Taran Wanderer: Thought-provoking, timeless

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsreview Lloyd Alexander Chronicles of Prydain 4. Taran WandererTaran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

In many ways, this fourth book in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain is the odd one out. It is the only story that does not pit our characters against the forces of supernatural evil (well, except in one small instance). It is the only installment in which Princess Elionwy is completely absent. It is the only story that has no clear destination in its quest narrative. Even the title is a little different, lacking the usual “The” before the noun.

Rather than pitting the forces of good against evil, Taran Wanderer is about the journey of self-discovery, making it a much steadier-paced, introspective book. Although some readers may feel that it’s less exciting than the preceding books, discerning children will find many hidden rewards here. The core of this series has always been the growth of Taran from a somewhat foolish, hapless boy into a man, and with each consecutive book he learns a little more about himself and the world around him. Taran Wanderer is the book in which Taran fully steps into manhood.

With the intention to ask Princess Elionwy to marry him when she returns from her training on the Isle of Mona, Taran desires to learn more about his heritage. Having never known his parents, he harbors a secret wish that he has noble-blood in his veins, and on gaining Dallben’s permission, he sets out to discover the identity of his parents and find his place in the world. His only companion is the faithful Gurgi; not-quite-a-man, not-quite-an-animal, and best described as a benevolent version of Gollum.

On his travels he learns of the mysterious Mirror of Llunet which is said to show the true self of anyone who stares into it. With this as his somewhat vague goal, Taran heads out into the world. What follows is not so much a single overarching story, but a series of encounters and problems in which Taran has to solve with his wit, compassion, bravery, common sense, and only occasionally his physical strength. From feuding lords to evil wizards, lawless mercenaries to the lessons of forge, loom and potter’s wheel, each life experience leads him closer to who he really is.

Yet Lloyd Alexander also finds time to add commentary on the human condition, and it his greatest achievement that he manages to do so (not just here, but in his other books) subtly and wisely, rather than just by slapping a moral on the end of every sentence. Taran comes up against the amorality of an outlaw, the injustice of a warlord, the arrogance of a wizard, and the simple dishonesty of a shepherd, and yet never relinquishes his own integrity, even as he faces fear, shame, and bitter disappointment.

But it’s not all doom and gloom: there’s plenty of room for humour, wonder and hope, usually obtained in the presence of Taran’s beloved companions: faithful Gurgi, the wandering bard Fflewdur Fflam (who carries a harp who snaps a string every time he tells a lie), the grouchy dwarf Doli and the mischievous talking-crow Kaw (my own favorite!).

Another aspect worthy of note is that Prydain itself (based on the myths and legends of Wales) is explored in more detail than in previous books. Whilst we’ve previously dealt with castles and princes, warlords and enchanters, we now get a look into the more humble — and more important — inhabitants of this imaginary world. The reader learns much from the simplest of folk, including kindness to animals, respect to elders, the beauty of nature, and the simple pleasures of good food and a warm hearth.

However, some of the “special features” of the book are a little disappointing: specifically, an incomplete pronunciation guide and a truly hideous map of Prydain that looks as though it was drawn by a three-year old (seriously, the rivers look like random scribbles). Yet the current edition of the series has new cover-art by the gifted David Wyatt, so if there was ever a time to invest in the complete collection, now is it.

Taran Wanderer is enlightening, bittersweet, joyful, thought-provoking and timeless. At its conclusion, all the pieces are in place for the final installment in this series: The High King, a book which is as close to perfection as you’ll ever get in children’s literature. Seriously.~Rebecca Fisher


Here’s Bill’s review of the entire series:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsLloyd Alexander Chronicles of Prydain The Book of Three The Black Cauldron The Castle of Llyr Taran Wanderer The High King The Foundling reviewTHE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN by Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander’s THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN, loosely based on Welsh myths, is a classic work of fantasy that no one should miss. If you think you won’t get anything out of it because it’s “young adult,” think again. If anything, a mature reader probably gets more enjoyment out of it.

The series begins with The Book of Three, which introduces the main character, Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper. He is a foundling who lives with the great enchanter Dallben, who to Taran’s eyes never actually does any great enchanting. He shares Dallben’s home with the seemingly useless gardener Coll and the strange part-beast-not-quite-human Gurgi. Life at Caer Dallben is far too dull for a young boy who dreams of becoming a great warrior like his idol Prince Gwydion.

Events, as one would expect, soon expel Taran from the dull but safe world at Caer Dallben and soon he is battling for his life against fell creatures, including the witch Achren and the Horned King himself, battle-leader for Arawn, Lord of the Land of Death who threatens to destroy Taran’s land of Prydain.

Along the way, Taran meets Fflewddur Fflam, a bard whose harp breaks a string anytime he exaggerates (he goes through a lot of strings); Doli, a gruff dwarf who has his own problems;  Eilonwy, the strong-willed princess with a sharp wit and even sharper tongue; and even Prince Gwydion himself, all with faithful Gurgi at his side.  All of these characters continue throughout the series, and are joined by what becomes a stable cadre of familiar secondary characters.

Alexander’s strengths are too many to list. The major ones are what one would expect in an award-winning series long recognized as a classic. His characterization is precise and deep from the beginning, but more importantly, these characters all change and deepen and mature as the series continues. And they do so realistically, with all the pain that such maturation often entails. Hidden depths and strengths are revealed, as well as flaws that lead to at times harsh consequences. The secondary characters, though given less time, are drawn equally sharply, if not as richly due to the space constraints. Impressively, they too change and mature over the course of the series. By the end, you care deeply not just about the major four or five characters,  but even about the half-dozen or so minor characters — a trick that is hard to pull off as an author.

The plots are compelling, both in terms of suspense with regard to various quests and with regard to the impact on the characters. The books darken as they continue, and the stakes rise ever higher, but even at the start Alexander is not shy about presenting us with glory’s darker side, the side Taran never considers as he play-acts with his sword around his home at Caer Dallben. Honor, glory, war, bravery, nobility — these are mere words to the young, inexperienced Taran, and they have sharply narrowed definitions in his worldview. He learns, not always soon enough, not always easily, and not always at the first lesson, that the world is much more complex.

Though they should be read in order, each story is relatively independent in that it starts and stops on its own — one could read book three without having read the first two, though it would have far less impact. And one could stop reading at the end of Book Three and have a complete close to that particular story, but nobody should stop there. There are too many heartbreaking scenes, too many scenes of joy, too much reward to come, bittersweet though some of it may be.  The two strongest books in the series are the last two (the last won a Newbery and for good reason), but that is more testament to their strength than to any weaknesses in the first three. Alexander maintains a high standard of excellence throughout the entire series, and unlike some authors, he knew when and how to stop. The series is not only recommended, but is pretty well required, regardless of age.

~Bill Capossere


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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