FROM JASON’S ENORMOUS HOME LIBRARY — Legions of the undead. Warlords. Witches. A giant mountain lion. A shape-shifting, evil wizard. Fair folk. Caves. A magic bauble. Potters, blacksmiths, princes, weavers, swordsmen, and enchanters. A mysterious book of destiny. An oracular pig.
Cloaked under the guise of Welsh legend, The Prydain Chronicles gave the 11-year-old me a moral compass toward manhood. I didn’t know it at the time, but the 1960s series — already a fantasy classic when I picked it up wide-eyed at the public library in the late 1980s — was going to teach me a lot about what it meant to grow up.
I can remember it well. I was standing in the juvenile fiction section of the library at Watertown, N.Y., holding a dogeared copy of The Book of Three (the first in the Prydain series) and wondering at the cover. The illustration showed a man wearing a hideous antlered skeleton mask, wearing a red cloak, holding a sword, and rearing back on a black roan. In a nearby thicket hid a young boy.
Author Lloyd Alexander gave me the first literary quest of the hero. Oh, sure, I had seen the old boy-gets-sword, boy-matures, boy-confronts-evil plot play out in Star Wars, but I wasn’t aware that George Lucas was recycling a centuries-old story structure. Alexander showed me his take on The Odyssey, on Beowulf, on King Arthur’s hunt for the Holy Grail — on all that Joseph Campbell summarized as the hero’s journey or “monomyth.”
A bachelor’s degree in English later, and this stuff is transparent. But back then, it was magic. Or at least it was wrapped in enough magic to hide ugly little things like themes and lessons from me, at least until I was hooked. Once I was so vested in our protagonist, a young orphan named Taran, Alexander started teaching me that maturity directly correlates with pain and loss, and responsibility is a measure of how you live with such tragedy.
At the time, I didn’t know how symbolic the novels were. I didn’t care that Taran was a remolding of the old Tara or Terra: Latin for “Earth,” Gaelic for “stars,” Tibetan for “humanist wisdom,” Sanskrit for “heaven,” Punjab for “savior.”
I also knew nothing of the Mabinogion, the Celtic folktales that Alexander remodeled in his own image: Pryderi (or Taran) and his lost parents, his misfortune, his fights with Math and Gwydion (who appear instead as his royal allies in The Prydain Chronicles), and of Arawn the fateful hunter.
Even though I can see the stories now through a literary lens, I still feel slightly childish every time I pick up my hardbound copies because they are clearly written for pre-teen boys. Yet every year I end up doing a four-day blitz through the five books in the series (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Lyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King).
I know part of what pulls me back in is my formative link and nostalgia. But there’s something else, too — maybe it’s the classical medieval mythos. Maybe it’s the balance of comedy and coal-dark tragedy. Maybe it’s the simple naivety of the good guys being unimpeachably good and the bad guys being indelibly bad.
A short synopsis:
In The Book of Three, the forces of Arawn, lord of the underworld, hunt for Hen Wen, the oracular pig. When the pig flees Arawn’s minion, the Horned King, it’s up to Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran to try to track her through all of Prydain. Along the way, Taran joins with the near-Christ-like Prince Gwydion, a beast-like but intelligent creature named Gurgi, a talkative and magical princess named Eilonwy, a king-turned-traveling bard named Fflewddur Fflam, and Doli of the Fair Folk, who has the power turn become invisible.
In The Black Cauldron, Taran and his companions must find the titular Cauldron, which Arawn uses to make an army of zombie slaves from the corpses of slain warriors. He convinces the Norn-ish witches of fate — Orgoch, Orwen, and Orddu — to give him the cauldron, and then he must trundle it through a vast swamp to the safety of the waiting armies of the Sons of Don and Prince Gwydion. Taran discovers too late that the only way to destroy the cauldron and its nightmarish threat forever is for a martyr to voluntarily crawl inside and sacrifice his life.
In The Castle of Lyr, Eilonwy is kidnapped by a spidery traitor named Magg and handed over to the witch Achren, the one-time ruler of Prydain and former consort of Arawn. The companions search for her on the Isle of Mona and encounter Glew the Giant and Morda the shape-shifter. The final confrontation with Achren forces Taran and Eilonwy to admit their feelings for each other.
In Taran Wanderer, there is no overarching evil or antagonist. Instead, the entire novel follows Taran’s travels across Prydain as he searches for himself, for his ancestry, for a profession, and for a home. He leaves Eilonwy behind and travels mostly alone, wandering and hoping to find a destiny and self-worth.
In The High King, Arawn steals the black sword Dyrnwyn from Gwydion and masses his undead army to pour out over the kingdom. A war council is called to oppose him, but a traitor announces he has sworn fealty to Arawn and turns on Taran’s friends. In a desperate ploy, Taran and Gwydion plan an assault on Arawn’s underworld kingdom of Annuvin.
They’re the kind of books that I’ll strategically be placing low on my bookshelf so they’ll be easily spotted when my children get to the right age.
If you’re interested, a pretty good amateur RPG adaptation of The Book of Three was made with RPG Maker 2000 back in 2005. You can download and play it here. Disney also put out a film version of The Black Cauldron in 1985, which has some abysmal parts and some truly scary parts — but all terrifically animated. In fact, the movie was, at the time, the most expensive animation ever produced, with a $25 million budget. It was also revolutionary, inserting Disney’s very first effort at computer generated imagery into animation cells.