I picked up the Chronicles of Prydain on a whim. I knew they had won several Newberry awards, so I thought they ought to be good. I started the first book and read it to the end. It seemed mediocre to me. I thought that the rest of the series was probably better. So I picked up the second book, which had won a Newberry Honor. Blah, I decided. I tried the third book. I liked it a bit more–it had stronger plotting–so I tried the fourth. Blah again. Well, I decided, the fifth was the Newberry Medal winner, so it had to be extremely good. I read it, finished it, and have spend the last few days irritated at Lloyd Alexander.
On one hand, I feel a bit guilty. The Prydain Chronicles have won medals. They have a lot of diehard fans, including one of my younger brothers. And I don’t like them. At the moment, I feel like a book heretic. But I haven’t changed my mind.
On the other, I can write a long list of the things to dislike. Eilonwy’s chatter is annoying, which makes it hard for me to consider her a strong heroine, even if she does love adventure. The dialogue often seems stilted, especially Taran’s. The plots are often loose at best, and frequently problems are solved by deus ex machina. The characters are underdeveloped. Some things don’t make sense–why would Dallben, Taran’s guardian, let Taran go off on a wild goose chase to find his parents when Dallben already knows what happened to them? If he wants Taran to develop more as a person, he could tell Taran the truth and then ship him off to wander.
I don’t want to be too hard on Lloyd Alexander, largely because of the fact that he wrote the series nearly fifty years ago. There weren’t nearly so many Dark Lords populating the fantasy scene back in those days, or orphan boys with secret destinies being raised on farms by old enchanters. Things that now appear as cliches were fairly new. So far as I’m aware, almost no one–Tolkien’s Hobbit being the exception that comes to mind–had written epic fantasy for children until Alexander came along. If I had lived fifty years ago, perhaps I would have been as impressed by Alexander as the Newberry Committee.
But I think a major part of the problem is that Alexander wrote his fantasy strictly for children. Many people who read the series as children seem to have retained their fondness for it after growing up. But adults who come to the series for the first time often have a different experience. Some people would argue that that is not a weakness–children’s books and adults’ books are separate categories. I disagree. And I have C.S. Lewis on my side. Lewis believed that high quality children’s books should be able to appeal to both children and adults. Good books should grow with their readers. If only children can enjoy a book, then it is not really worth being read by anyone.
Two authors come into my mind when I think of fantasies with which to compare the Chronicles of Prydain. One is The Lord of the Rings–a book to which the Prydain series seems to owe many of its themes. Even its ending seems like a poor (not to mention abrupt, disappointing, and rather strange) copy of Tolkien’s conclusion. The other is the Harry Potter series, which was written decades later and also owes a debt to The Lord of the Rings. All three series include a hero of humble origins who has an important calling, as well as a Dark Lord of sorts. I love The Lord of the Rings. I like Harry Potter (although I wish that he would stop lying to his friends and teachers, and also that J. K. Rowling’s writing style were better). Both series, however, seem more inventive than the Chronicles of Prydain–despite the fact that Tolkien’s work is decades old and that Rowling borrowed some major ideas from him. However “low-brow” Rowling is, many adults are able to appreciate her books, despite not having read them as children. And Tolkien has certainly grown with me since I first read him as a teenager. Prydain–not so much.
My final word? The Chronicles of Prydain are okay. Just okay. Many kids will like them. But I can think of many other children’s fantasy authors that I would sooner recommend.