Chronicles of Prydain

The Mabinogion is a collection of several prose stories which were found in medieval Welsh manuscripts (written sometime around the 12th-13th centuries), but were actually based on an older oral tradition (although we’re still discussing exactly how old). It was first fully translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest, scholar of Welsh language and literature, in the 19th century. Besides just being a very good read, this book would prove very influential in literary studies about the Arthurian mythos – and (more relevantly for this post) would also inspire the fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain, written by American author Lloyd Alexander during the sixties (the first book was written in 1964, the fifth and last one in 1968).

The series details the struggles of protagonist Taran and his friends and occasional allies against Arawn Death-Lord (who is basically like Sauron in terms of narrative role: he’s often mentioned, but rarely seen directly) in the land of Prydain (funny factoid: that’s actually the Welsh word for “Britain”, and it’s no coincidence the author chose to use it, since the fictional Prydain is basically a fantasy version of Wales).

Once, Prydain was a prosperous land, but then the devious Arawn nearly conquered it. He was only stopped by the arrival of the Sons of Don (who are mostly regular humans – strong and very long-lived, but still mortal –, only they come from the Summer Country, a magical, far-away land), who united the people of Prydain in an alliance against the Death-Lord. Even after his defeat, Arawn still rules over Annuvin, the Land of Death, where he uses a powerful artifact, the Black Cauldron, to bring fighters back to life as the Cauldron-Born, immortal soldiers absolutely loyal to him. His forces are led by the Horned King, a mighty warrior empowered even further by Arawn’s magic. And so, Arawn’s forces and the armies of Prydain and the Sons of Don have been locked in this stalemate – somewhere between a cold war and all-out fighting – for a long time.

And that’s the state of things when the first novel in the series,
The Book of Three, opens, and Taran, ward of Dallben
(Prydain’s wisest and most powerful sorcerer, keeper of the titular Book of
Three), has to save Hen Wen, a white sow with prophetic powers, from
the Horned King, who fears she holds the knowledge of how to destroy
him. Taran, a reckless boy who is all too eager for adventure and
glory and deeply resents being nothing more than an Assistant
Pig-Keeper, plunges headlong into adventure, only to learn there’s a
lot more than he thought to being a hero.
Over the course of the five books (The Book of Three [1964] is followed by The Black Cauldron [1965], The Castle of Llyr [1966], Taran Wanderer [1967] and, finally, The High King [1968]), Taran meets many other people, but the first one already introduces to the reader all of the core characters: Eilonwy, a sensible and vivacious young girl with magical powers who is also a bit of an eccentric; Fflewddur Fflam, an errant prince and bard (although he’s actually terrible at it – he’s probably not spoony enough) with a magical harp which always breaks a string when he tells a lie (which is often); the little man-beast Gurgi, cowardly, but completely devoted to his friends; Doli of the Fair Folk, a grouchy dwarf who’s actually kind and generous underneath all his grumbling; and Prince Gwydion, warrior-leader of the Sons of Don, brave, wise and selfless – a true hero, one who would certainly be the main character in a more typical fantasy story.

Indeed, therein lies the beauty in Alexander’s work: for all that it seems like a standard high fantasy story at first glance, The Chronicles of Prydain is actually more like a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story. It still has several traditional heroic deeds in it – unmatched fighting prowess, unflinching courage in the face of certain death, wisdom, cunning and sorcery, and so on and so forth –, but the main focus is on Taran’s growth as a person, from a reckless boy to a brave and wise young man. Or, to put it another way: the point of the books is not to show Taran, a “mere” Assistant Pig-Keeper, becoming a hero by means of his powers or skills, but to show Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, becoming a truly noble person and then being a hero because of that (basically, the journey is the whole point, not the destination).

Although the focus is on Taran’s journey – he’s the only viewpoint character, for instance –, the novels don’t forget that there’s a whole world out there besides him. They take many of the same themes seen in his narrative and apply them to the setting and the story as a whole: good begets good, it takes hard work to truly achieve anything of real value, only fools and madmen care about glory, power should be used with responsibility, heroes can come from all walks of life… And loss is a part of life. Yes, despite being classified as children’s novels (or perhaps because of that, considering how so many children’s novels are actually more mature than many so-called adult ones), the series doesn’t flinch from showing the losses associated with the passage of childhood to adulthood, especially when the people involved are fighting a war. In a way, those losses are more poignant than in The Lord of the Rings, since they’re not only on a grand, world-changing scale, but also on a more personal level.

Finally, one other thing I’d like to talk about is the romance. You know how movies and TV series so often show the love interests constantly arguing and driving each other crazy and try to portray it as a way for them to sublimate their passions? Well, in this series, that actually works, but only because a) it’s believable for two children to act like children, and b) they’re not attracted to each other because of their arguments, they’re attracted to each other in spite of those, and once both grow up a little more, their personality traits which caused those arguments in the first place soften up or even go away entirely. There is a moment in the end when the woman has to make a personal sacrifice to remain with the guy, but it’s presented as her individual choice, without any implication that it’s only natural and to be expected since she’s a woman. Besides, it’s arguable how much of a sacrifice it really is, since the thing she gives up isn’t something she’s really interested in anymore. (Boy, it’s kind of annoying trying to talk about something while also avoiding spoilers!)

Overall… I love this series! Lloyd Alexander’s writing is wonderful, the characters and plot are engaging, and the themes explored are genuinely thought-provoking. Seriously, I don’t know if it’s still in print or not, but if you can, go buy it immediately!

Oh, yes, before I forget, there was an animated adaptation by Disney, titled The Black Cauldron. It’s sort of a black sheep among Disney’s animated movies – apparently, it flopped on its original release –, but I enjoy it quite a bit. As an adaptation (loosely based on the first two books), it’s not very good – poor Fflewdur Fflam in particular is an entirely different character! –, but when judged on its own, it’s actually a fun, solid movie (although the pacing is a bit slower than it should be) with an awesomely creepy villain. If you like animated movies, you should check it out.

57 Comments

  1. Y says:
    Well, you’ve sold me. I’ve been falling behind on fantasy novels lately, and I really want to catch up. But first, I need to read Deverry and Wheel of Time and Crown of Stars and uh why are fantasy series so damn long.
    1. Ember says:
      Prydain is actually a really quick, easy read, being written for young children. You can mainline the whole series in a weekend.
    2. SpoonyViking says:
      (laughs) I feel your pain. :-) But really, like Ember says, the series is short and sweet. If I had to estimate, I’d say the five books, together, are still shorter than a single volume of “The Lord of the Rings” or “A Song of Ice and Fire”.
      1. Y says:
        Huh, so are we talking around the length of say, a Narnia book? If so, I’ll try and find them next week, because I have to put everything on hold because Clariel exists now, at least in Australia. Would you say it’s worth reading Mabinogion as well, or just one of the two?
        1. SpoonyViking says:
          Something around that length, yes.

          Would you say it’s worth reading Mabinogion as well, or just one of the two?

          It really depends on what you’re after. If you’re just interested in Prydain, there’s no need to read the “Mabinogion” as well, it won’t provide you any context the novels themselves already don’t. But if you’re interested in medieval Welsh tales based on Welsh Celtic tradition, sure! :-) Although, to be honest, my favourite tales in there are “Culhwch and Olwen” and “Taliesin”, and those aren’t part of the Welsh mythological cycle which inspired Alexander.

  2. Ember says:
    I loved these books as a child, and they held up wonderfully on my reread a few years back. I had some issues with Eilonwy re: both female exceptionalism and the way the male characters constantly treated her (which the narrative framed as, if not precisely *right*, then at least reasonable), but just in and of herself she’s a great character. And given it was written by a man in the sixties, you can’t really expect much more. I also remembered loving Achren, which confused me on my reread of the first few books because she’s such a predictable, one-dimensional villainess… until the fifth book, where she reveals that she is in fact the biggest badass in all of Prydain. Her usual epithet is so wrong — it’s not being “haughty” if you actually are that awesome!

    Some things really surprised me on my reread, like how obvious the villain in The Black Cauldron actually is. I remembered being absolutely shocked by his betrayal as a little kid — which I think was probably because he was nice to Taran, and lesser media had conditioned me to believe that liking the protagonist is synonymous with being one of the good guys.

    Also re: The Black Cauldron, the first big death in it wasn’t nearly as sad on reread as I remembered it being when I was small. On the other hand, the deaths in The High King hit every bit as hard as they had the first time, even with me knowing they were coming and being older and more used to death in fiction, and The Scene with the Harp was, if anything, *even sadder*. I cried while reading it. I’ll probably always cry while reading it. It’s hard to say what it is about it, exactly. Objectively, it’s FAR from the saddest thing that happens in that book, but then, that may be exactly it — it’s a moment of reflection on *everything* that’s been lost, and also of affirmation that none of it was in vain. It’s so perfectly bittersweet.

    The biggest difference on reread was my experience of the fourth book, Taran Wanderer. As a little kid, I found it incredibly dull, seeing it as nothing but a lull in the action. On reread as a struggling young adult, it hit me hard, and hit me where it hurt. Now that I’m a bit older and have made a bit more peace with myself and my place in life, I’d probably get even more out of it. I should pick it up again sometime.

    1. Elisabeth says:
      I only read the first two books in the series as a kid, but this makes me want to read the remaining books.
      1. SpoonyViking says:
        Add my encouragement to that! :-) This series has a lot to offer to both children and adults, and the books only improve.
    2. SpoonyViking says:
      I don’t think the narrative framed it as reasonable; Eilonwy, at least, calls them out on it constantly, and she’s usually portrayed as right – especially over Taran, at least in the first books before he matures.

      Yeah, Achren really grows as a character over the novels, both in terms of character development and the writer portraying her more skillfully; in a way, more than any other character besides Taran and Eilonwy. I actually wish the Horned King had the same opportunity – as it is, he’s basically a plot device. Then again, I’m not sure how to keep him in the story without turning him into a Saturday morning cartoon villain – “I’ll get you next time, Taran!”.

      Oh, yes, The harp scene. My favourite Fflewddur Fflam moment, and one of my favourite moments in the whole series, period. I just love that not-so-spoony bard!

      Didn’t your child self like even the scenes with Morda about “Taran Wanderer”? Or those with Dorath?

      1. Ember says:
        I wanted to believe that, and did for the first book, but then ever-sensible Gwydion gets in on it. No one ever even calls him out on the most egregious example of it (him not telling her she’s in danger in the third book, which is what leads directly to her kidnapping) and even she simply laments at the end that it’s “too bad” he “couldn’t have,” as though there were anything stopping him but his contempt for her ability to take care of herself. That was a real wall-banger moment for me.

        “Didn’t your child self like even the scenes with Morda about “Taran Wanderer”? Or those with Dorath?”

        Oh, yeah, Morda’s story was delightful! Such magic! Much danger! Wow! The book as a whole felt like a slog, though.

        1. SpoonyViking says:
          Huh. Well, seems I’ll have to re-read them. Oh, no, that’s so awful! :-D
        2. SpoonyViking says:
          So, I’ve just re-read the books, and oh, what a chore that was. :-D Seriously, though, I have to agree with you: I came up with somewhat reasonable explanations as for why they left Eilonwy behind but not Taran in the second book and why Gwydion never even told her about how she was in danger in the third book (which, I agree, is especially baffling because it concerns her directly), but they’re fanwank, not something supported – even indirectly – by the text. The final book is the worst with it, since now not only Taran and Dalben try to “rein her in”, but even Coll and Fflewddur get in on the act!

          Weirdly, though, I still think the narrative doesn’t treat those things as reasonable. Not only is Eilonwy never “punished” for not bending to the rules, she remains useful in all the books in which she appears (except for the third one, but that’s because of plot-mandated reasons).

          I think the issue is that the author eschewed too closely to both the source material and established conventions of the fantasy genre in portraying a setting where women are just naturally expected to stay behind and not put themselves in danger. I’ll even go as far as to say that he was deliberately subverting those expectations with how he portrayed Eilonwy. Unfortunately, it does run into the issue of exceptionalism, as you pointed out, in that Eilonwy has to be exceptionally skilled just to stand on somewhat equal footing, and it’s also somewhat degrading to more traditionally feminine women (“feminine” as defined by the setting, of course).

