It was announced in Variety in March 2016 that Disney had acquired the movie rights to The Chronicles of Prydain book series. Since then there’s been no news of any director or stars named to the film project. Periodically, hoping to move things along, I re-publish my paean to the books, which you should definitely read before any movies are made.
Let me tell you about the best fantasy/adventure series ever written for young people.
Nope, it’s not about Harry Potter. Don’t get me wrong, I like Harry Potter just fine. I read all seven of those books aloud to my kids, which, believe me, takes some dedication. And I’ve read and loved dozens and dozens of other sci-fi and fantasy books for youngsters over the years, including the ones with the Hobbits and the ones with the dragons (no, the other one with the dragons).
But one fantasy series will always come first in my heart: The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. Published in the late ’60s, it was one of the first true high fantasy series written by an American, and the first to rival the British greats like Tolkien.
Loosely based on Welsh myths, the books tell a fairly conventional story: A young boy bored with his ordinary life sets off on a series of adventures, learns some lessons, confronts a great evil, becomes a man, and assumes a place of leadership. It’s all squarely in Joseph Campbell territory.
What makes it an enduring delight is Alexander’s absolute command: his narrative economy, lyrical prose, indelible characters, and deep humanity.
The boy in question is Taran, an Assistant Pig-Keeper living on a small, isolated farm under the care of the (seemingly) daft old wizard Dalben. He itches for adventure, which arrives in the form of wolf-eyed warrior prince Gwydion, whose ancestors, the Sons of Don, came to Prydain years ago and drove the evil Arawn back into Annuvin. Arawn, it seems, is eager to retake Prydain. And so it begins.
I have probably read the five Prydain books together more than I’ve read any other single book in my life. Both my brothers have read them dozens of times as well. My little brother once wrote a fan letter to Alexander (who sent a gracious note in response). They are the closest thing my family has to Official Books, and reading them aloud to my kids was something I’d been looking forward to ever since I was a kid myself. They are, in short, The Best. Here are five reasons why.
1) They are square
The Prydain books are exactly the kind of fantasy books George R. R. Martin was subverting with A Song of Ice and Fire — the PBS to his HBO. They turn on the classical virtues of loyalty, courage, and wisdom, and those values are ultimately rewarded. Good triumphs over evil. No one’s head is chopped off; no one is raped; no one is flayed.
Don’t get me wrong: Taran loses people he loves, he experiences pain and betrayal, he makes mistakes and fights despair. If there’s an overarching theme to the books, it’s that becoming a man — or, more broadly, discovering the adult you want to be — is a difficult process and, often as not, filled with sadness and regret. As Alexander says in the author’s note before The Black Cauldron (the second book in the series):
Although an imaginary world, Prydain is essentially not too different from our real one, where humor and heartbreak, joy and sadness are closely interwoven. The choices and decisions that face a frequently baffled Assistant Pig-Keeper are no easier than the ones we ourselves must make. Even in a fantasy realm, growing up is accomplished not without cost.
But things work out for the best in the end. The Prydain books contain plenty of darkness, but they are not dark books. They are square, old-fashioned.
There are plenty of ways to do square wrong. There’s nothing worse than books for young people that are preachy or reactionary. (Read those Narnia books lately?)
Alexander is obviously a humanist and at least somewhat progressive. Eilonwy, the fierce princess who plays a key role in Taran’s adventures, is as capable, independent, and free-thinking as any Katniss Everdeen. At pivotal moments, Taran learns it is best to swallow pride, to forgive or show mercy. He learns that power can corrupt and that diplomacy is often preferable to conflict. He learns that everyone, even those who seem twisted and unpleasant (like the giant Glew or the witch Achren), has good inside them, and that kindness can bring it out.
Nonetheless, the central narrative is Taran learning to take responsibility for himself, to accept the consequences of his choices, and to do what’s right. Maybe it’s just me, but darkness has become so vogue now, fantasy so cruel, the future so post-apocalyptic, that I find myself drawn to the old-fashioned.
The Prydain books were written in the late ’60s, a time of enormous tumult, and seem designed to remind their audience that some things do not change. Perhaps it reveals my advancing years, but I like hearing that, and I like my kids hearing it, too.
2) They are sturdy and concise
The young adult genre contains a multitude of writerly sins, from one-dimensional characters to OMG prose that tries too hard for contemporary cultural relevance. Many multi-part series, in particular, are like the Harry Potter books: chatty, repetitive, and discursive, churning through tons and tons of plot (and pages) to wring out a modest bit of meaning.
In contrast, the Chronicles of Prydain feel … what’s the word? … oaken. Sturdy. Like they were carved, whittled, and sanded until only what’s necessary remained. The prose is lilting and rhythmic — it practically begs to be read aloud — but never flowery. The sentences are short and unadorned; each one advances story or reveals character. You won’t find any Tolkien-esque, pages-long passages describing the flora and fauna (thank God).
