of himself. To begin with, that means finding out who his parents were, if possible, because whether he turns out to be of noble birth or not, he wants to know before he risks asking Eilonwy to marry him.

It proves to be a long and melancholy journey, enlivened by the company of faithful Gurgi and, at times, the outrageous Fflewddur Fflam and his feline steed Llyan. The monotony is occasionally broken by perilous confrontations with evil such as the deadly wizard Morda and the despicable bandit Dorath. The three enchantresses from The Black Cauldron also take another bow.

There is a time when Taran believes he has found his father, a tragic episode that leads to Taran's deepest shame. In his despair he decides to give up his original quest and try to find himself, only now in the sense of identifying his true calling in life. In this he is no more successful than the other, though he fast befriends a blacksmith, a junk collector, a weaver, a master potter, and a shepherd boy. Finally he makes his way to a remote, supposedly magic mirror (a pool of water in a mountain cave) where he learns what he needs to know about himself.

It is a strange journey and a moving discovery, an important step in the development of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper. And the fact that this novel, least stand-alone of the five, leads seamlessly into Book 5 (The High King, winner of the 1968 Newbery Medal) suggests to me that this pentology is really a single story, told in the form of five novels, much the way the three novels of Lord of the Rings form a single tale. The similarities between The Prydain Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings do not even nearly end there.

The High King
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Age: 10+

Really the first four novels of The Prydain Chronicles have been really a build up to the fifth. It has more depth, more pathos, more humor, more heroism, more bitter betrayal, more heart-pounding danger, more prophetic portent, more romance, more of the clash of good vs. evil, more heartbreaking tragedy, and more heartwarming camaraderie than all the other books put together, plus it explains all the things the other books have left you wondering about and ties up all the threads.

You have no heart if the last half of this book doesn't account for at least half a box of Kleenex. It is very moving. And it is very much like a total recasting of the Lord of the Rings tale, complete with a seemingly insignificant figure (Taran, instead of Frodo) whose destiny is to battle the very heart of evil face-to-face, and (at the end) a golden ship departing for the Summer Country with all the Sons of Don on board. Taran really comes into his potential in this story, while many other beloved characters stand on the brink of life and death (and be warned, too many of them fall).

This time, the world of Prydain has reached its ultimate crisis. Arawn's armies are on the move. Either he will be defeated for good and all, or he will conquer all of Prydain and darkness will cover the land forever. With Cauldron-Born, Huntsmen, and vicious giant birds called Gwythaints on his side, and the land of the living divided by rivalries and quarrels, the outlook for all that is good and beautiful has never been worse. There can be no hope unless people from all corners of Prydain come together, and there can be no victory without heart-rending sacrifices and bitter sorrows. Hen Wen's final prophecy makes their hope seem all but impossible to attain. And of all people for events to hinge upon, it would be Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, and his motley companions.

The book deserves every carat of the 1969 Newbery Medal. It is thrilling, frightening, and deeply moving, full of wisdom and full of love for each character and for a richly detailed fantasy world. Any boy who reads this book will be a better man for it. The ending is perfect. I recommend The Prydain Chronicles with all my heart.

The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Age: 10+

This is a collection of eight short stories, with roots in Welsh mythology, by the author of the award-winning Prydain Chronicles. And though you may enjoy them without reading the aforesaid Chronicles, they are especially satisfying as "a bit more," for those of us who are sad to see the tales of Taran and his friends come to an end.

These stories all take place before Taran Assistant Pigkeeper's birth. Two of them were previously published, the rest written for this book. They make quick reading and are full of wit, warmth, and gentle lessons. Many favorite characters from the Prydain Chronicles appear in these pages, and it is delightful to learn more about their background.

First, "The Foundling" shows us how the wise old enchanter Dallben got started, with another entertaining appearance by the three hags of Morva. The ending dovetails with the opening of "The Stone," in which a foolish farmer learns a lesson from a certain crotchety fairy who has trouble becoming invisible. "The True Enchanter" is like a classic fairy tale, in which the princess Angharad chooses between three enchanter-suitors. "The Rascal Crow" is an animal fable featuring Medwyn (the Prydain version of Noah) and a boastful crow who learns a lesson-- maybe-- from a gnat, a spider, and a turtle. In "The Sword," the enchanted blade Dyrnwyn becomes a curse for King Rhitta when one broken promise leads him down the road to self-destruction-- without doubt, the saddest tale in this book. "The Smith, the Weaver, and the Harper" harks back to the time when Arawn, Lord of Death, was trying to steal the secrets of all crafts and arts, and the bard Menwy defies him.