          So, yeah. I do think Eilonwy’s portrayal was well-done considering both the time and the genre, but it’s still not good enough for modern standards (or, at least, what should be modern standards) – it would have been much better to simply not call attention to the fact that Eilonwy goes out adventuring just like the others -, and I should have mentioned it in my review. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  3. Sazuka57 says:
    Oh man I’ve been thinking about how this resembles the Black Cauldron right from the fourth paragraph, and then you mentioned it in the last one! Nice. Also, I’m thinking that the Summer Country is actually the Sahara Desert. It seems like it. It’s hot and far away, haha. In all seriousness though, that was the first thing I thought of while reading this.
    1. SpoonyViking says:
      I also found out about this series only after watching the Disney cartoon. I read about it, saw that it had been based on a novel, and then I went looking for the book. Fortunately, the series had been translated into Portuguese some years ago, so I found it very cheap in used bookstores.
  4. Kirk12 says:
    I’d be happy to read the books, but in my opinion the only thing The Black Cauldron did was start Disney’s 10-year tradition of creating something so worthless and devoid of artistic or entertainment value that it almost destroys the company’s reputation singlehandedly, followed by Pocahontas and Chicken Little respectively.
    1. SpoonyViking says:
      I’m actually curious as to why the movie flopped. I’ve found a few mentions of it being just too “dark” (probably because of the Cauldron-Born), but “The Lion King” had Mufasa’s death and it was still a resounding success. It can’t be the pacing, either, since it’s comparable to “Snow White”, “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty”, which were also successful.
      1. Kirk12 says:
        I know in recent times people like Confused Matthew and Doug Walker have talked about overrated The Lion King is and picked apart its faults, but it was a musical. And Mufasa’s death was seen as a heartfelt tragic moment, with Bambi as a natural predecessor. People liked the characters in The Lion King and thought Scar was a great villain and Timon and Pumbaa were effective comic relief. It also just felt like classic Disney.

        So did Snow White and Cinderella which were all traditional fairy tales children would enjoy. Sleeping Beauty was also a massive flop, though. It and The Black Cauldron are in fact the 2 movies responsible for almost destroying Disney’s animation department. It was only 101 Dalmatians and The Great Mouse Detective that kept Disney animation from not being closed down.

        The Black Cauldron just delivered next to nothing people expect from Disney – I think it was the only movie at the time, or one of the only from them, to contain absolutely no songs or musical elements. And it didn’t have talking animals that acted as comic relief the kids would enjoy. It had Gurgi, but I think he mostly grated on people’s nerves.

        The characters are also at best derivative cliches and at worst unlikable. Many criticized Taran for being boastful and egocentric, while having next to nothing to back it up. The Horned King has little backstory and is mostly just atmosphere and scary name value, who does little to actually earn that menace.

        You aren’t alone in liking it, though – Roger Ebert actually wrote a very positive, impressed review upon its release, saying “The best of the Disney animated features were not innocent children’s entertainments, but blood-curdling stories of doom and obsession (with a few smiles along the way, of course). They only looked innocent because they were cartoons. Reflect for a moment on the Island of Lost Boys in Pinocchio, or what happened to Bambi’s mother. The great Disney cartoons contained all of the fearsome possibilities of the Grimm fairy tales – or, for that matter, of life itself. Only in recent years have the Disney feature cartoons grown pale and innocuous, as part of the general delusion that harmless means colorless.

        Now comes a new Disney animated film in the old tradition….. What surprised me, as I sat through The Black Cauldron, was how quickly the story did absorb me. Instead of thinking deep thoughts about the past and future of Disney animation, I was caught up in the movie, amused by some of the characters, and sort of excited by the sky-splitting conclusion….. By the end of The Black Cauldron I was remembering, with something of a shock of nostalgia, the strength and utter storytelling conviction of the early Disney animators. The Black Cauldron is a return to the tradition.”

        The best I can say about the movie is it’s absolutely forgettable, very derivative fantasy that didn’t deliver what people wanted from a Disney movie and didn’t build good word of mouth. Children liked the story and the songs enough to keep coming back to The Lion King. This never had a chance. But it has built a cult following and I’m sure they will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

        1. SpoonyViking says:
          The best you could say about the movie is it’s absolutely forgettable, very derivative fantasy[…]

          Ebert’s own quote already belies that. :-D But I think you touched on this movie’s issue: it wasn’t something people expected from Disney.

        2. Farla says:
          I saw the movie on the movie wall at another kid’s house. “Hey, I’ve never seen that, maybe we could watch it?” “No, it is terrible.”

          Kind of curious now.

