Saturday, July 07, 2007

R.I.P. Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007)

From The Book of Three (1964)
Taran wanted to make a sword, but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long.
With those utterly straightforward, yet evocative lines--surely one of the best openings of any children's book--Lloyd Alexander began his Chronicles of Prydain, a five-book series aimed at young adults that wove the Mabinogion and other Welsh myths with Alexander's own inventions into a fantastic, heroic, exciting tale that's the equal of any children's story I know. Alexander died back in May at age 83, though I just learned about his death from Ed at the Dizzies, and obituaries are still appearing now. He leaves behind more than thirty-five books for children, the writing of which he described as "the most creative and liberating experience of my life."

Looking back, my discovery of Alexander in fourth grade seems perfectly emblematic of the experience of childhood reading. I bought The High King (1968), the final volume of the Prydain Chronicles, at a Scholastic Book Fair, seduced as much by the Newbery Medal logo as by the swords and monsters on the cover. I devoured it, astonished, then read it again while waiting for the remaining volumes to be sent to my local library through the regional library system.

When they finally arrived, they didn't disappoint. This was storytelling of a wholly different caliber than I, having previously subsisted mostly on the Hardy Boys, had ever encountered. There were real dangers in Prydain, real values--compassion, care, kindness, and, most of all, bravery and heroism--at stake, and there were real consequences to the characters' actions, good and bad. I think the Prydain Chronicles may have been the first books I read where all the members of the heroes' party weren't there to celebrate at the end. As Alexander's hero, Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper, puts it in The Black Cauldron (1965):
"It is strange," he said at last. "I had longed to enter the world of men. Now I see it filled with sorrow, with cruelty and treachery, with those who would destroy all around them."
But even as Alexander was making that more clear than it had been to me up to that point, he never went long without a reminder of the good that also graces the world. Taran's worries lead his friend and mentor Lord Gwydion to reply:
"Yet, enter it you must," Gwydion answered, "for it is a destiny laid on each of us. True, you have seen these things. But there are equal parts of love and joy."
As fun and surprising as Alexander's inventive fantasy can be, it is that ability to mix sorrow with joy, excruciatingly difficult trials with moments of sweet fellowship, failure with success, that lifts the Prydain Chronicles to the highest echelon of children's literature; despite not explicitly teaching lessons or linking Taran's struggles to our own, the books cannot help but enlarge a child's understanding, empathy, and self-knowledge. Alexander himself hints at that in the last lines of his introduction to The Book of Three:
The Chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy. Such things never happen in real life. Or do they? Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we believe 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.

Though the Prydain books were Alexander's crowning achievement, I read most of his other books multiple times as well. The Westmark Trilogy, a mostly realistic trilogy set in a vaguely eighteenth-century Europe, tells the dramatic tale of a revolt against corrupt monarchical and religious authority, along the way advancing arguments for individual liberty and the importance of being willing to fight for what one believes in. I checked all three out of the Carmi Public Library multiple times; the third volume, The Beggar Queen (1984), is the first book whose publication I remember anxiously awaiting.

Even some of Alexander's less ambitious, stand-alone novels are well worth remembering. One that I still recall fondly is Time Cat (1963), which undertakes to explain why it is that we attribute nine lives to cats. It turns out that cats are natural time travelers, allowed nine times in their lives to enter different eras and places--which also explains where cats are those many times when, despite turning the house upside down, you can't find them.

If you're looking for books to put in the hands of the kids in your life, you really can't go wrong with Lloyd Alexander. There's little higher praise in my book.

From Taran Wanderer (1967)
"I have the sword I fashioned," Taran proudly cried, "the cloak I wove, and the bowl I shaped. And the friendship of those in the fairest land of Prydain. No man can find greater treasure."

Melynlas pawed the ground, impatient, and Taran gave the stallion rein.

Thus Taran rode from Merin with Gurgi at his side.

And as he did, it seemed he could hear voices calling to him. "Remember us! Remember us!" He turned once, but Merin was far behind and out of sight. From the hills a wind had risen, driving the scattered leaves before it, bearing homeward to Caer Dallben. Taran followed it.

Rest in peace, Lloyd Alexander. Your tale is told. As the bards used to say at the close of each story in the Mabinogion:
And thus ends this branch of the Mabinogion.


  1. That *is* an awesome first sentence, I had forgotten that one. However I have yet to see a children's book first sentence that can go up against Charlotte's Web's "Where's Papa going with that ax?"

  2. I'm sad to say that I read "The Book of Three" for 7th or perhaps 8th grade English class, and all I remember about the whole experience is that Danyel "Binky" Mendoza did a report on the book from the point of view of Hen Wen, which meant she was up in front of the class wearing a pig nose. (I drew a map, which was another option.)

  3. I guess I never got around to reading his books as a kid, although I did read Susan Cooper's series that starts with "The Dark is Rising" and also weaves in a lot of Welsh folklore. "The Grey King" in that series was also a Newbery award winner. I wonder if that author is still alive...