One of the earliest books I remember reading is The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander.
I know I’d read other novels, quite a few, actually, but I’ve forgotten most of them in the long-gone years of my childhood. Black Cauldron, however, has stayed with me. I seem to recall some moment where I suddenly realized, when I read The High King, that these two books were part of a series, and I’d just accidentally skipped three installments: The Book of Three, The Castle of Llyr, and Taran Wanderer. Having enjoyed myself so thoroughly, I made certain to correct that particular error.
I think the Chronicles of Prydain was one of the first actual series I ever read as well. Many others have since followed, including Alexander’s Vesper Holly series. I haven’t caught the latest addition to that series, The Xanadu Adventure, but I enjoyed the wit and schemes of Vesper Holly almost as much as I loved the wondrous, poignant adventures of Taran Pig-Keeper.
Single favorite moment from Vesper Holly:
A young man and woman have a Romeo-and-Juliette relationship, much to her Capulet-ish father’s outrage, as he seeks to see Romeo’s counterpart dead. That is, until the young man is offered the role of king of a great city, at which point the father instantaneously does an about-face, embracing both his daughter and her boyfriend, saying, “Yes! He accepts! My son-in-law accepts!” For some reason, I have never been able to stop laughing at that.
Prydain, though, has been my most lasting impression of Lloyd Alexander. While Vesper and her friends get into trouble on a regular basis, often through incidental or deliberate proximity to her nemesis in strange and foreign lands, the fantasy adventures of Taran and his friends often involve trouble coming to him first as he goes about his normal business. Them’s the brakes when you live in a nation constantly at war, or threatened by war, with a dreaded lord of darkness, Arawn.
Though Taran, as a brash youth, is eager for adventure and sword fights and battle and glorious heroism, when trouble first comes upon him, he is entirely unprepared for it. He is a small, weak, rash boy, full of excuses and hot air. So, a typical teenager. 😉 We even have one of those moments where he does precisely what he is told not to do, and gets a bit of lightning to his fingers for his trouble.
But his heart in in the right place, and he displays a good deal of courage, even caution (on occasion) and compassion. At risk of his own life, he tries to do some good, to warn of an approaching enemy, and when that fails, he is ready to stand and fight… he does not a lick of good, really, in the first novel, but he has learned a few lessons.
In each succeeding novel, Taran learns more and more about the world, about loss and sacrifice, about his fellow man, and about himself. He grows a little more, becomes more of a man than a boy, and eventually he even becomes a leader of men: brave, kind, wise, resourceful. Best of all, it’s when he has long since forgotten his childish dreams of glory, but serves as a leader only in the support of a great king.
Thus tempered, Taran has made the journey we all do, from naïve childhood into wise adulthood. He becomes a husband to the woman he loves, though they spent a great deal of their early relationship just irritating each other to no end (a clear sign of eventual matrimony, of course, lol). He is even raised from the level of Assistant Pig-Keeper to none other than High King of Prydain.
(Not nearly so formal as this classic LOTR scene, though it DID involve a wizard, marrying his love on the spot, and an awaiting gathering of subjects. Hey, if it ain’t broke…)
The metaphor is even further served by the events of The High King‘s conclusion. The darkness of Arawn is dispelled. Magic is diminishing, even ending, as those people who are of magic withdraw away, out of the world, out of his world. Magic leaves, and so the child must leave the magical world behind, and go to live his or her fullest life in the real world. But he or she will always have the lessons learned in these troubled, wild, willful, wonderful, magical days of his youth.
All of this is shown to us at a fairly simple reading level. I was through the series well before I was out of elementary school, after all (not that I ever hesitated to go back and reread, mind you). The characters have their mannerisms which make them all distinct, memorable, and lovable. (granted, some mannerisms could get a little tiring after awhile, but that’s a small thing) It’s a much more complicated story than it might seem, but it’s all told so enchantingly that you can practically hear the words being spoken, not merely crafted, and everything makes sense (meaning the storytelling the the world-building are quite well done). There are things planted in each book that come back into play in later stories, particularly in the conclusion.
This was, simply put, the sort of story I always envisioned writing myself. I have yet to accomplish anything of the like, even in pale imitation, but this was my first role model for it. For inspiring me, and for teaching me things I needed to learn, Lloyd Alexander is very much my hero.
About a year ago, I had the pleasure of picking up, for the first time, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain. It was very short, of course, but I wanted to visit Prydain again. And so I did. Slowly, savoring every word of these short stories. After so many years, I was, once again, enchanted. Even more easily and quickly than when I was a little boy.
I think, perhaps, there are and were things which could have been improved in the Vesper Holly saga. For example, the first-person narrator is so placid while his niece, Vesper, doesn’t seem to develop one whit beyond the clever, reckless woman we meet in the first novel. But as far as Chronicles of Prydain goes, it strikes me more and more that there isn’t really anything which could have been improved in the telling of the story. They are a masterpiece.
Lloyd Alexander is very much the first “Master of Storytelling” I ever encountered. I loved his books even when I was so young I couldn’t even pronounce a number of the characters’ names.
So, to me, it is a wonderful thing that, fifty years after publication, his work is still inspiring readers.
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