          1. Ember says:
            I hated the movie, having read the books first. Like SV said, as an adaptation, it’s terrible.
            1. SpoonyViking says:
              Some aspects of it are faithful – and it’s definitely more faithful to the source material than, say, “The Little Mermaid” -, but yeah, on the whole, I recommend judging it on its own, as opposed to judging it as an adaptation of the novels.
              Reply
          2. SpoonyViking says:
            I’d put it on the same level as “Sleeping Beauty”, except for the music – but then again, Tchaikovsky, so yeah. :-D
  5. Cat says:
    Why is most of the text justified? All of it except the last paragraph.
    1. SpoonyViking says:
      I prefer it, I think it looks cleaner. :-) In fact, the last paragraph should have also been justified, but Blogger is a naughty scamp! I’ll fix it.
      …Although, now that you mentioned it, I checked my other posts and either I forgot to justify them, or Blogger has been messing with them all this time.
      Ah, well, I’ll just have to change them too! :-) Thanks for bringing this up!
      1. Cat says:
        I’d recommend not using full justification. From page 281 of Technical Communication by Mike Markel:

        “In justified text, the spacing between words is irregular, slowing down the reader. Because a big space suggests a break between sentences, not a break between words, readers can become confused, frustrated, and fatigued.

        Notice that the irregular spacing not only slows down reading but can also create ‘rivers’ of white space. Readers are tempted to concentrate on the rivers running south rather than on the information itself.”

        The huge spaces are especially noticeable on the first paragraph of this post. That’s the whole reason I clicked Read More, wondering what was up with that (I usually only read Farla’s posts unless Act writes something Pokemon-related). I can’t read this post very well at all because of the spacing.

        1. SpoonyViking says:
          So what you’re saying is that me using full justification actually attracted a reader? Then why would I not use it? :-P

          Hmm… To be honest, I still think it looks better, but since neither Farla nor Act use it, I’ll revert to flush-left in the interest of keeping things consistent.

          Hopefully, you’ll be able to read the post, then! :-)

          1. Cat says:
            I thought you might say something like that. It’s not really “attracted a reader” though so much as “attracted someone complaining about the formatting” since I hadn’t read it yet.

            The main problem is that when you hit “full justification” on your blog post, it makes those huge spaces! If it’s in a book, they make it look really nice and not have huge spaces.

            Yeah, I can read it better now. Yay, flush left!

            Also, I just thought of this, but maybe the full justification looks neater to you in part because the paragraphs are mostly a uniform size? Normally you’d also have a lot of small and medium paragraphs, so the text is broken up in general (in addition to being ragged right). So then full justification gives it the look of being divided neatly into even chunks. Neat isn’t the same as easiest to read, though.

            By the way, do you plan to mostly post recommendations, or is there going to be other stuff later as well?

            1. SpoonyViking says:
              Also, I just thought of this, but maybe the full justification looks neater to you because the paragraphs are mostly a uniform size?

              Hm, could be, could be!

              By the way, do you plan to mostly post recommendations, or is there going to be other stuff later as well?

              Ah, well, my main focus (if I could even say I have one, considering I’ve written so few blog posts so far) is the literary analysis of specific works and general themes, but I’m probably going to keep writing recommendations and quick reviews.

              Reply
  6. actonthat says:
    [Eilonwy, a sensible and vivacious young girl with magical powers who is also a bit of an eccentric]

    But does she have an emu?

    (I should read these.)

    1. SpoonyViking says:
      Yes. Yes, you should. :-)

      That said, unfortunately, there were no emus in the novels – nor llamas, sadly.

  7. actonthat says:
    So I read Book of Three! It was very cute, and omg Eilonwy she is the best, I wish I’d found her as a kid.

    I was pretty disappointed with just how derivative it was, though. I mean, we’re talking you could single-substitute characters from Lord of the Rings and have no one be OOC. There were even Black Riders and evil flying creatures whose screams were their weapon. The whole thing was less Tolkienian high fantasy and more just Tolkien, except aimed at younger readers.

    It’s an extra shame because the writing was good. I found the narration to be easy and enjoyable to read and very witty. And when Alexander did deviate from the formula it was interesting and I liked it a lot, which just made it all the more disappointing he felt the need to use a story that’d already been told as a crutch. There’s just nothing this story offers that Tolkienverse doesn’t; I was thinking, “Would I give this to my kid?” and the answer is, “Why, when I can just give them the story it’s based on?” There wasn’t enough of its own merit even involved to discuss the story as separate.

