As Lloyd Alexander carefully explains, it’s not that Lukas, also called Kasha, exactly lacks virtues. For instance, Lukas is frugal enough to let a single holiday last an entire year, which is a memorable sort of achievement. He is also skilled at avoiding job offers, even a very reasonable apprenticeship from Nicholas the carpenter, training that might even lead to becoming the town carpenter. This sort of avoidance ends up at the town square with a trained ape and a magician called Battisto, who with an inexplicable bit of magic sends Lukas off to explore the second of The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, which, in pure Alexander style, turns out to be a frothy adventure.
This is another one of those books which I can’t describe or discuss without massively spoiling the ending, so fair waring: massive spoilers for the ending.
In this second life, Lukas, thanks to what I have to admit is not exactly the most credible prophecy (it comes from the Court Astrologer, who has been spectacularly wrong on previous occasions), now finds himself King of Abadan. He is immediately assured that he doesn’t have to do that much in this new job, which initially turns out, surprisingly enough, to be completely true, if you don’t count eating, changing clothes, and wandering aimlessly in beautifully kept gardens. It’s a lovely life. About the only thing Lukas does do at first is interest himself in the fate of Nur-Jehan, a bandit girl captured and turned into a slave on the same day that Lukas became king.
Eventually, however, even Lukas finds himself gaining a slow if resentful interest in the kingdom he is supposedly in charge of. This includes interfering in the just execution of one Kayim, best known for writing seditious verse about the king and his advisors. Lukas, finding Kayim terribly funny, commutes the sentence and hires Kayim instead. It also includes discovering that his Grand Vizier is planning a war against the neighboring country of Bishangari. Lukas is not enthusiastic about this, on the basis that war gets a lot of people killed (here unquestionably echoing the beliefs of his author, who had not enjoyed his part in World War II). Unfortunately, as Lukas discovers, stopping a war requires work. Actual work. And knowledge. And in the meantime he has to flee the capital before someone kills him—taking Nur-Jehan and Kayim with him, of course—somehow warn the other kingdom, and return to get his own kingdom in order. This is now a LOT of work.
The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha features many of Alexander’s familiar character types: the untrustworthy politicians, the cheerful bard/poet who can help the hero along his path, the fierce and brave girl who starts off with a poor opinion of the hero, but slowly grows to trust him. Once again, the final ruler comes from a humble background, which helps him have empathy for ordinary people—and to see just how screwed up laws can get when said laws are created by those lacking that background and empathy. And, as always, Alexander is more interested in the journey than the destination. (This was never to change.)
But The First Two Lives also makes a few major changes. First, and arguably most importantly, in The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, Alexander turns his trickster character, almost always the sidekick, into the hero. Oh, certainly, Alexander had used flawed heroes before, but Lukas goes far beyond that: actively avoiding work, fleeing at the first hint of trouble, and using trickery rather than violence, bravery, or honesty to get what he needs. Indeed, he’s worked this up to an art form, to the point where he even manages to trick someone out of a horse, and trick two rival armies into not fighting. As it turns out, life as a lazy trickster is an excellent preparation for kingship. (Alexander’s contempt for authority figures continues to shine through this book.)
Not only does this serve the plot, but as a narrative technique, turning the lazy into the hero turns out to be both wish-fulfillment and realistic all at once. After all, what would most people—and most kids—do when given the chance to do nothing but eat, laze around, wear great clothes and be entertained all day? Exactly what Lukas does. And what would most people do after hearing that someone planned to killed them? Run. Lukas does just that, and this act of cowardice is what allows him to save his kingdom and later teach a queen alternative approaches to war. Lukas is a hero because he is a trickster and a coward.
Second, because the entire story is a trick. On Lukas. And to a lesser extent, on readers.
I say lesser extent, because if you are reading carefully, Alexander spells this out explicitly at the beginning of the book, with occasional reminders here and there for readers too caught up in the story. And follows that explicit statement up by allowing Lukas’ story to proceed smoothly—suspiciously smoothly, at that. It’s not just that Lukas just happens to meet all of the conditions for a very fake prophecy, and just happens to meet the very person he needs to meet to stop both wars, and just happens to send a bag of gold to someone who later on just happens to be at a caravan where Lukas and his friends are hiding who can just happen to be able to convince the soldiers searching for Lukas—ok, yes, it’s a lot of coincidences given the insistence that No, No, no destiny working here whatsoever. Or prophecies. Definitely no prophecies. But Lukas also achieves his almost final goal with uncanny ease.
And yet, the book ends not quite with Lukas triumphing at last and marrying the queen, as readers would expect, but rather, with Lucas finding out that it was all a trick. Or a dream.
Ordinarily, I hate this narrative tactic, even when I’ve used it myself. (Don’t even ask me about a certain scene in Dallas. Don’t even.) Here, I think it rather works, because unlike a certain scene in a certain shower, it has a better explanation than “We decided we needed that actor back and couldn’t think of another way to do it even though we are a ridiculous soap opera that could have said ‘Wow, plastic surgery really works WONDERS, doesn’t it?’ and gone on from there.” Ok, Alexander’s handwave of “magic” is not a tremendous improvement, but I’m willing to accept that at least in Alexander’s world, magic can make such vivid dreams at least seem to happen.
Second, it works because, again unlike a certain shower scene, the experience does change Lukas. Oh, sure, on the surface he’s back exactly where he was, with the only visible difference a face and hair somewhat wetter from getting soaked. But he now has a sense of something more—and for the first time in his life, he has a profession: storyteller.
It’s impossible not to read this as a parallel to Lloyd Alexander’s life: after, by his own account, spending most of his time in his imagination and failing at “real world” jobs, he had turned those imaginative experiences into a career. And impossible not to read the book as general advice to young readers. Wander in stories enough, in your imagination enough, or at least believe in magic, and you may, indeed, not just find yourself in an amazing adventure—but even find yourself doing something you never really dreamed could happen, Lloyd Alexander declares. And who would know better than he would?
You really shouldn’t ask Mari Ness about that shower scene in Dallas. She is still working on her recovery in her home in central Florida.