I grew up reading Lloyd Alexander’s classic story, The Book of Three, the first volume in a quintet of entertaining children’s adventure books based on Welsh legends. With characters who embody the qualities and shortcomings typical of many people, its humor, pain, and lessons are still impactful.
We are first introduced to Taran, an assistant pig-keeper, who works alongside Coll, the chief-keeper of Hen Wen, a well-guarded animal who, unbeknownst to Taran, has a supernatural power. We meet these three at Caer Dallben, the domain of a seemingly unremarkable, white-bearded ancient, who happens to be a good and powerful wizard (insofar as we may endorse this, as God does not favor wizardry).
As a boy, Taran, desires to be a great warrior and man of importance, and just when his life seems to be going nowhere, is thrust unexpectedly into a great adventure involving a world filled with all sorts of wonderful and terrible inhabitants: First we meet Gurgi, a steadfast if scraggly creature who is obsessed with feasting on his so-called “crunchings and munchings” whenever the opportunity arises. The loyal Fflewddur Fflam is a tall and lanky fellow, who aspires to become a bard, but has been given a special harp whose strings snap abruptly whenever he tells a tall tale. Eilonwy is the faithful, golden bauble-clutching young maiden, rescued from the clutches of an evil enchantress. The smart and pretty girl turns out to have a fiery temper, and would rather wield a flashing sword in battle than a wooden scullery spoon. They become close knit friends, despite their various flaws.
The not so savory populace includes Arawn, the menacing and seldom seen, dark-lord of Prydain; Achren, the wicked enchantress who once held Eilonwy captive; the Cauldron-Born — “un-dead” men, who comprise Arawn’s menacing army; and the Gwythaints — predatory birds, who terrorize our heroes.
Later in the tale, we meet the other good guys: the mature Gwydion, Prince of Don, is humble, valiant and wise — a warrior-prince who rallies Taran and his companions to battle against the dark-lord; Prince Ellidyr, a young and troubled man who makes a great, if concerning, sacrifice; and Taliesin’s son, Adaon, a man of peace. Our heroes grow in wisdom and character, and face the villains for the last time, in a costly final battle that completes the saga in The High King. Throughout, Taran learns what really constitutes nobility and honor, and makes important choices based on what he has learned on his journey.
These fictional characters embody many common human qualities, and were fun and inspiring to read as a boy. Now that I am in my middle years, I ponder the more serious themes underlying this somewhat epic tale.