The Prydain Chronicles by Alexander Lloyd are well-known children’s classics, but somehow I had never heard of them until the last few years. I saw them mentioned favorably at various blogs, so when I saw the first three books either on sale or free (I forget which) for the Kindle app, I got them.
The first in the five part series is The Book of Three. Young Taran lives with a retired soldier named Coll and an old “enchanter” named Dallben. He has ambitions to do great, heroic things, but in the meantime he is made Assistant Pig-Keeper. The pig he is charged with keeping is not just any old farm pig, however: this one, called Hen Wen, is a white oracular pig: she can tell prophesies and help information come to light. Taran fails at his first major responsibility when Hen Wen runs away. He sets out to find her even though he has been told not to leave the farm.
While searching for the pig, Taran is startled to see the dreaded Horned King, the champion of Arawn Death-Lord ride by with his soldiers. One throws a sword at him which wounds him, but not fatally. After running for his life and passing out, he awakens to find his wounds being treated by none other than Prince Gwydion in disguise.
Gwydion and Taran face unexpected battle and are captured. Taran escapes but is sure that Gwydion has died when the castle where they were held collapses. He decides he must go to warn the king of the advancing army of the Horned King. Along the way he is joined by a minor king named Fflewddur Fflam who is moonlighting as a bard and whose harp strings break whenever he stretches the truth, Princess Eilonwy, who talks a lot and has been learning magic, and Gurgi, sort of between man and beast who refers to himself in the third person and speaks in rhymes (“crunchings are munchings,” his reference to food,””sneakings and peekings,” “smackings and whackings,” etc.).
In his quest Taran has to come face to face with his own shortcomings and learn that heroism is not only not easy, but it isn’t always displayed in mighty public acts.
The books are somewhat loosely based on Welsh mythology (with which I am not familiar). The author grew to love the land and language of Wales when he was stationed there during WWII while in the army.
A few of the notable quotes from the book:
“Neither refuse to give help when it is needed,… nor refuse to accept it when it is offered.”
“It is not the trappings that make the prince, nor, indeed, the sword that makes the warrior.”
“I have studied the race of men. I have seen that alone you stand as weak reeds by a lake. You must learn to help yourselves, that is true; but you must also learn to help one another.”
I enjoyed some of the humor in the story, such as this exchange:
“By all means,” cried the bard, his eyes lighting up. “A Fflam to the rescue! Storm the castle! Carry it by assault! Batter down the gates!”
“There’s not much of it left to storm,” said Eilonwy.
“Oh?” said Fflewddur, with disappointment. “Very well, we shall do the best we can.”
I have to admit it took me a while to get into the story, and I didn’t like it at first. I didn’t really care for the princess: I hate when girls continually take things said in innocence and twist them around to mean something else and get offended by them, and the princess here did that quite a lot. Then again, she is young as well, so possibly her maturing will come about in one of the next books. I thought the idea of an oracular pig was silly, and the story seemed to resemble The Lord of the Rings a little too closely in the beginning with the undead Cauldron Born soldiers a little too similar to the Ring Wraiths, and Gurgi sounding very much like Gollum. As the story went on, however, Gurgi developed into quite a different personality than Gollum and the story took on its own direction and feel.
I do like coming of age “quest” stories where the protagonist has to reach beyond his abilities and learn about himself and life in the process, and this story fits that bill nicely. The author says in his after-word, “Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we can do. Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart.”
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)