Recent Book Reviews
A bold adventure into realms unknown
2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Like such other classic works as The Lord of the Rings, and the Chronicles of Narnia, the Prydain novels are often one of the first fantasy series that young readers approach. Easily accessible to a younger audience and rooted in concepts borrowed from Welsh mythology, the series still stand as a gripping and exciting read, well worth one’s time.
The Prydain Chronicles
The series spans five books: The Book of Three (1964), The Black Cauldron (1965, winner of a 1966 Newbery Honor), The Castle of Llyr (1966), Taran Wanderer (1967), and The High King (1968, and 1969 Newbery Medal Winner).
Together they tell the tale of Taran, Assistant Pigkeeper of Caer Calldin, and his journey to become an epic hero. Starting as a young boy dreaming of adventure, Taran and his companions travel across the world of Prydain (an analogue of medieval Wales), fighting the forces of Arwan Death Lord, an evil sorcerer bent on conquering the world. Taran has many adventures, and grows from a simple commoner into a hero and leader.
The Prydain Chronicles are an example of a literary genre called the bildungsroman (from the German for novel of formation/education/culture). The bildungsroman is any tale of the journey of a protagonist from youth/adolescence to adulthood as they mature through their experiences in a broader world. The modern day equivalent of this genre is the coming of age story. The first novel of this type is generally considered to be Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, but other famous examples included Candide by Voltaire, and The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman by Sterene. More importantly, for purposes of our discussion, many of the classic novels of fantasy have followed this pattern of the lowly (insert profession here) person who overcomes all obstacles and saves the world, while being molded by his experiences into a wiser adult.
Lloyd Alexander based much of the geography and culture of Prydain on the country of Wales, which he experienced during his service with the Allied forces in World War II. There he learned about The Mabinogion, the name for the great mythological epic of the Welsh. The Chronicles of Prydain borrow elements, themes, and characters, from The Mabinogion, but does not retell the myth itself.
The Mabinogion consists of stories collected from eleven Welsh manuscripts written in the Middle Ages, and includes tales of epic heroes, Arthurian knights, and legendary creatures and artifacts (like a cauldron that raises the dead). For those interested in a more literary take on The Mabinogion, Evangeline Walton wrote a series of novels retelling the tales in prose form: The Island of the Mighty (1936), The Children of Llyr (1971), The Song of Rhiannon (1972, but sadly lacking in Fleetwood Mac), and Prince of Annwn (1974).
Walt Disney’s The Black Cauldron
There is a film version of The Prydain Chronicles. In 1985, Disney released The Black Cauldron, a film based on the first two novels of the series. Darker in tone then the average Disney animated movies that had been released before, and being the first Disney animated film to be rate PG for parental guidance it failed at the box office, and was generally dismissed by critics. Although Disney has released the movie on DVD several times, there are few mentions of it in any of the Disney parks or in merchandising. It is not a bad movie, just wildly different from the books it is based on.
There are a number of other works that explore aspects of mythology from the United Kingdom, or epic fantasy bildungsroman.
The Shadow Chronicles
Following upon the ideas and characters from the motion picture Willow, George Lucas produced an outline, and with writer Chris Claremont created a series of novels called The Shadow Chronicles. Consisting of Shadow Moon (1995), Shadow Dawn (1996), and Shadow Star (2000), these novels tell the tale of a now teenaged Elora Danan protecting her homeland from the forces of darkness.
Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising Sequence
Mixing lore and themes from the history of Great Britain, Susan Cooper wrote The Dark is Rising Sequence. The story focuses on Will Stanton the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son as a young adult chosen to be the warrior of the light, and his battles against the forces of darkness, in both past and contemporary Great Britain. There are five novels in the series:
Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), The Dark is Rising (1973, Newbery Honor 1974), Green Witch (1974), The Grey King (1975, Newbery Award Winner 1976), and Silver on the Tree (1977).
There is a movie version. The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (2007) Directed by John Cunningham, and starring Alexander Ludwig, Christopher Eccleston, and Ian McShane. Based upon the second book in the series it takes a number of liberties with the plot and characters, and cuts out many of the connections to British folklore. It did not do well at the box office, and was not well received by critics.
Fantasy novels that feature young protagonists, such as The Prydain Chronicles, serve as great way to hook young readers on the genre. The Prydain Chronicles represent an alternative to other classics of fantasy and might make an excellent first work for those unsure if fantasy is to their taste. Additionally the books might inspire the inquiring to investigate Welsh mythology and The Mabinogion for themselves. Whatever the case, The Prydain Chronicles are sure to remain a classic for a long time to come.