    I also found Taran to be really disalikable. Even allowing for the amount of it that was intentional, which I think was like 75%, he just wasn’t a relatable or enjoyable person whose head to be stuck in. At the end when he lampshades his suckiness and says, “But I did literally nothing,” and Gwydion is all, “But sometimes it’s the people who do literally nothing who do the most,” I was like, no, he was useless and sometimes an active hindrance, the story would have been better off starting with Eilonwy meeting Gwydion or finding Hen Wen and going from there.

    So overall, cute story, really nice writing, some great ideas and characters especially the stuff that was actually Alexander’s own. Would rec it to a kid who enjoyed Tolkien and wanted more, but it was derivative to the point of being fanfic and doesn’t really hold anything for me as an adult reader; I don’t feel compelled to read the other ones.

    1. illhousen says:
      Tolkien is inescapable. It seems every beginning fantasy writer starts with writing their own version of Lord of the Rings.

      For example, Something Short and Snappy, a blog recommended in the master post, currently does the readthrough of the Wheel of Time, and the first book at least is very heavily inspired by Tolkien

      And for personal encounter with the phenomenon, back when I was a kid I read a book about, I shit you not, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ripping off Tolkien. There was Moria and the Balrog scene lifted straight from the source material (only nobody died stalling Balrog because I guess martial arts beat magic). It was a very bizarre book which I heavily suspect now was written by some hack to cash in on the cartoon with no permission from anyone involved because Mother Russia scoffs at your puny copyright laws.

      And then there are instances where writers don’t just steal plot and ideas but outright write and publish their fanfics.

      There is Black Arda book, which is basically a fix fic for Morgoth and Sauron (who are in love, by the way) which swaps the morality of good and bad guys. Then there is that sequel to LotR by Perumov which does the same, without slash this time.

      For better or worse, Tolkien casts a long shadow.

      1. actonthat says:
        Yeah, and I empathize with the desire to write Your LoTR. But God damn does everyone do it. Sometimes you can take it off in your own direction and make it interesting (Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age) and sometimes just have it as an influence and go somewhere else entirely (Song of Ice and Fire) but for the most part someone needs to slap writers upside the head and sternly say, “No. Bad,” as soon as it crops up.
        1. the thousand lakes says:
          I think originality is often over-emphasized. I personally rate the effectiveness of the execution over the originality of the ideas. Not that originality is bad (it’s great!) just that the dismissal of really good stuff with “meh, seen something like it before” annoys me. If you keep going back, you’ll keep finding influences and borrowed ideas, particularly if you’re looking at stories inspired by similar mythology. I mean, the Volsung Saga has a cursed golden ring. Is Tolkien not worth reading because Beowulf and the Icelandic sagas exist? Of course not.

          Prydain is made from a lot of the same genetic material as LotR, to be sure. But Lloyd Alexander is interested in different things and has a different worldview than Tolkien, so he handles the material differently. Gwydion and Aragorn fill the same role, for example, but they’re different people. Gwydion is a much more accessible figure, where Aragorn gets a stricter look-don’t-touch sort of treatment.

          The whole series is like that in a lot of ways, actually. While Lord of the Rings is justly lauded for being a story about little people in the midst of an epic, Prydain is homelier and more working class. Kings and wizards are important, yes, but they’re not nearly as aloof as Tolkien’s the Wise are. Gwydion isn’t dressed humbly because he’s in exile, he’s dressed humbly because a big part of his job involves camping. The Shire is a pleasant place to watch other people farm from a comfortable distance. Taran farms himself.

          He does stay stubborn and selfish for several books, and I can’t blame anyone who finds him obnoxious but he’s also about 12, and he gets a little better in each one. An entire book in the series is devoted to him maturing in totally unglamorous fashion, and the actual turning point feels way more earned than Gwydion’s platitudes at the end of the Book of Three, so there’s that.

          1. actonthat says:
            You’re arguing against something I never said.

            As I said in my original post (edit: and then the second one, srsly), you could do one-to-one swaps with Tolkien characters and have a decently-characterized fanfic. That’s not “being influenced by” something, it’s just ripping it off, and it’s boring to read because I’ve read it before. It’s just bad storytelling.

            eta: Also, I think you’re underestimating how many times this story was written after LoTR made its debut. There are literally thousands of iterations this story. It’s no longer entertaining on its own, even when the technical aspects of the writing are good.

