Aug 29 2013 12:00pm

Exploring the meaning of heroism: The Book of Three

Lloyd Alexander Book of Three Chronicles of PrydianLloyd Alexander’s wartime training in Wales during World War II failed to do the usual things expected of wartime training: turn him into a capable soldier or give him that much respect for military commanders. That lack of respect was a theme that was to persist throughout his children’s fiction. But it at least served to introduce him to a country and a mythology that became a later obsession. Eventually, that obsession would lead him to create the imaginary Prydain, loosely based on Welsh mythology, and the setting for his Chronicles of Prydain, the story of Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran, which starts in The Book of Three.

Taran is not exactly the most promising of heroes in the book’s opening chapters, and his two mentors, Dallben, a very very old man (379 years old, our first hint that this series will definitely be treading on fantastic and mythical grounds) and Coll, of uncertain age, are beginning to be a touch impatient with him. The two men are attempting to train Taran to be wise, wary, useful and above all, alive. It’s not going well: Taran is admittedly enthralled with Dallben’s stories of heroes and in particular of Arawn, King of the Dead, in a moment that conveniently allows Alexander to do an impressive amount of info-dumping in just a few short pages. But, desperate to become a hero himself—just like Lord Gwydion, his particular favorite—Taran is considerably less interested in the lesser things of life: learning blacksmithing and taking care of pigs. He is equally unimpressed with the job title Coll gives him—Assistant Pig-Keeper—since it’s hardly a heroic sort of title. Even knowing that Hen Wen is no ordinary pig (she can predict the future) doesn’t improve the job much, especially after Taran loses the pig almost immediately.

It’s not entirely his fault: as Dallben has suspected, various Magical Things are happening, and Hen Wen, a very sensible pig, has decided to make a run for it. Taran chases after her. And because this is a fantasy, he just happens to run into His Hero, Gwydion Son of Don. It’s not a great meeting: Gwydion doesn’t really look like a hero, or like the descriptions of him, and Taran is, well, Taran. Matters don’t improve when Taran shows that he has still learned nothing about little things like, well, following directions, mentioning that he doesn’t know how to swim, assuming that just flopping in water will be enough to teach him how to swim, refusing to flee when confronted with some terrifying Cauldron-Born and ordered to “Fly” (I’d have been out of there even before Gwydion gave the order), and so on. Gwydion’s true heroism is that he puts up with this.

That isn’t enough, however, to keep Taran from getting imprisoned by the lovely and extremely bad-tempered Achren, a sorceress who likes to whip her prisoners—something Taran is just not up to handling on his own. Fortunately, he’s soon joined by the very talkative and practical Eilonwy, who has been studying enchantments under Achren; Fflewddur Fflam Son of Godo, a former king who didn’t much enjoy being a king, and who is now trying to be a bard, whose tiniest bits of exaggeration are somewhat hampered by his magical harp; and Gurgi, a sort of half-human, half-animal creature who can’t quite figure out what he is. Departed Gwydion or no departed Gwydion, Taran still has an enchanted pig to find, and several lessons to learn about heroism. Oh, and to meet a dwarf with real problems: unlike the rest of his family, he can’t turn invisible at will. I sympathize.

The arrival of these characters also shifts the dialogue from a strong Ye Olde Medieval tendency to something considerably more entertaining and distinct, particularly with Eilonwy, who never hesitates to speak her mind or tell Taran just how much he’s screwing up or not thinking things through (Taran being Taran, this happens every couple of pages) and Fflewddur, a character type Alexander ended up liking so much, he used something similar in almost every single one of his later books. Both are right on the edge of being irritating—you’d think Fflewddur would have learned something by now, or at least not be able to afford more harp strings. Eilonwy is right almost entirely too often, something that could get irritating, but this is softened by her very real irritation at not being taken seriously because of her gender. I particularly liked her insistence that the others treat her as a person, not a girl, her refusal to be sent away by Taran, and her ability to smack down Taran when she disagrees with the way he speaks with her. It helps that she somehow manages to do this with a lot of charm. These characters also help keep the book grounded, key for a story rooted in high myth that also wants to teach the hero that real heroism is found in the journey, not the destination, and that heroes do not always look like heroes, and what looks like bravery might just be really, really bad thinking.

Naturally, the book ends with Taran Learning Important Lessons, including, but not limited to, if the girl who has been studying enchantments tells you not to take the magical sword out of its magical scabbard, don’t take the magical sword out of its magical scabbard, and what Real Heroism Is. If I suspect the bit about the sword and the scabbard was more a convenient way for Alexander to get out of writing a battle scene, it still works quite well with the overall book, and provides a solid moment or two of terror. Speaking of terror, some of the bits might be a bit too intense for younger children—people get burned alive and so on, which I thought was great when I was ten but might be a bit much for some young readers.

