Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Chronicles of Prydain

So, to start this off, here's a review of Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain that I wrote for I&F a little over a year ago:

A boy with no heritage who dreams of being a hero and goes on adventures; it’s a storyline that’s used, particularly in the fantasy genre, ad nauseam. Throw in a loquacious princess, a tactless bard whose harp strings snap every time he “colors” the truth, and an ape-like creature who refers to himself in the third-person, and there will be, perhaps, a little more interest. Unfortunately for the Chronicles of Prydain, there is truly very little from its exterior alone that would attract readers in this day and age when children/teen fantasy is an industry all its own.
The Chronicles, for the most part, lack a central plotline that connect all five of the books together other than the hero Taran’s journey from boyhood to manhood. Indeed, the tale of how the pig-keeper became the hero is a simple one at heart. Unlike other, more recent fantasy, the Chronicles don’t try to impress its readers; the plotlines aren’t really clever, and nor are they entirely original. Well-versed fantasy readers might be put off by the patchwork-like feel of the land of Prydain. There are no deep philosophical or theological musings; but none of those things are the point. The story doesn’t ask the reader to take it anywhere near as seriously as, say, Lord of the Rings, but asks the reader to just enjoy the adventure as it’s presented.

That’s not say that the stories are mindless and have no messages whatsoever; quite the contrary. Amidst many other, smaller points it has one main theme that starts from page one when Taran bemoans his lack of a title; his amused elder retorts that he can be “the Assistant Pig-Keeper”, and as duties lists the chores Taran already has. Taran, as can be imagined, is hardly pleased with this answer, but nonetheless actually begins using the title when his normal duties somehow end up leading him into battles and the courts of kings. The name, both fortunately and unfortunately for Taran, sticks, and as each book goes on, following him from one adventure to the next, it becomes a source of humiliation for him. He eventually does pick up on the point of it, humility, and takes it to heart; and only then does the story truly consider him a hero and call him as such.

It’s an unusual twist for a story that starts out so typically, and it’s one of the things that set the Chronicles of Prydain apart. Any story that has a protagonist who’s an orphan, or a nobody, or any other low, poor status can be counted on to be the hero by the end, but not to learn humility and maturity; if ever, he learns it as a side-note.

The writing, if a little archaic at times, is refreshingly well done; although it does have its few problems, mainly that the first book feels a bit rushed and unsure while the second half of the fourth book lags. The names of the characters, mostly pulled from Welsh mythology, feel like tongue-twisters at first try, but they’re easy enough to get used to. The humor is innocent and unpresumptuous; instead of trying to make the reader laugh out loud with witty punch-lines, it only seeks to make them smile; which, in one way or another, allows the reader to feel much more content. “Indeed, the more we find to love, the more we add to the measure of our hearts.”[1]

The atmosphere of the Chronicles could be called ‘charming’ to an extent, but that aspect lasts only up to the last book, The High King, where, as a finale, it introduces a sobriety and a story-telling technique that well ties all five books together without restricting their respective stories. As the main masterpiece of the series, it draws up a climax and ending that well satisfies.

Even with The High King’s contribution, though, the series could still hardly be considered stellar fantasy; 
the writer, Lloyd Alexander, may not be very inventive, but he does tell the truth about reality. He may not give the reader places or creatures to remember, but he does give them hope, which alone makes a story worth hearing.

[1] (The Black Cauldron, Henry Holt and Co., pp.28.)

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