Finally, the two previously published stories included in this volume are "The Truthful Harp" and "Coll and His White Pig." The one shows how Fflewdur Fflam got his magical harp and the beginning of his adventures with it. The other depicts the old warrior Coll and the occasion when he first learned that his pig, Hen Wen, must be protected from Arawn.

You can read these stories before the Prydain Chronicles and let them set the stage. Or after them, and enjoy a lovely reprieve from saying farewell to a wonderful world of legend. But I think one must whet your appetite for the other. Alexander's gift is too rich to refuse.

The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Age: 8+

This 1971 National Book Award winner plays on two themes close to Lloyd Alexander's heart: cats and violins. Set in the imaginary kingdom of Hamelin-Loring, it tells the adventures of a handsome young fourth-chair violinist who gets thrown out on his ear, and soon afterward gets entangled in dangerous adventures with a clever white cat, a runaway princess disguised as a boy, and various other characters who are dissatisfied with the cruel, tyrranical Regent who runs the country.

Forced to flee from the Regent's "bloodhounds" (read: bounty hunters, assassins, and torturers), Sebastian and the Princess Isabel hope to get out of Hamelin-Loring or, if possible, to hook up with a mysterious Captain who is gathering an army of resistance. On their way they join a theatre troupe called Gallimaufry-Theatricus, dance with a bear, acquire an accursed fiddle, and get lost in a hot-air balloon. When the balloon comes down in the capital city, they're in more trouble than ever with almost everyone in town out to get them.

Before the expected fairy-tale happy ending can take place, Sebastian's misadventures take him to a very low depth of grief and despair. And the final solution turns out to be a combination of Alexander's two favorite things.

It's a charming adventure, with a bit of romance, thrills, chills, narrow escapes, an adorable cat, and some nifty surprises. And the main characters, Sebastian and Isabel, grow a lot and learn to know themselves better. The dastardly villain is surprisingly effective, considering that you only actually see him once and he never says a word. And the conclusion is not quite that pat "and they lived happily ever after" ending that so many tales have, yet it's very satisfying.

Time Cat
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Age: 8+

It isn't altogether a literary masterpiece, but it is a nice tale well told. Really it's a kind of love poem to cats, with a great deal of historical detail.

Jason, a little boy having a bad day, discovers that his cat Gareth can talk, and has the privilege of traveling through time to visit nine different lives, and can take a companion with him if he wants. Because Jason is having such a bad day, Gareth decides to take Jason with him on his tour of nine lives. They visit different eras of history when cats had different roles in relation to humans.

In Egypt 2700 BC, cats were regarded as gods, but the godlike young Pharaoh didn't realize that he couldn't command cats to cuddle and play with him.

In Rome 55 BC a cat might be guarding an artichoke garden from moles, accompanying a Roman legion to Gaul and Britain as a mascot, or frightening the daylights out of the savage Britons, who thought of cats as dangerous wild animals and were just beginning to see their usefulness as mousers.

In Ireland 411 AD, on the eve of St. Patrick's work of bringing enlightenment, Christianity, and cats to the emerald isle, people only knew of cats from garbled legends, but they sorely needed them to keep the rats away from their food supply.

In Japan 998 AD, cats were a novelty brought from China to amuse the boy emperor, who learned to stand up to his regent-uncle even as he learned to let his kittens go about their own affairs.

In Italy 1468, a young Leonardo da Vinci used a cat as his inspiration to prove to his disapproving father that he was destined to be a painter.

In Peru 1555, a Spaniard army officer, seriously promoted beyond his level of military competence, takes solace from a cat while trying to make peace between his people and the Incas.

On the Isle of Man 1588, a family of tailless cats brings luck to a struggling fishing village and comfort to a girl whose heart is torn by love and self-image problems.

And in Germany 1600 cats--and humans--are the targets of vicious and fanatical witch-hunts, which are partly used by corrupt civic leaders to increase their wealth at the expense of others' lives.

Finally, in America 1775, kittens, a.k.a. "perpetual mousetraps," serve a variety of uses to the different sorts of people gathered in the breathless hush awaiting the outbreak of the American Revolution.

And when Jason returns to his real life, he realizes that he does not need to talk to his cat to understand him, and that all their adventures together have taught him about himself. What else are cats for?

Young lovers of cats everywhere should enjoy this book, and it could also be entertaining & instructive for anyone thinking about getting a cat. You get the impression Lloyd Alexander really loved the beasts, having also written books entitled Town Cats and Other Tales and The Cat Who Wished To Be A Man.

No comments: