by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]
OK, OK, I know I've set up a pattern wherein I take a look at two books -- one an acknowledged classic, and one relatively obscure -- and consider whether the alleged classic is truly deserving of such an honourable designation, and whether the more obscure book warrants perhaps a little more attention. And here I am already breaking my pattern. But The Prydain Chronicles is a series of five books plus a prequel, so really I'm doing five (or six) in one -- er, two. Anyhow, I want to focus exclusively on this series because it's an acknowledged classic series that has almost certainly been overlooked in recent years.
In view of some of the crazier stuff that's happened in the world recently, I wanted to be transported to simpler, saner times. Written in the 60s, these books come from an era when the worst thing that could happen in school was that an older kid might give you a couple of bruises and take your lunch money, or you might be humiliated in front of the whole class by not being able to puzzle out the solution to a math problem on the chalk board. On Hallowe'en, kids went out by themselves, ranging as far as they dared and still managed to drag home whole pillow-cases full of candy and treats from strangers, with no thoughts of evil consequences; we were invincible in our monster or hero disguises. Summers lasted forever, every tree was a potential tree-fort, armies of toy soldiers could wage full-scale wars in the five minutes before bedtime, and somehow -- because Christmas really was magical -- we always managed to end up on Santa's good list. At least, that's what it seems like in retrospect; there certainly were horrible things happening out there in the big wide world, but today's perspective on my world as a child in the 60s is that it was a much gentler time.
There's really nothing not to like about this series, until you get to the end and it's over.
In the simplest terms, this series is a coming-of-age story in a fantasy setting. It follows the adventures of Taran, an orphan raised by a kindly wizard with an oracular pig. (Yes, an oracular pig, which in itself may be intriguing enough to make you want to read more.) Part of Taran's duties include helping to care for the pig, although he dreams of great and heroic deeds. When Taran complains of being nothing and no one at all, he is granted the title of Assistant Pig-Keeper. As he grows and learns and begins to have heroic adventures, he continues to proudly assert his less-than-grand title. Some of his companions include Eilonwy, a headstrong girl who chatters incessantly and has a penchant for unique, lengthy and somehow always absurdly appropriate similes and metaphors; Fflewddur Fflam, a bard of questionable talent with a magical harp which breaks a string every time he stretches the truth -- which is quite frequently; and Gurgi, a hairy creature who may or may not be entirely human, with the kind and desperate-to-please personality of a dog, who is braver than his fears for his "tender head" would have you believe.
The clear and very distinct personality of each character in the large cast helps keep it clear for young readers who is speaking. It also provides delicious entertainment for readers of all ages. And Lloyd Alexander isn't the kind of author to dumb it down for his young readers in any kind of condescending manner; on the contrary, he is one of the best of the YA authors, writing clear and coherent stories that grow in complexity quite naturally. Much the same as the Harry Potter books have become more sophisticated as the characters and, presumably, young readers too, grow a little older, The Prydain Chronicles grow increasingly more complex and refined, and indeed a little darker, as shades of grey begin to cast grim shadows on what once seemed only clear and bright. But unlike Harry Potter, this isn't about magic in the modern world. And unlike The Chronicles of Narnia, it isn't about crossing over into a different world. If I had to choose another work to compare it to, I would say that The Prydain Chronicles most closely resemble T.H. White's The Once and Future King, both in style and atmosphere. But where White has provided a retelling of the legends of Arthur, Alexander has created an entirely new fantasy world that only feels familiar to those know may know a bit of Welsh mythology.
Why Read YA Fiction as an Adult?
By now you may be thinking this would be a good series to pick up for your kids while they wait for the next installment of Harry Potter, but I would encourage you to read it for yourself. The Prydain Chronicles are indeed written with a younger audience in mind, but as one of the best authors of young adult fiction, Alexander has ensured that his work is sufficiently broad and deep to entrance any discerning reader. Of course you'll notice that you're not reading adult fantasy. So what? In the same way that you know going into the latest blockbuster comedy that it won't be a riveting drama, you simply adjust your mindset and enjoy the show. And, of course, the best YA fiction can still teach adults -- provided you're willing to learn.
I find it refreshing to read high quality YA fiction because it takes me back to a frame of mind when I can remember the world as a simpler and more hopeful place. On occasion, it's nice to escape from the horrors of the 11 o'clock news, or even just to be reminded that there are still wonderful, joyful things about the world we live in. And with that in mind, I'll end by quoting from "The Foundling", the opening story in The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain: "At the end of knowledge, wisdom begins.... And at the end of wisdom there is not grief, but hope."
Neil Walsh is an avid reader who occasionally feels compelled to inflict his opinions about his reading upon anyone willing to listen. In the past month, Neil also read the following: The Logogryph: A Bibliography of Imaginary Books by Thomas Wharton, Ex Machina, Book 5: Smoke by Brian K. Vaughan, et al., Jack of Fables, Book 1: The (Nearly) Great Escape by Bill Willingham, et al., The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 by Eric Hobsbawm, The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham, and Un Lun Dun by China Miéville. The last is another example of highest quality YA fantasy, fated to become a classic (if it isn't undeservedly overlooked).
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