A while back, several fans responded to a query on my Facebook author page about what I should write about at my blog. One response was: What do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?
Narrowing down the list is very difficult, because I frankly love to read so much (from suspense fiction to history to devotional books to young adult novels). But in my estimation a few novels/authors stand above the rest. Keep in mind that I’m starting with childhood and that I had a very active imagination then (still do).
Today I want to talk about the highly underrated five-book series, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (published in the 1960s). The five books are The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron (Newberry Award Honor Book), The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King (Newberry Award Winner).
Before there was The Hobbit. Before there was The Lord of the Rings. Before there was even Narnia, there was The Chronicles of the Prydain . . . at least for me. I adored every one of these novels.
What are these novels about? This is a children’s fantasy series loosely based on Welsh mythology and set in a magical world called Prydain. The stories focus on fourteen-year-old orphan Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper, who lives at Caer Dallben, the home of Dallben, the enchanter, and the aged warrior Coll. Taran has the task of taking care of the oracular pig Hen Wen, but his dream is to grow up and be a brave warrior like High Prince Gwydion. His true journey is to come to understand his own self-worth.
The five books follow Taran’s path to manhood (and maturity) while offering many engaging stories as Taran and his friends battle the evil forces of Arawn, the Death-Lord, and help determine the fate of the land of Prydain. Taran, who tends to be headstrong and a bit clumsy, also learns a lot about himself and about what it means to be a man.
Along the way he befriends several fascinating characters, including Gurgi, a hairy half man/half animal (think Chewbacca); the romantic interest, sharp-tongued Princess Eilonwy; Fflewdurr Fflam, a wandering bard whose harp breaks a string whenever he lies; Doli, a red-haired dwarf (who can hold his breath and make himself invisible), and Prince Gwydion, Taran’s heroic role model.
Why do I love these books? First, they are good, clean, curse-free fun. Second, Taran is just an average boy who wants to do much more with his life than take care of pigs. Most of us consider ourselves to be pretty average, but we have dreams, so the books offer instant identification, especially for boys. Third, the novels offer nonstop action with just the right blend of magic, just a hint of romance, PG-rated battle scenes, fascinating characters, chase scenes, amazing locations, creepy bad guys (like the undead Cauldron-Born before zombies were cool), and gallant warriors.
No, there is no Aslan or other Christ figure. These stories are not allegories with cleverly symbolic themes based on the Bible, though they do teach important moral lessons such as being honest, sacrificing personal desires for the good of others, valuing true friendship, doing the hard thing when it needs to be done, understanding one’s worth, and overcoming evil with good. Unlike Harry Potter, the series offers a clear moral compass.
About Taran’s journey through the novels, Wikipedia says this:
An interesting point in all the trials that Taran must overcome in his life until he becomes High King is that he always has to “let something go.” In the first book he must quit his own quest to save Hen Wen so that he can alert the Sons of Don; in the second book he has to let go of a magical brooch that granted him “wisdom” to have the Black Cauldron, and later he has to let go the honor of capturing the Black Cauldron so that he can transport it to be destroyed. In the third book he must give up Eilonwy, although only temporarily while she is fostered in a foreign royal court, and in the fourth book, he gives up his quest to learn of his parentage. In the last book there is a moment he has to choose between completing his mission and his search for Eilonwy; and there is his momentous decision of giving up eternal life in order to rebuild Prydain.
The stories illustrate bravery and sacrifice and the ideal that one can rise above his or her humble upbringing and do something important in life. Yes, the novels are magical in the same vein as Narnia or The Lord of the Rings. Taran’s guardian, the enchanter Dallben, is very similar to Gandalf. But if Tolkien’s books are too hard for your kids to read, this series is a terrific place to start.
If you haven’t heard of these novels for yourself or your kids, they are definitely worth checking out. My daughters (8 and 11) are reading them now and love them, especially the audiobook versions. They are short novels and great preparatory fantasy reading for those on the journey toward J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, and other epic fantasy heavyweights.
In addition to having the paperbacks, I’m honored to own a collection of all five novels in one hardcover. Sometimes I fondly peruse it just to remind me of what I read during my youth.
Oh, and please don’t let Disney’s animated (and, dare I say, poor) version of The Black Cauldron influence your opinion of this series. The movie is nothing like the books.
The series has also been very influential on me as an author. One of my first finished but unpublished novel manuscripts, The Quest for the Rose, is very strongly based on this series. The books taught me about characterization, point of view, action scenes, and more. Maybe someday my fantasy novel will see the light of day.
I seriously can’t speak more highly of this series. Take a look at the boxed set and check out series reviews at Amazon.com. You could do much worse than give these novels a chance.
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