The Book of Three: Our very highest recommendation

Readers’ average rating:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsreview Lloyd Alexander Chronicles of Prydain 1. The Book of ThreeThe Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander’s fantastic five-part Chronicles of Prydain begins with The Book of Three, which is required reading for anyone who considers themselves a fantasy fan and/or a lover of children’s literature — or in fact anyone who loves a darn good book. And you can’t stop there — make sure you have on hand the following volumes: The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer and The High King. Three of them have won or been nominated for the Newbery Award, and are loved by readers all over the world; they belong on the shelf next to The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia in terms of how beloved they have become.

The series takes place in the mythical land of Prydain, a land of Alexander’s own invention, but with many stylistic and legendary qualities borrowed from Wales’ mythological traditions, as found in “The Mabinogian.” Elements such as the Fair Folk, the black cauldron and the oracular pig, and characters such as Gwydion and Arawn are taken from real sources, and as such give the books a depth and resonance that is often missing from other fantasy books in which the authors make up the entire world themselves (or, as is more likely, copy from Tolkien). The overriding story arc is the battle between good and evil as waged by the evil Dark Lord Arawn and the heroic Children of Don, as seen through the eyes of a young Assistant Pig-Keeper — Taran of Caer Dallben.

It sounds like a standard fantasy-fare, but Alexander infuses his work with delightful humor and wit, the aforementioned shadow of Welsh legends, and colorful characters that are instantly taken to heart. Furthermore, he often puts more emphasis on the everyday vices and struggles of mankind rather than the more epic figures of good and evil, making the books more intimate and personal. The main struggle is encapsulated with Taran, a young boy living with the enchanter Dallben and the blacksmith Coll in a simple cottage. He dreams of glory and battle, but instead must spend his days tending Hen Wen, a white oracular pig. One day however, quite out of the blue he finds himself in the middle of an adventure, when a terrified Hen Wen flees into the forest, with Taran straight after her.

Arawn’s most feared warlord, the Horned King, is gathering an army to march against the Children of Don’s stronghold, Caer Dathyl, and Taran soon finds himself caught up in the race to find Hen Wen before the Horned King and warn Caer Dathyl. On the way he meets with many allies and enemies: the talkative Princess Elionwy, the wandering bard-king Fflewddur Fflam (and his magical harp that snaps a string every time he lies), the bad-tempered dwarf Doli and the strange half-man, half-animal creature named Gurgi. From the sinister Spiral Castle, to the peace of Medwyn’s valley to the mystery of the underground kingdom of the Fair Folk, Taran leads his odd company — hopefully towards a victorious end.

Taran is a wonderful protagonist — full of lofty dreams and valor at the beginning and gradually learning as the story progresses that war is not so glorious, and the burden of responsibility and leadership is a heavy one. Alexander constantly slaps him down, usually through the irrepressible Princess Elionwy, one of the most wonderful heroines of all time. Lessons about life, love, honor, loss, and tragedy are all contained within the story, but not so much that they become too preachy or overwhelming for younger readers. Alexander has a deft hand when it comes to incorporating such themes into his story, and balancing out these hefty messages with a healthy dose of humor (again, usually at the cost of Taran).

If you have never ventured into Prydain before, then be prepared to read a series of truly excellent books that you’ll treasure forever. It goes without saying that The Chronicles of Prydain have my very highest recommendation.

~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 lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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One comment

  1. I loved this series. My son started collecting it and I read them almost as fast as he did.

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