Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain”

This post contains spoilers if you’ve never read the series.

Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain” is a fantasy series of five books and one short story collection about a magic world not unlike Wales. Or anyway, the names are all Welsh, and the stories are based on Welsh legend and that’s really all the evidence I have. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

The five books chronicle the adventures of Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, who instead of caring for an oracular pig (you read that right), wants to become a hero. He does this by getting a sword, meeting a lot of royal and powerful people and passing out whenever there’s danger, so as not to get caught in the middle of it and die before achieving his dream. The short story collection is about side, secondary and tertiary characters, as well as a lot more interesting.

It took me from March to July to get through all six books, which is very unusual for me, as I love to read and I read quickly. But when I’m not enjoying a book, I can’t help but ignore it when I have free time. The Chronicles of Prydain were, sadly, those kinds of books.

I originally became interested in the series when I saw an (even more heavily) edited version of Disney’s “The Black Cauldron” on TV. I thought it was a very dark, interesting universe, I liked the character designs and the voice acting and I liked the idea that it probably would have scared me as a child. I collected the 6 books soon afterwards, but didn’t get around to reading them until recently, as I was furiously trying to finish/get rid of books before the move.

The Chronicles kind of stymied me in this quest, as reading them became a chore. For a fictional universe, the speech was strangely proper and stiff. The only character I enjoyed reading the dialogue of was Princess Eilonwy, but that was only because she was hilarious. Other characters, such as Taran, spoke much too formally for my taste, and I couldn’t see a kid enjoying his speech patterns. Many of the other characters spoke repetitively. Fflewdur Fflam, a traveling bard/king, always lied and spouted invented phrases like “Great Belin!” Another character, the fair folk dwarf Doli grumbled a lot and complained about being depended on, using the phrase “Good old Doli!” one too many times. Gurgi, a hairy and possibly non-human character, always spoke in rhyme, saying things such as “crunchings and munchings” and “beatings and pleadings.”

Another problem was with the story structure in general. In the first few novels, Taran would often pass out at important moments, and he and the reader would only find out about the daring events that took place after he woke up. Alexander finally gave that up by book four, but he still found ways to shorten the action. In the fifth book, after chapters of traveling and no action, Taran defeats the big bad, Arawn Death Lord, in two sentences. This character has been talked about since the beginning of the series. His horrible deeds are always mentioned and he’s blamed for everything that’s gone bad in Prydain. Understandably, having a name like “Death Lord” probably makes you a bad guy, but the readers never get to meet him! He never speaks, and in the final confrontation, when he is defeated, Alexander writes “Arawn Death Lord vanished.” Vanished? I was sure he had just disappeared in a puff of smoke after reading that line, and that he would be back to terrorize our group of motley heroes! But, not so. That line is Awarn’s only death rattle.

The ending of the fifth book also bothered me in other ways, as I wrote to my friend on Goodreads:

It was nice that Eilonwy and Taran stayed together, but I was kind of surprised they didn’t go to the Summer Lands/metaphorical heaven with everyone else. Sure, Taran felt all weird about not keeping his promises, but I think Prydain would have made it on its own. I was never really convinced by their relationship anyway, and that Eilonwy gave up her magic to stay with Taran was kind of annoying. But I guess that’s generic happy ending fair, so I shouldn’t complain. I just wished there was more substance to the series in general.

I like YA literature, but I feel this series was seriously lacking in the depth department. Not in the same way, say, Twilight does, but the story just felt hollow. Taran wanted to be a hero, he faced great challenges, but then he did become a hero and a king. The other characters didn’t grow at all, and while the reader may have learned new things about them along the way, they didn’t change or grow. Emotions weren’t shown, but told, which is one of the reasons I never bought Taran and Eilonwy’s relationship; Alexander was forever telling us about Taran’s feelings for her rather than showing them. Eilonwy remained static as a character, and so her personality and regard for Taran never changed. It was hard to buy such a romance.

Not that I’m knocking the series completely. I think it would be very entertaining for younger readers and anyone who is really into the fantasy genre. But for as me, it was really hard to finish. I am actually surprised I managed to finish the entire series. The books just weren’t for me, but I wholeheartedly recommend the movie.

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