The books are between two hundred and three hundred pages each, but they pack in an extraordinary amount of life and wisdom. There isn’t a wasted word among them. If you fashion yourself a writer, the books are worth studying, if only as a lesson in how to do a lot with a little, which seems to be a dying art.
3) Taran Wanderer is f’ing amazing
The series was originally four parts, but Alexander’s editor told him she felt like something was missing, so just after the third book came out, he wrote a new fourth for the series, Taran Wanderer. It is a remarkable book for a number of reasons.
Unlike the other four, TW’s central narrative does not pivot on an outside threat. Instead, it’s simply about Taran’s quest to find out who he is. Dalben found him as an infant, abandoned on a battlefield, and raised him. He has witnessed nobility, seen what is at stake in the brewing war, but he is only an orphan and an Assistant Pig-Keeper — a nobody, certainly nobody worthy of the hand of Princess Eilonwy, with whom he has slowly fallen in love. (In this book and the others, however, the romance stays far, far in the background, rarely acknowledged, which is a nice contrast to today’s ubiquitous love triangles.) If he can discover his true name, and it is a worthy one, perhaps…
And so he sets off. Rather than the single, overarching narrative, like the other books have, TW is episodic. Taran travels from place to place, learning about different ways of living, trying his hand at various trades, skills, and roles.
For a purported children’s book, it contains a striking amount of frustration and pain. [Spoilers ahead.]
At one point, Taran finds a man who claims to be his father, a hermit shepherd living a hard, spare life in the mountains. Despite his crushing disappointment, Taran stays with the shepherd, even coming to admire and love him. And then … the shepherd slips and falls down a cliff; before he dies, he reveals that he is not really Taran’s father. Ouch!
In another episode, Taran apprentices with Anlaw Clay-Shaper, a famed potter. He comes to love pottery and strives desperately to master it. But after months of labor he finds, in the end, that pottery does not love him; he is competent, but lacks the gift. Another crushing disappointment.
And then, at the end, when he reaches the legendary Lake of Llunet, which is supposed to reveal truth to all who look in it, he finds … a puddle. And in its surface, he sees only himself. It’s the final and most difficult lesson. [Spoilers over.]
It wasn’t my favorite book when I first encountered the series, around age 7. It’s the longest and the slowest-paced, it has the least swashbuckling action, and it is sad. But as I’ve reread the books through the years, I’ve come to see it as the key to the series, what lifts it into the realm of classics.
The mythic hero always grows into adulthood in the process of fulfilling his or her destiny, but seldom has the process been heavier, more tinged with regret, more earned than in Taran’s story. It lends the climactic events of the fifth and final book — Newbury Medal–winning The High King — an immense emotional heft.
4) They’re great for all ages
People say this about all kinds of books, but it’s really true in the case of Prydain. My mother first read them to me when I was 7 (the age of my older boy the first time I read them to him). But I reread them religiously, every few years, for the rest of my childhood, and even a few times post-college. Every single time, they were satisfying. And they were satisfying all over again when I read them to my kids.
The action is enough to keep the attention of young children, but the truths revealed by the action are profound, enough that they strike the reader anew at each stage of life. That is the measure of classic literature.
5) Someday they’ll make a movie or TV adaptation and you’ll need to be able to tell people on the internet that it’s not as good as the books
The only time Prydain has appeared on screen was in the disastrous 1985 Disney animated movie of The Black Cauldron, which completely mangled the story and, more to the point, sucked. Since recycling old stories is about 98 percent of what the entertainment industry does these days, another attempt seems inevitable. [See the note at the top.]
The key to adapting the Prydain books will be getting the tone right — being square without being simplistic or childish, honoring the sadness without trying to be dark or “edgy,” and doing justice to both the scale of the action and the depth of the lessons learned. As it happens, I’ve been thinking about how to adapt these books for film for about, oh, 30 years now, so if any producers are reading this, give me a call.
Anyway, in conclusion, y’all should read these books. They are the best.
Illustrator and Alexander fan Dawn Davidson sent me this graphic-novel adaptation of The Book of Three, which is unauthorized, but faithful and quite delightful. Check it out.
Alexander also has dozens of other great books, for both adults and kids. In the latter category, I especially recommend the Westmark Trilogy and The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha. But you really can’t go wrong with any of his stuff.
Here’s an essay from the editor of the 50th anniversary edition of The Book of Three (the first book in the series), which has a beautiful new cover.
A few years ago, thanks to a Kickstarter project, a documentary was made about Lloyd Alexander. You can now watch the whole thing on YouTube: