Saturday, April 9, 2011

Prydain: I Really Like It

As you may or may not recall, I received as a birthday present the full set of The Chronicles of Prydain.  I read them once, many years ago as a sophomore in high school, and I enjoyed them and meant to re-read them some day, but I never did.  When I saw over Christmas break at the library that there was a nice new edition recently published, complete with beautiful new cover art, I made sure to mention it to The Wife.  Just as she surprised me hiding them one at a time throughout the house on my birthday, I was surprised and delighted as I soon after started reading through each one.  It's been so long, it was for the most part like reading them for the first time.  I won't take the time to review each of them here (you can find my full reviews on Goodreads, if you're interested), but I felt like I should write something about them, since I enjoyed them ever so much.  I feel like I have so much to say!  Where do I even begin?  I mean, I read all five of these books in barely three weeks.
The five books in The Chronicles of Prydain tell the story of Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper and his journey from just that, a kid of indeterminate background who dreams of the glory of battle and gaining the honor of men, to a man and discovers what's really important.  Along the way he meets the feisty, sharp-tongued Princess Eilonwy, the utterly loyal creature Gurgi, the wandering king-bard Fflewddur Fflam with a magical harp that keeps his tall-tale telling in check, and the ever-grumbling but ever-faithful dwarf Doli.  The super evil baddie Arawn Death-Lord (along with his ruthless Huntsmen of Annuvin and the horrific army Cauldron-Born) is an awesome villain, an ever-present threat and yet hardly ever seen face-to-face.  The land of Prydain is definitely a fantasy world, but still feels like it could be rooted in history (the author drew on Welsh legends for inspiration).  It's rich and full and the characters are so very well-written, and there are many themes about honor, humility, redemption and sacrifice.  There were times I felt like there was a lot more to what I was reading than what was on the surface, and repeated readings would surely be in order.  After reading quite a few lame and badly-written modern book series (I'm looking at you, Ms. Meyer and Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles...), it was refreshing to read something basically new to me that was very well-written and full of delightful (or terrifying!) characters.  I was surprised to discover that Lloyd Alexander is American, his writing has such an authentic European feel to it.  He shows, rather than tells, and proves that less often is truly more.  In fact, Taran's physical appearance is practically never described, yet I feel like I know him quite well.  The heroes are noble, the villains are threatening, the action is thrilling and convincing, the romance is innocent, the humor is genuine, the themes are strong, and they're all in great balance.  Each of the chronicles is fairly short (the longest isn't even 250 pages), so they're quick reads, but they're chock-full of great stuff, and don't read like children's books.  This is a story about good vs. evil, and it feels like classic fantasy.  Each tells a fairly stand-alone story, but the overarching plot is masterfully woven throughout each novel, and I loved how certain elements and characters resurfaced and came full-circle, even if they seemed at first minor or irrelevant.  It's like a well-forged sword, or a fine tapestry, or a beautiful piece off the potter's wheel or something.

Relatedly, many will already know that the Disney animated version is a combination of the stories from the first two books (and a couple elements from the other three).  It took a long long time to produce, and at the time was pretty revolutionary for the studio, but it wasn't very well-received.   It's sort of considered by many to be the black sheep of the Disney canon, but, even though it takes some pretty serious liberties with the story and some of the characters, I think it's a pretty nice adaptation in many ways.  It's pretty dark and grim, but that's more or less fitting, and I think it's largely underrated as a movie.
So there you go, just a little plug for what seems like a relatively unknown and underappreciated series.  It's been around for several decades, and won many notable awards, it just seems like a lot of other books have a lot more surrounding hype and excitement.  It was written in the mid-'60s, and although the writing doesn't exactly sound contemporary, far from seeming dated, it still somehow feels timeless.  I think a full-on faithful movie adaptation would be glorious (I thought more than once about who I would cast, though I think a bunch of unknowns would be the best choice in the end), but I just don't anticipate that happening for some reason.  I don't think it's a perfect series, but I think it's excellent.  There were a couple of relationships that I would have liked to see a little more fleshed-out and characters I would have liked to have explored a little more, or that were a little bit one-dimensional, but how can I complain when the journey was such a delight?  Julie asked me last night where I rank it relative to Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and I guess I would have to put it below all of those, but only very slightly.  I just devoured these books, and I love the characters so much.  As I said in my last Goodreads review, after I finished, I didn't want to start reading something else immediately, I just wanted to let this series sit in my mind for a little while. I can't wait to read the supplemental follow-up novel of short stories that precede the events of The Chronicles. I really shouldn't have waited so long to reread these books. I think I might have to return to them every year or two. I miss Taran and Eilonwy already.


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  2. I need a new series for sure. Unfortunately (haha! You'll see...) I was to pick the book for our book group, and I picked Series of Unfortunate Events (see! Haha!) because most people hadn't read them. I will be sure to pick these next based on your recommendation.

    Also, my security word was muties. Sounds like some cereal to get your kids to shut up. "Muties! So delicious, leaves kids speechless!"

  3. Yes! I totally want to read these. Thanks for the idea.

  4. Didn't Amber and her class make up Prydain in elementary school?