Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Childhood Reading and the Grand Fantasy Tradition

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 38
Lloyd Alexander, The Book of Three

Taran, an orphaned apprentice, dreams of valor and glory in battle. But Dallben, his wise and immensely elderly mentor, dismisses war’s supposed grandeur; Taran should look after Dallben’s beloved Oracular Pig. When forces of Annuvin, Land of Death, abduct Dallben’s pig, headstrong Taran pursues the kidnappers into the wild. What Taran discovers opens his prospects for worldly greatness, but shatters his illusions about what greatness means.

Lloyd Alexander, who trained in Army counter-intelligence in Wales during World War II, brought a lifelong fondness for the region’s history, mythology, land, and language to his Philadelphia home after the war. His writings draw heavily on The Mabinogion, a collection of anonymous bardic tales recounting the people’s mythic history, and many names and stories recur directly in Alexander’s writing. He heavily repurposes them, however, for his own narrative mission.

Venturing into the Kingdom of Prydain’s savage wilderness, Taran arrogantly assumes his natural prowess will return Dallben’s pig quickly, earning him the recognition and adulthood he deserves. A wandering prince shows provides Taran’s first lesson: heroism happens, not all at once, nor simply as it appears in tales. Prince Gwydion, rough-hewn and more-than-slightly dangerous, demonstrates that heroism is work. In Prydain, heroes are made by their actions.

In the classic fantasy tradition, Taran and his royal mentor quickly accrue a cadre of heroes to pursue their goal. Eilonwy, a displaced princess, and Gurgi, a strange creature of unclear provenance (it may be a feral child), uncork deeper reservoirs of Taran’s character. Eilonwy encourages Taran to pursue nobility of character, while Gurgi, crafty but snivelling, teaches Taran compassion. Together, they crisscross Prydain pursuing unmatched, but strangely faceless, evil.

One other hero serves deeper purposes. Though Fflewddur Fflam certainly contributes to Taran’s heroism, but as an apprentice bard, he also carries the importance of stories into Taran’s epic. Drawn from the great Celtic oral mythology, Taran’s tale is its own story, naturally, but also relies on stories to create a people. The heroes share stories, which construct bastions against the narratives of despair Annuvin thrusts against noble, impoverished Prydain.

Joseph Campbell identified the rugged journey, one that passes through Death’s domain and returns to society transformed, as humanity’s primordial ur-myth. Storytellers from Homer to Tolkein and George Lucas to Michael Bey have utilized rugged journeys for entertainment, enlightenment, and establishing an identity as a people. The rugged journey, once endured, must be shared to achieve fulfillment. Fflewddur Fflam, as Alexander’s partial surrogate, accomplishes this goal.

The Chronicles of Prydain, the collective name for Alexander’s five books and one short story collection which begins with this novel, create the national mythology of a distant land. Like The Kalevala or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it establishes the greatness and struggle that bind a people. But like Tolkien, Alexander creates the mythology for a nation that doesn’t exist. Prydain isn’t one place; thus, we’re all citizens for our will to appear.

Therefore, viewing Alexander’s manifold award-winning novels as merely didactic (as his multiple Newberry Award nominations and wins implies) or merely entertaining, misses their point. As a child, meeting peers who’d read Alexander’s novels provided an immediate bond. When another kid knew Prydain as intimately as me, we recognized shared experiences that weren’t yoked to our life experiences. We had, somehow, undertaken Taran’s journey together.

Children will pull curtains off walls, make helmets of kitchen saucepans, and reenact key moments of favorite novels, because to us, these aren’t stories of something happening “over there.” Having this shared story behind us unifies children, bereft of life experience, in ways adult reading will never recapture. Grown-ups may thrill at witnessing adventures by James Bond or Ellen Ripley, but they aren’t ours as Taran, Frodo, or even Anne Shirley are ours.

Readers will recognize many images that pervade fantasy. Taran and his band fight together against Annuvin, a blighted, rocky, lifeless land of ineluctable moral absolutes. Our heroes risk everything to confront Death on its native territory. Alexander’s pentalogy debuted a decade after The Lord of the Rings, but as Tolkien’s work wasn’t initially hailed a transnational classic, it’s impossible to say how thoroughly Tolkien influenced Alexander.

Back in 1983, before Amazon made every book ever published instantly available, Scholastic Book Club circulars offered lonely children who considered themselves outcasts (and didn’t we all, at least occasionally?) instant friends through the intimacy of books. Those of us old enough to remember that time will recall this series, a Book Club staple. We’ve spent decades since, struggling to regain that transcendent joy.

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