What is it about Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain that makes them so enduring? I think this is an important question to consider. Most of us who make art want our work to matter. We hope it will find a natural audience who will enjoy it and remember it for a long time. We might even aspire to create artwork that can somehow transform people in some way for the better. It’s not that we want our work to simply ‘convey a message’ or ‘teach a lesson.’ Rather, we want our ideas and creations to be received, essentially, as a type of vicarious experience, one that might even become a sort of collective memory or shared understanding.
I recently spoke with a young man who told me, “When I started reading The Book of Three, I thought it wasn’t all that different from other fantasy books I’ve read. But by the end of it, it really started to feel like something unique. I’m looking forward to reading the second book.”
Last year one of my colleagues, a BYU professor of Media Arts, said, “I recently re-read some of the great fantasy novels I had read when I was younger: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Prydain. And I have to say, the ones that held up best on the second reading were the Prydain books. I really enjoyed them more than the first time I read them.”
I’ve heard a few people compare Alexander’s work to Tolkien’s and suggest there isn’t much about Prydain that is really different or unique. I can only conclude that this type of assessment likely comes from a cursory or perfunctory reading. Having read both series multiple times, to me it’s like saying cats are basically the same as dogs (they both have fur, claws, tails, ears, fangs, etc.), or there’s little appreciable difference between a conch shell and a nautilus: both are rigid, spiral, and patterned. Both come from the ocean and are nice to look at—what’s the big difference?
Admittedly there are common themes and elements in almost all fantasy fiction that’s based on the British mythological tradition. That said, I could make a long list of things that, in my mind, distinguish the Chronicles of Prydain from other fantasy series. But ultimately I think you just have to experience them for yourself. When you read them, try to surrender yourself and let go of any assumptions or stereotypes about high fantasy. Just go on the journey with Taran, experience the world through his eyes, and let yourself feel what he feels. You might start to see the land of Prydain spreading out before your mind’s eye. You might even be able to hear the voices of the characters inside your head as you meet and get to know them.
The Prydain books are not long or difficult. In fact, you might even read them so fast that you’ll finish before you really want to. Many readers have said they found it difficult to accept that the stories came to an end. The Foundling: And Other Tales of Prydain offers a welcome opportunity to return to that world and enjoy some of the back-stories alluded to in the central narrative. And if you have children, especially ones between the ages of about seven and thirteen, what better reason to read the Chronicles of Prydain all over again? You can spend more time together as a family and maybe inspire your little ones to become lifelong readers.
~ J. Kunz