The Iron Ring: Morals, magic, and mythology

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewschildren's fantasy book review Lloyd Alexander The Iron RingThe Iron Ring by Lloyd Alexander

The trademark feature of Lloyd Alexander’s storytelling is to choose a cultural background and weave his own story into the already existing mythology; his most famous example of this is of course The Chronicles of Prydain, in which his own story and characters were melded with the myths and legends of Wales (as found in The Mabinogian). The Iron Ring gets a similar treatment, as worked into the story are elements of The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, India’s great national epics.

Tamar is the young king of a small kingdom who is doing a rather successful job at ruling under the guidance of his loyal wise-man Rajaswami and military leader Darshan until one day he foolishly plays and loses a game of chance to the mysterious king Jaya. Waking the next morning, he finds that he has bet his life away and, as proof of his bondage, has an iron ring upon his finger. But was it a dream or not? Determined to find out, Tamar leaves his kingdom for Jaya’s mountain city of Mahapura in the hopes of saving his honour and keeping his dharma intact.

On the way however, he becomes severely sidetracked. Meetings with monkey kings and wrestling with giant serpents finally leads him to swear allegiance to King Aswara, a noble lord whose city has been usurped by his murderous cousin Nahusha. Along with his allies (which now include a complaining eagle, a beautiful milkmaid and an odd curiosity-seeker who has lived for the past year in an ant hill), Tamar sets his will against Nahusha. Needless to say, he learns many important lessons on the way, concerning life, death, and love, and most importantly on the infamous Indian caste system that ranks all people from the highest brahamas to the “Untouchables”; the chandalas. Throw in plenty of talking animals, a magical jewel, several daring plans, and Alexander’s unmistakable brand of humour, and you have a fantastic story.

Most people will pick up on several components of Indian culture and mythology, namely the caste system and the ideologies behind dharma and karma. I was especially pleased to see that Alexander knows the correct definition of “karma” — most Westerners believe it is the idea of “what comes around, goes around”, when in fact it is more akin to our idea of “fate” and the events surrounding a person’s destiny.

There are a couple of slight problems, one being the sudden and therefore unconvincing love story between Tamar and Mirri the gopi. She’s a typical Alexander heroine: beautiful, headstrong, and wise, but her bond with Tamar is based on love at first sight, something that only Romeo and Juliet has been able to get away with. Furthermore, anyone who has read The Chronicles of Prydain cannot help but notice the similarities between the characters, especially in the main quartets of Tamar, Mirri, Hashkat and Adi-Kavi with Taran, Elionwy, Gurgi and Fflewddur Fflam — in fact when Hashkat the monkey king first appeared, for a surreal moment I thought it was Gurgi!

But these are minor quibbles: Lloyd Alexander is one of the best authors of children’s fantasy fiction, and The Iron Ring is no exception. Plenty of morals, plenty of magic, and plenty of Indian mythology. You’ll not only enjoy it, but you’ll be motivated to look more into Indian culture — something that is largely unknown (restricted to Indian food and misinterpretations) to the Western world.

The Iron Ring — (1997) Ages 9-12. Publisher: When Tamar, the young king of Sundari, loses a dice game, he loses everything — his kingdom, its riches, and even the right to call his life his own. His bondage is symbolized by the iron ring that appears mysteriously on his finger. To Tamar, born to the warrior caste, honor is everything. So he sets out on a journey to make good on his debt — and even to give up his life if necessary. And that journey leads him into a world of magic, where animals cantalk, the foolish are surprisingly wise, and danger awaits…

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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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