Seven Books in Seven Weeks – The Book Of Three
… Part two of a seven part series…
Welcome back to Seven Books in Seven Weeks, a series of blogs, where I talk about stories that have made an impact on me over the years. This week, I’m covering another children’s classic, The Book of Three, by American writer, Lloyd Alexander.
As with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis, which I discussed in the first part of this series, The Book of Three was one of those stories that I read as a very young boy and it has stayed with me ever since. In fact, it had such an impact on me that, in my mid-thirties, I decided to hunt down all five books that comprise the Chronicles of Prydain series (in the Armada Lion imprint, no less), just so that I could have a complete collection to call my own.
The Book of Three centres around Taran, a young, assistant pig keeper. Bored with his mundane existence, even though Hen-Wen, the pig that he cares for is a rare, oracular one, he dreams of being a hero, like his mentor, Coll, who was once a great warrior. Of course, when a shadow falls over the land and Hen-Wen flees the sanctuary of Caer Dallben, Taran gets more excitement than he bargained for, as he sets out to find his lost pig and return her to safety. Along the way, he meets a motley assortment of characters, including Fflewddur Fflam, a kingly bard whose harp strings snap whenever he tells a lie; Doli, a grumpy, yet loyal dwarf, with the curse of invisibility (read the book and you’ll realise why it is a curse); Princess Eilonwy, the haughty and feisty owner of a magic bauble and later, of Taran’s heart; and Gurgi, a hairy, humanesque creature, who, after many adventures together, becomes Taran’s closest friend.
Looking back on it, The Book of Three is essentially an introduction to the main characters that the rest of the chronicles are based around and the land of Prydain, where the tales are set. However, for a younger reader, there is more than enough action to carry the story along and Alexander, in my view, very cleverly uses the book to sow the seeds for events that occur later in the series. For example, although the Horned King, the central villain in The Book of Three, suffers a similar fate to Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, i.e. being killed off in the first instalment, without hope of revival, he is the mechanism by which we learn of the black cauldron and the undead, cauldron born warriors, which pop up in later books. Then there is Achren, the evil enchantress, who provides the backstory to Arawn, the Sauron of the series, to use another movie simile and of course, the incident with the Gwythaint, one of the many creatures that Arawn has bent to his dominion. If you haven’t read the series already, then, don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil that particular surprise for you here.
One of the things that I like most about The Book of Three is its humanity. All of the major players have faults and foibles, which make them more believable than say, the characters in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Taran, for example, begins the book full of boyish arrogance but quickly learns that being a hero takes a lot more than just swinging a sword around and looking menacing, which is what Coll has been trying to teach him all along. By the end of the story, Taran has learned more than a few hard lessons and is ready to take on his once mundane duties with renewed respect and humility.
I was, at this point, going to say that The Book of Three is a much darker story than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but darker is not the right word. As I mentioned in my review, the latter tale contains a number of very bleak themes, which, were they not so skilfully woven into the storyline, could have come across as downright terrifying. Perhaps the word that I am looking for instead, is, real, if such a thing can be said about a children’s fantasy tale? The Book of Three describes an adventure, which is closer to real-life than the magical adventure given to us in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Nothing quite happens in the way that Taran expects and he quickly finds himself well out of his depth. The emotions are more real, too. Taran treats those around him with suspicion, mistrust and scorn, until he realises that he needs them as much as they need him, if he is to survive and help to save the day. That too, is an important point, in terms of the reality of the story. In The Book of Three, Taran is the main character, but not the hero. He doesn’t defeat the bad guy and claim victory, someone else does. Imagine being ten years old and reading that, after growing up on ‘happily ever after’ stories!
Now, before you start thinking that I am slating The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I would point out that it is a vastly different book to The Book of Three. Not only was it written in a different era, but it was also written for a different and dare I say it, younger, audience. So, if Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are truly magnificent heroes, in the classic British vein, with maybe a touch of Ealing or Hollywood sparkle about them, then Taran is a darker, grittier, more fallable hero, possibly from the John McClane mould? Not quite: “Yippie Ki Yay…” but getting there.
So, how has The Book of Three and indeed, the rest of the Chronicles of Prydain, impacted me? Well, as with, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I have read each book in the series many times, both as a child and an adult, and to this day, I still find them a wonderfully touching and absorbing rendition of a boy’s journey into manhood. I also suppose that, in a way, they introduced me to the notion of imperfect storytelling, i.e. that rather than the journey being a linear trek from point A to point B, it should be unpredictable and chaotic. More like real life, if you will. Finally, and it is a testament to the power and influence of Lloyd Alexader’s writing, both the name of the mythical sword in my novel Drynwideon, not to mention the magical bag, which the hero, Drin, accidentally summons from the Fairy Spinner in the swamp, were inspired by events in The Book of Three.
Right, two down… five more to go! What’s next? Well, I promise that it won’t be another children’s book! Stay tuned for more and if you enjoyed reading this, then please share it with your friends!