Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Book of Three

This will be a slightly shorter blog entry, focusing on one aspect of this novel, since it is actually a selection for my book group.

My friend John selected this novel, the first in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series for discussion in our book group. My history with this book is long, nearly as long as with any other speculative fiction book. I have distinct memories of being in the sixth grade and watching a bunch of filmstrips of this series, narrated by a tape or album with a booming narrator and period music. Perhaps because I knew of them at such an early age, the books have always held a fond place in my memory, even surviving what may have been the worst Disney animated film ever.

As I reread The Book of Three, I thought about the relatively sudden explosion of YA, or young adult, novels. If The Book of Three were published today, it would be categorized as YA, which led me to think some more about why there is such a distinction in the selling of books. The cynical part of me fears that it has something to do with a combination of the helicopter parent phenomenon for some readers—parents hovering over every decision their children might make—and other parents not having enough time or concern to keep up with what their children are reading. I don't often go into the big-box book stores any longer, but when I do, I think it's rather odd that there are genre sections and then a YA section, as if "young adult" were some sort of categorization along the lines of mystery or romance. And yet, when I look at what is in the YA section, I find that it contains all sorts of genres—and what I would consider to be fantasy is burgeoning. Perhaps YA is "literary fiction for young readers"?

In any case, no parent could be overly concerned about Alexander's Prydain books, especially The Book of Three. Alexander has distilled the essence of epic fantasy into an entertaining though fairly light tale of a boy who pretty much wanders through epic events in his country's history. Though Alexander states in his introduction that Prydain is not Wales, it is clearly based on a medieval Wales and its legends. And our boy hero, Taran, is the perfect viewpoint character for insertion into that land of magic and myth. Taran's sense of entrapment as he leads what he considers a dull life as an Assistant Pig Herder is palpable, especially to young readers with their burgeoning sense of wonder. Never mind that the pig he assistantly herds is Hen Wen, an oracular pig that becomes the center of attention for an army attempting to overthrow the lawful king of Prydain. When soldiers from that army approach Caer Dallben, Taran's home, Hen Wen escapes and, despite his not liking the job, Taran fulfills his responsibility by pursuing her into the forest and the unknown world that surrounds his home.

Thus Lloyd sets up for Taran the conflict that all children have to begin dealing with, one that they have to consider for the rest of their lives—choosing between responsibility and desire. At Caer Dallben, Taran wants to become a heroic warrior, living the tales that Dallben reads to him from the Book of Three, but instead Coll teaches him how to make horseshoes rather than how to fight with a sword. Faced with the crisis of Hen Wen's escape and an invading army, Taran must choose between his desire to run away and his and his responsibility to keep Hen Wen alive. Throughout The Book of Three, Taran keeps running into different versions of this choice, each one growing progressively more difficult, even to the point where he must choose between different responsibilities and his own desires are a distant consideration.

But all is not as bleak and allegorical as Taran making hard choices. Along the way he gathers up companions to aid in his search for Hen Wen and in his decision to alert the High King that an army approaches. Eilonwy, a princess with a penchant for expansive similes, is his first companion, and of course, her being a girl also confounds Taran's thought processes; it's no help that she is also an independent-minded girl as well. Fflewdurr Fflam, a prince who has aspirations to be a bard, joins them, as does Gurgi—half-man and half-beast, with a predilection for rhyming. Together these companions meander across Prydain, stumbling into adventure after adventure. They never seem to be in any real danger, or if they are, they do not seem to realize it, despite facing such fearsome foes as Achren, a sorceress queen; Eiddeleg, king of the little people; and the Horned King. What guides their way and prevents them from harm is the constant belief that they are doing the right thing. And while these other characters are drawn pretty flatly, even for a children's book, they have quirks that make them enormously entertaining if not necessarily the best companions (at least to start with).

The end result is a brilliant beginning to a delightful series, a book that draws you into its world without a great deal of threat but with a lot of promise, especially of bigger things to come. And the books do leave a lasting impression on their readers, especially, probably, young readers. The Book of Three recognizes the sense of wonder that lies within each of us and fairly easily draws it out as we follow Tara's search for Hen Wen. Adults may recognize the heavy-handedness of the moral lessons, but those lessons are couched just right for young readers. And adults can still find laughter in the rhymes of Gurgi or in anticipation of when Fflewdurr's magic harp will break another string. In fact, Alexander's books may be the perfect rainy day reading for kids or something light for adult readers to turn to when their metaphorical rainstorms come. Rereading The Book of Three has made me promise myself not to take so long between visits to Prydain again.

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