The book also ends with some Unanswered Questions, such as, Who is Taran, really (various characters hint here and there that the answer is not “Assistant Pig-Keeper,”) and Are the Bad Guys Really Dead (I’m guessing no) and What’s With This Book of Three Anyway Since It’s In the Title, But Barely In the Plot? It’s enough to make readers want to hunt down the next book.

Mari Ness firmly believes that wannabe heroes should not take swords out of scabbards if they are specifically told not to take swords out of scabbards. She lives in central Florida.

Rob Munnelly
1. RobMRobM
This was, by far, my favorite fantasy series as a kid. Received it as a gift while I had a hospital stay in third grade, read it, loved it, re-read it periodically, read this volume out loud to my kids when they were little. (Note - the next book is incredibly dark and not suitable to young kids at all - even more than Bo3. I tried reading it to them and gave up most of the way through.)
Colleen Palmer
2. arianrose
I am so excited that you're doing the Prydain chronicles! They've long been favorites of mine.
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
These are great. Growing up on a farm, I could well relate to Taran's initial notion that being an Assistant Pig Keeper was maybe not the lifelong career he wanted. Of course, non of our pigs were oracles as far as I knew.
Peter Czyzewski
4. sebastianelgar
This was the series that got my started reading fantasy and science fiction. Though I did start with The High King, as that was what was in my teacher's book shelf to pick from.
5. DaveMB
The Prydain books, not to mention everything else by Alexander, are absolutely the best kid's books to read aloud. Every character has a distinctive voice, with lots of textual cues to give it to the reader. (I don't know whether Alexander meant Doli to sound as much like Bob Dole as I do him, but it works...)

I nominate the Vesper Holly series for the next reread after Prydain...
Fake Name
6. ThePendragon
This is it, my first Fantasy series. This is the one that started me on my long trek through hundreds of other great books and dozens of other great series. I still love them to this very day, and re-read them recently. Oddly, I never thought to look up any of his other work. I'm gonna go do that now.
7. MaraLynn
A childhood favorite of mine! My dad read them all to me, with appropriate Gurgi voices..etc, and I handed them to any boyfriends as a test through HS and college. Actually, if I had been a boy, my name would have been Taran.
8. lach7
I too dug into this series in 6th or 7th grade and absolutely loved them. I remember the journey of this character as something I could strongly relate to. Glad you're reviewing these!
David Levinson
9. DemetriosX
I didn't discover this series until I was in college, but I fell in love with it. (Of course, I was already interested in Welsh mythology, so that helped.) In a lot of ways, this is the weakest in the series, but I'm really looking forward to the rest.
10. Angiportus
Is this the one that had that detail about a huntsman whose horn had harmonics that could drive a listener insane? I thought it was just an eerie conception when young, but later decades of putting up with pop singers/rock singers who sound like a cat with its tail caught in a disposal, have caused me to consider this one rather plausible.
11. Chicory
Love this series so much. I agree with Demetrios that this is the weak book in the series, but I think the strength of the Prydain Chronicles is the way the books build on each other. This is the one that, when I look at it by itself I go `that climax didn't exist!' but when I put it with the other books the ending fits so well thematically.
Brent Longstaff
12. Brentus
I loved these books when I read them in first grade. I should re-read them. I remember reading the first phrase "Taran wanted to make a sword" and immediately feeling that this was someone I could relate to.
13. Steve Roby's other alias
I've been thinking about rereading these for years now. I read them all at least a couple times each when I was a kid, but that was 1974 or so. And I just reread some Alan Garner, another fave circa 1974, so the time may be just about here.

The funny thing about the books is that when I come across references or reminders they sound kind of silly, what with the pig and all. Then I remember how grim some of them seemed to be. Yeah, I should get started before this Tor reread is over...
14. BethS
Lloyd Alexander is still one of my favorite authors! I dug up some old, jotted-down notes from my last reread, and I'm laughing at how similar they are to the points enumerated here - from the way Eilonwy never grates on the nerves, which is surprising, to the still chilling (even past childhood) Horned King's battle dance. And I love reading novels in which the protagonists are allowed to make mistakes.
15. lindenfoxcub
I'd love to see a re-read of the Westmark Trilogy - that one was my favourite by Lloyd Alexander.
16. goldengirl
Lloyd Alexander is one of my favorite authors. The Chronicles of Prydain was my first fantasy series, and one of the things that influenced my "future career goals" in high school :D Having recently re-read them (yet again), I did find myself getting a little annoyed with how often Eilonwy was right and the many times that Flewddur lied. But even now, despite getting older, I still shudder and get a chill when I read about the Cauldron Born, and I'll admit, sometimes I still dream that I could be in that world. :)
17. daventor
I read "The Book of Three" and "The Black Cauldron" when I was little but never got around to finishing the rest of the series. I just started rereading it again and have literally just finished my reread of "The Book of Three." I did enjoy it alot, and found the ending scenes particularly lovely.

