In grade five, we had, like many other schools, a monthly book club.
A thin newsletter full of colour pictures of all types of books would arrive on our desks regularly, and the classroom kids would pour through it, pointing items out to each other, talking about what they wanted to read, and circling those books that they wanted their parents to purchase for them.
We’d rush home, present the ordering document to our Moms and Dads and bug them until they saw things our way. They would fill out the contact information and staple a cheque to it and we’d excitedly bring it all back to school, handing in the completed form to our teachers, and then anxiously wait for delivery of our order, weeks later.
At least, that was my experience. That’s how I remember it.
I remember flipping pages of one particular magazine, as a ten-year old boy in the fall of that year, and coming across a book that had a painted cover showcasing an image of a man, running through a wooded glade with a dagger raised protectively by his side. An aggressive black horse reared in front of him. Atop the horse was another man, cloaked in red and wearing with an antler-horned human skull as a face. His mouth was open in what was surely a blood-curdling scream.
And at that very moment, I knew I had to read Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, the first book of his five-volume series, The Chronicles of Prydain.
The Book of Three.
It was such a great title. The novel, influenced by Welsh mythology, history and culture, along with slices of Arthurian legend, told the story of Taran, a young boy who held the title of an Assistant Pig-keeper at a small farmstead, who longed to be a hero. The first sentence of the first chapter was confirmation of my enthusiasm: “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.”
This was everything a young boy could hope for!
Taran, like many other boys my age, was me. Here I was, sitting in a classroom which I enjoyed, but still often wanting to spend my time reading comic books, novels, and drawing human figures with swords or capes instead of working on math problems and science. Here I was, with a teacher I admired, who, like Coll, was charged with the more practical side of my education.
So, I read the book and loved it. I gleefully wrote a report on in, and drew the cover of that report myself with pencil crayons and ink pen – mimicking the layout of the very image that originally drew me in. That was my way of bridging the gap between my more artistic inclinations and the work I needed to be graded on.
The Book of Three was more than a title to the first book in The Chronicles of Prydain series. It was also an artifact that one of the characters, Dallben, owned: an ancient hardback manuscript that told the history, present and an undefined future for the land and inhabitants of Prydain, a medieval place full of hills, mountains, swamps, castles, forests, Kings, Princes, good people and, of course, a rising evil.
It was in these pages that I met, alongside the excitable Taran (who was me), the red-headed, quick-witted and sharp, Princess Eilonwy (whom I instantly and forever fell in love with); the wandering, oft-lying bard, Fflewddur Fflam; the always angry Doli of the Fair Folk; and the forest beast Gurgi, who was always searching for “crunchings and munchings”.
All of them became lifelong, if only fictional, friends. The Book of Three was perfect fuel for an active imagination.
I bought the second book in the series as soon as the next month’s newsletter came upon my desk: The Black Cauldron, winner of the 1966 Newbery Honor prize. Here Taran and his compatriots were older and knew themselves a little better. I was growing into the characters, just as I was growing into myself. The novel told the story of how the group of friends attempted to destroy the titular cauldron, a magical relic that Arawn Death-Lord (the series’ main antagonist) was using to bring forth an army of the undead in order to overtake the land. Slain soldiers would be dropped into the cauldron’s bubbling and smoking waters, which would then would climb out again, lifeless and dumb and powerful. It was some pretty frightening imagery.
The trend of ordering books, reading them and writing book reports continued thorough The Castle of Llyr (where we learn more of Eilonwy’s family and history), Taran Wanderer (a personal favourite that sees Taran walk the lands, co-habiting the farmers and shop-keeps of the rural countryside in order to learn more of his parentage), and, finally, The High King, the great and final book of the series with its climactic finish, which was also a winner of the 1969 Newbery Medal.
Here, everything sadly ended: the story – and what had become such a close relationship between the main characters and their young reader. The only thing that gave me a little cheer after the final sentence in The High King was a return to the author, Lloyd Alexander’s dedication, a promise found on the first page of the book:
“For the boys who might have been Taran
And the girls who will always be Eilonwy”
Eventually, the first two books of the series would be loosely adapted into an animated film by Walt Disney Productions. As will many things adapted, the film never lived up to the imagery and emotion or sense of story read in the original texts. It was, on some levels, interesting and fun, but on so many others, it failed miserably and became an unfortunate viewing experience (and warning) for a lover of the series.
The Chronicles of Prydain was full of imaginative lands and fully realized characters that acted with the passions of their convictions. It instantly introduced me to Welsh mythology and a part of the world I grew so very curious about. The books came at an important time in my life when I was growing, forming a broader view on the machinations of people and the world and all of our interactions, good and bad with each other. They came to me as I was beginning to mature into a young man, with interests and characteristics and morals, much like Taran was throughout the cycle of five books, a character striving to become something more than he was born into.
Indeed, Alexander often stated that we all go through trials and tribulation throughout our lives, when we must become the heroes of our own stories. In a sense, we are all born Assistant Pig-Keepers. And I wonder, sometimes, if our lives will one day be remembered as well as those of the fictional characters we so love.
Perhaps, like the author so eloquently tells us in the final sentence of The High King, only the bards will know the truth of it.