The Chronicles of Prydain: For Those Of Us Still Trying To Prove Ourselves

Chronicles of PrydainWay back in elementary school, I started to become pretty serious about reading.  Somewhere near the beginning of my time with chapter books, my mom recommended The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.  I quickly devoured the excitement and adventure, and quickly moved on to other books.  While I know I enjoyed the series a lot, I don’t have much of a memory of my first time reading them; I was reading a lot of books at the time and nothing really had time to leave much of an impression.

Many years later, while I was on a break between semesters of college, I was staring at the bookshelf in my parents’ basement and picked up The Book of Three.  I only intended to take a look at it, maybe try to remember a bit of the plot.  A few hours later, I had finished the book and started The Black Cauldron.   Over the next two days, I finished that book and read The Castle of Llyr and Taran Wanderer, and a short time later, I read through The High King.

The Chronicles of Prydain series contains some of the only books not in the Ender series that I’ve read in a single day.  Part of this comes from the fact that they are intended for younger audiences and so are very quick reads.  Part of this comes from the fact that they’re familiar, and so I like spending time with them.  And a lot of it comes from the fact that Lloyd Alexander likes to end chapters with obnoxious cliffhangers that make it hard to put the book down.

This fantasy series centers on an Assistant Pig-Keeper named Taran, raised on a farm by the ancient enchanter Dallben and the humble farmer Coll.  As The Book of Three begins, Taran seeks more excitement and adventure than he currently finds working on the farm.  When Dallben’s oracular pig, Hen Wen, suddenly flees their small farm in a panic, Taran chases after her and finds himself thrown into the very excitement and adventure that he wanted, and yet finds himself wishing for simplicity again.

Along the way, Taran travels with a variety of interesting characters, including the adventurous Prince Gwydion, who Taran sees as the very model of a man; the creature Gurgi, who can’t decide if he is a beast or a man; the opinionated Princess Eilonwy, with whom Taran constantly argues; the bard Fflewddur Fflam, who always exaggerates his experiences; and the dwarf Doli, who constantly complains about having to help out the incompetent humans.

These characters form the core cast of the series.  Over the course of the series , they deal with various threats that all come from the Death-Lord Arawn or the beautiful and dangerous witch Achren.  If a lot of this sounds rather cliché or formulaic, that’s because it uses plot elements that were already rather familiar when it came out in the 1960’s and have only become more common since then.  It seems like almost every fantasy work I experience, whether it’s books, movies, or video games, has at least one character that feels reminiscent of something from Prydain.

And yet even as the series treads very familiar ground, it does a great job with each trope.  Yes, Taran is a orphan wondering who his parents were, but The Chronicles of Prydain use that as a plot device in a variety of meaningful ways.  Eilonwy, the mouthy princess who happens to be a bit of a tomboy as well?  Still an interesting and nuanced character.  Even Arawn, the classic evil overlord, has a variety of evil and sneaky tricks up his sleeve that make him a very interesting and deep villain.

(Side-note: Many of the characters and themes come loosely from Welsh mythology, so if you happen to be particularly familiar with those myths, you may find some things even more familiar while other things are very different.)

However, the primary reason that I keep returning to Prydain was put very simply in a journal entry of mine: “I like the theme of a boy wandering out to find himself.”  In other words, The Chronicles of Prydain are a Bildungsroman.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s German for “novel of formation”.  It’s more particular term for coming-of-age novel, emphasizing the moral and psychological growth of the protagonist.  (And yes, part of the reason I wrote this article was as an excuse to use one of my favorite fancy German words.)

The overall plot arc mostly focuses on Taran’s desire to prove himself in the world of men.  At the same time, many of the other characters also experience major growth over the course of the series.  I strongly suspect that I did not appreciate this aspect of the plot when I first read these as a child.  On the other hand, when I read them in college I was struggling with my own identity and they really resonated.  While they felt a bit juvenile, I still found many themes and ideas that matched up with what I was going through at the time.

As I’ve reread the series since then, I still always find that I relate to the boy struggling to become a man.  Perhaps someday I’ll find myself at a place where I feel like I’ve finally proven myself in every single aspect of my life, but until then I’ll always have Prydain.


About Stephen

Stephen Olson teaches math at North Layton Junior High. When not teaching math, he polices the halls and library of his school, ensuring that students partake of only the best reading material. On the rare occasions he finds himself away from school, Stephen reads, writes, and writes about reading. You can follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Rachel Bradford says:

    This was a cute series, wasn’t it? 🙂

  2. I read The Book of Three a few months ago and loved it. It’s good to reread because you discover things you didn’t notice before and sometimes that helps to you appreciate the story more. I would like to reread this in a few years to see if my opinions of it has changed.

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