In my last post, I sang the praises of Suzanne Collins' Underland Chronicles, which came to mind as a suggestion for a colleague's child who is waiting with bated breath for the next Rick Riordan book. Because I never am content with just one suggestion, I also recommended Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain.
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I first encountered Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper in elementary school when I picked up The Book of Three. I instantly identified with the frustrated boy, stuck at Caer Dallben taking care of a pig when he'd much rather be out doing great deeds. Of course, Dallben being an enchanter (if an irritatingly magic-averse one, in Taran's eyes), Hen Wen is no ordinary pig—she's an oracular one. When the earth shakes ominously as she's trying to see the future, she takes off into the forest, and Taran pursues her.
In short order, he meets Fflewddur Fflam, an unwilling king who would rather be a bard; Princess Eilonwy, a tart-tongued young witch apprenticed to an awful queen; Gurgi, a hairy and perpetually hungry…creature whose great heart is belied by his cringing aspect; and Doli, a cantankerous dwarf whose grouchiness conceals his insecurity at not being able to turn invisible like the rest of his race. With the occasional guidance of Prince Gwydion, the heroic crown prince to the throne of Prydain, this band of friends remains the focus of the five-book series.
Prydain is a kind of alternate Wales, complete with far too many d’s, f’s and y’s. (In fact, when I visited Wales on a Lloyd Alexander–inspired trip in college, I was much chagrined to realize I had been pronouncing those letter combinations all wrong.) Alexander takes the myths of that land and combines them with other familiar tropes to create a high-fantasy series for kids that rivals The Lord of the Rings.
All the elements are present: the eternal battle between good and evil; characters who need to struggle with themselves to maintain their personal honor; a mythic landscape populated by magical creatures; great deeds; bloodshed and sorrow; hard-won joy.
The forces of evil are monumental and terrifying. Arawn, the Death-Lord, has the Horned King as his righthand man and Eilonwy’s sometime-mentor Queen Achren as his former consort. He defends his fortress with the fearsome birds called gwythaints. And his armies are made up of the Cauldron-Born, deathless warriors created by casting corpses into the Black Cauldron. Brrrrr.
Yet somehow Taran and his motley band manage to prevail, again and again, with some use of magic and huge helpings of valor. The sword, Dyrnwyn, found by Taran and Eilonwy in the first book, bears this legend on its scabbard: "Draw Dyrnwyn, only thou of noble blood, to rule with justice, to strike down evil. Who wields it in good cause shall slay even the lord of death." In The High King, the last book, Eilonwy realizes she translated it wrong and that Dyrnwyn should be rightfully borne by one of "noble worth." A foundling, Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper may not be of noble blood, but he is certainly of noble worth.
One of the strengths of the series is that it grows with its protagonists and its readers. Children who, like me, initially undertake it because of the adventure will find themselves later enthralled by its themes and finally intrigued by Taran's coming-of-age struggles. And the promise Alexander holds out to readers is that nobility of worth is something anyone can achieve. If that's not a heck of a blueprint for young readers to follow, what is?Vicky Smith is the children's and teen editor of Kirkus.