Lloyd 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.