            1. the thousand lakes says:
              I’m not underestimating how many Tolkien pastiches got published. I’m not a child. You could fill a sizable library just out of the workmanlike but uninteresting ones, not to mention the piles and piles of dreck. It’s kind of embarrassing, and I do wish more writers would do more historical research or at least look further back than Tolkien for their source material. Fantasy as a genre used to be much more diverse.
              I just don’t agree with your fanfic comment about this particular series (out of curiosity, who is Fflewdur Fflam in this fanfic? I don’t mean that as an adversarial gotcha, I’m just curious). It feels very similar to how lots of people will poo-poo a lot of space opera because it shares many of the trappings of Star Wars. And again, it’s not like wise old wizards, dragons, cursed rings, the high king coming back, etc. were completely unknown pre-Tolkien.

              To be fair, most of what makes Prydain great imo comes in the sequels (where much more is also done with the Welsh mythology), and I got into the series as a kid when my tastes were less discerning. I genuinely think the Prydain series has a lot of value for a kid that is different from what you find in Tolkien, but if I were picking the Book of Three up cold today I might not be that thrilled with it either.

              If you enjoyed Lloyd Alexander’s prose you might want to check out The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen which, being set in imperial China, doesn’t have the same Tolkien baggage. It is still a coming of age story about a well-meaning but immature young man finding wisdom and friendship by means of a journey though, so if you’re tired of those it may not do much for you.

              Reply
              1. actonthat says:
                Yeah, sorry. I was much more snippy than I intended to be. I have had a very, very long day.

                The bard was actually my second-favorite character! All of the original characters and plot points and settings were really wonderful, which probably had the unfortunately effect of making it more annoying when things fell back into rote.

                Like most writers, I’d guess Alexander hit his stride more and more as things went on and it wouldn’t surprise me if the series only improved, because the writing was technically really good. Gah, now I’m going to have to read the rest of them.

              2. SpoonyViking says:
                Yes! Do it! Come to the Dark… Wait, wrong analogy. Anyway, read them, you won’t be sorry! :-)
              3. the thousand lakes says:
                Ah, that’s ok! Sorry to hear it. In my initial reply I hadn’t quite realized that most of what I love about the series happens from book two onward, and that The Book of Three is just this pleasant but unexciting introduction to some other books I really like.
                Eilonwy is really great, but she doesn’t get quite enough screen time imo. When she does show up she gets all kinds of personality and cool moments, but there it is. A lot of Alexander’s work seems to feature these interesting, fully-realized female characters… who are also sidekicks and love interests. Although he did make a 5 or 6 book series called Vesper Holly that appears to be Nancy Drew as a 19th Century Indiana Jones. I haven’t read that but it sounds like a lot of fun.
        2. illhousen says:
          Yeah. I guess it was inevitable given that the fantasy genre pretty much started with people trying to imitate Tolkien with varying degrees of success, but it sure is annoying to pick up fantasy classics and realize just how closely they follow the formula.

          I think it would be interesting to compare that phenomenon with the relatively recent influx of Harry Potter clones. It feels to me that while a lot of writes following in Rowling’s footsteps do try to imitate elements of her novels, they at least mix it up more than fantasy writers and deviate from the formula.

          My knowledge about it is limited, though.

          1. SpoonyViking says:
            Yeah. And those that don’t imitate Tolkien uncritically (that is, without thinking about what made his writing and setting work) just imitate Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories. The fantasy genre is often like an ouroboros.
            1. illhousen says:
              They should imitate Clark Ashton Smith. Necrophiliac necromancers for the win.

              Seriously though, his works do strike this weird line between fantasy and horror where old fairy tales llie, and his writing style is detailed enough to be immersive while remaining abstract enough to create a surreal detached atmosphere.

              While by no means flawless, he is worth reading just to see where the genre started and where it could have gone.