But I have to say that I did find Eilonwy very grating. It's not the "always being right" part; it's the fact that she's constantly insulting Taran. She can't make one comment to him without putting him down as a foolish assistant pig-keeper (that's an exaggeration, but not by much). She does this all blithely unaware of how rude she's being to him, seemingly never thinking that maybe it's mean to constantly tell somebody they're stupid and expressing suprise if they ever get something right.

Then when Taran makes some very kind and respectful remarks to her, complimenting her on the spell she tried on some cauldronborn, calling her brave and admitting he could not have gotten far on his quest without her help, she becomes offended at him, claiming he doesn't really care about her. I think the scene was intended to be one of those funny men-are-from-mars-women-are-from-venus scenes, but all it did was make me seriously annoyed at her character.

Taran does do some offensive things and makes a lot of mistakes- swinging his sword at her and calling her a traitor when he realizes she didn't free Gwydion; disregarding Medwyn's instructions and Eilonwy's advice for travel in the mountains, for example. But he does show real growth and humility over the course of the book and does not deserve constant verbal abuse from Eilonwy. I hope her character evolves over the course of the novels because she sure did not endear herself to me in the first book.
18. Dr. Thanatos
Also one of my favorites. I think that this book was stronger than #4 as a read, although #4 was more important in terms of character development.

My absolute favorite part as a kid is when Taran is promoted to Assistant Pig-Keeper; finds out he has the exact same job description, but now he has an important-sounding title.

Not an uncommon occurrance in adult life...
Rob Munnelly
19. RobMRobM
I've always viewed #3 as the weakest one. I'd probably rank 5, 2, 1, 4, 3. Final book is sublime. No. 2 (Black Cauldron) is legitimately scary and really made clear this is not just another lighthearted fantasy series.

Note - still can't believe that Disney made BC into an awful movie, the last big failure before the string of greatness starting with Little Mermaid. What were they thinking about a kids movie centered around dead soldiers being brought back to life as unkillable soldiers for the Lord of Evil??
Genevieve Williams
20. welltemperedwriter
I tended to chalk up Eilonwy's behavior to having been brought up by Achren, though it probably also helped that the first of these books I read was "The Black Cauldron," where she's both more mature and more supportive (given how dark the book is I don't see how Alexander could have written her otherwise).

These books launched my interest in Welsh mythology and I've read several versions of the Mabinogion, including the novelizations by Evangeline Walton which I highly recommend. One thing you discover is that the way these characters appear in Welsh myth, Arawn especially, are pretty different from how they appear here. (I also wish Alexander had included more Welsh female mythological figures. Of the men he has Arawn, Math, Gwydion, and Gwyn, but no women. The three witches are borrowed from a distinct albeit related mythos.)
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
21. Lisamarie
I read these books during a road trip to Wyoming while I was in college - it's been awhile, but I remember enjoying them and the last book making me a little teary. But I'll admit I'm a bit fuzzy on the details!

Also, as an aside, I totally loved the Disney Black Cauldron movie as a child - this was well before I'd read the books. I think I was in middle school whwen I first saw it, and I liked Eilonwy's character, and I thought it was definitely a bit different from the other movies I was used to (no songs, a bit darker). But I basically just view the book and movie as completely separate things, and when I bought the books I knew that they were pretty different from the movie so I didn't have any preconceived notions in that regard.
Melissa Shumake
22. cherie_2137
gosh, i remember very little about these books except that i enjoyed them as a kid. must be time to pick up a copy. do they sell omnibus editions?
Brian R
23. Mayhem
I have great memories of these as a child, and was pleased to see they still stand up well on a reread with adult eyes.

Westmark on the other hand was disturbing as a teenager, and even more so with modern eyes. Great books, but not soft going!
24. Savenra
This takes me back to holidays at my nan's house curled up near the fire reading The Chronicles of Prydain. I loved them then and love them still.
Birgit F
25. birgit
I have a boxed set, but that's in German, I don't know about English editions.
jon meltzer
26. jmeltzer
Peter David has a column somewhere about Eilonwy crashing the Disney Princesses meeting.

(And remember, people, Taran's not the only one that needs to grow up. )
Rob Munnelly
27. RobMRobM
@22 - I received them as a boxed 5 book set way back in the early 1970s. No idea how they are marketed now.
Mari Ness
28. MariCats
Hi everyone!

Wow, this got a lot more comments than I expected. I have just gotten back from Worldcon and I am too tired to respond intelligently to all of these awesome comments, but I will try to be more coherent in future posts.

To answer one question, though, yes: has very kindly said that I can cover the Westmark Trilogy and the Vesper Holly books so rereads of those are forthcoming, along with rereads of some of Alexander's stand alone books, many of which are really hilarious.
Michael Poteet
29. MikePoteet
"if the girl who has been studying enchantments tells you not to take the magical sword out of its magical scabbard, don’t take the magical sword out of its magical scabbard" -- Ha! So true. The relationship between Taran and Eilonwy is one of the reasons I love this series so much. It feels real, especially as it grows during the course of the books.

I must confess I don't know Alexander's other works... your re-reads will be the impetus I need to check them out!

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