              Reply
              1. SpoonyViking says:
                I’m very interested in reading his “historical fantasy” stories, but importing is expensive, especially now that the dollar’s exchange rate has increased here!
              2. illhousen says:
                The ships under the black flag sail free, you know. It’s not like Smith would mind, being dead and all.
              3. SpoonyViking says:
                He still had heirs. Besides, reading on a computer screen isn’t nearly as enjoyable as holding the book in my hands. Still, I found a happy compromise: many of his short stories which interest me are available in public domain, which means I can actually read them and then, if I do like them, look for the book! A happy discovery, indeed!
        3. SpoonyViking says:
          I think it’s a matter of fantasy writers, specifically, relying more on the genre’s archetypes (often without thinking about what they actually mean) and not adding enough individual touches.
          1. actonthat says:
            It’s certainly weirdly endemic to fantasy, isn’t it? I think part of that is a testament to how big Tolkien’s effect on the genre was, and then you have people seeing it done and doing it because they’ve seen it, and it spirals into a huge feedback loop.
            1. SpoonyViking says:
              I guess it’s also because the genre tends to be regarded as the literary equivalent of “comfort food”. So, a fantasy book being “Tolkien-like” would be seem as a compliment – “Well, Tolkien was great, so that means this book is great, too!”.

              I find it especially funny when comparing it to detective novels, since mystery writers tend to play with the genre’s tropes more than just pay homage to them.

              Reply
    2. SpoonyViking says:
      Hmmm… I can understand not wanting to invest more into a series which didn’t “wow” you immediately like, say, “The Witcher”, but I promise you both of those problems – the sense of “I’ve seen this all before” and “Taran isn’t very likeable” – are entirely resolved!* At the very least, give “The Black Cauldron” a shot. :-)

      Besides, how else will you find out if Eilonwy ever gets an emu? :-P

      * ETA: “entirely resolved as the series goes on”. Sorry, brain fart!

      1. actonthat says:
        I’ll definitely keep it in mind for when my to-do list isn’t so rawr. It was an easy and enjoyable read. Also I seriously loved Eilonwy.
        1. illhousen says:
          “I’ll definitely keep it in mind for when my to-do list isn’t so rawr.”

          So, never.

          1. actonthat says:
            A girl can dream.
  8. actonthat says:
    So I’m about halfway through the second book, at the part where they get to the Mines of Moria Marsh of Malva, and unfortunately my complaints are about the same. Painfully derivative except in short reprieve-al bursts, Taran is intolerable, and Eilonwy is the best. And the constant “stupid girl” stuff he’s throwing at her is getting increasingly grating. She has twice the courage and ten times the brains he does. I just want him to shut up, but for some reason he gets to make all the decisions. I’m not even sure why — if there’s some fantasy Chosen One reason for it we haven’t gotten there yet, so it seems like everyone Just Knows he’s super important when IRL he’s a petty brat.

    I keep waiting for something, anything different to happen (or Taran to die), but it doesn’t seem like it will, and obviously he’s The Hero, so I’m stuck with him telling Eilonwy to stfu. This formula must change at one point… right?

    1. Ember says:
      Taran most certainly does grow as a character, but his sexism remains a persistent problem. He’s still trying to tell Eilonwy not to do stuff all the way into the final book. The only saving grace is that she continues not to listen to him.
      1. actonthat says:
        It also helps that she doesn’t seem really bothered by it. She puts on a show of being annoyed, but I never get the sense she’s really ground down by the whole thing. I don’t think she tires of showing him up. If she were constantly frustrated and angry it would be much worse.
        1. SpoonyViking says:
          I’m going to quote part of my own reply to Ember here:

          “I think the issue is that the author eschewed too closely to both the source material and established conventions of the fantasy genre in portraying a setting where women are just naturally expected to stay behind and not put themselves in danger. I’ll even go as far as to say that he was deliberately subverting those expectations with how he portrayed Eilonwy. Unfortunately, it does run into the issue of exceptionalism, as you pointed out, in that Eilonwy has to be exceptionally skilled just to stand on somewhat equal footing, and it’s also somewhat degrading to more traditionally feminine women (‘feminine’ as defined by the setting, of course).

          So, yeah. I do think Eilonwy’s portrayal was well-done considering both the time and the genre, but it’s still not good enough for modern standards (or, at least, what should be modern standards) – it would have been much better to simply not call attention to the fact that Eilonwy goes out adventuring just like the others -, and I should have mentioned it in my review. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

    2. SpoonyViking says:
      Yeah, the first time I read the book, I was actually really annoyed at first because it seemed like Taran had forgotten what he learned in the first book. However, he does grow over the course of the novel, a lot more than he did in the first one – and this time around, it will stick.
      You’re actually at the point where the series really takes a life of its own, if I recall it correctly.

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