The Tao of Prydain

Prydain, of course, is just the Welsh name for Britain; you can find it now on any U.K. passport, though Lloyd Alexander did not live to see that. Thanks to Mr. Alexander, the name has acquired a second meaning: it is also the name of a Secondary World, a parish or precinct of Faërie, which serves as the setting for one of the founding texts of modern fantasy. The Book of Three has, I am told, never been out of print since its appearance almost fifty years ago. This fact alone is enough to make many a modern fantasy writer weep with envy. One could, I suspect, fill a very large bookcase with the fantasy trilogies of which Book One was already out of print by the time Book Three appeared. But Prydain remains, partly because the publishers of children’s books are not afraid of their own shadows, and are not too proud to take the profits of a hardy perennial.

My own acquaintance with the fictional Prydain began when I was ten, and read all five of the original books out of the school library; a couple of years later, I acquired my own copies, which went missing in a house-move many years later. Last year, during the enforced idleness that followed upon my fall down stairs, I was delighted to find a complete set of the paperbacks, no longer virginal but still alluring, on a sky-high shelf at a second-hand bookshop within bowshot of my current home. I adopted them and took them home, and packed my bags for a visit to Prydain, to see if the tales retained their charm for an older and more jaded reader, or if they belonged in the vast category of trash that I only enjoyed because I had not yet learnt to tell my good taste from my bad.

I am pleased to report that the books seem as good as they ever did to me, or better. I understand, now, how Alexander produced some of his effects, and where he got some of the odder ingredients for his confection. I still like the same bits I liked as a boy of ten, and dislike most of the bits that left me cold then; but now I can appreciate the ingenuity of the good parts, and at any rate account for the others. I read the books this time with a curious sort of double vision — one eye in childhood, the other in decrepitude, with a lifetime of parallax between them. This gives me a perspective and depth of field, as it were, that would be hard to get in any other way.

My first impression of Taran, all those years ago, was not a good one. I could fully feel and appreciate his boyish desire to get away from the chores of a pig-boy at little Caer Dallben, and I rather wished I had someone like Coll to teach me the rudiments of swordplay. When Dallben showed up to put a stop to their playful sparring, I thought he was a terrible spoilsport: and so he was. When he answered Taran’s desire to be somebody by giving him the title of Assistant Pig-Keeper, a fancy name for the work he was already doing, I felt that it was a low swindle and a mean practical joke. I was properly embarrassed for Taran whenever he introduced himself by that thoroughly bathetic title. It was an identity, if you like: it saved him (just) from being ‘Taran Son of Nobody, Taran of Nowhere’, to quote a taunt he would receive in Taran Wanderer. But it never impressed anyone; it never could have impressed anyone. A sane person would have called himself simply Taran of Caer Dallben and left it at that. One does not boast of being a pig-keeper; to boast of being an Assistant Pig-Keeper is merely a bad joke, and I thought, in those days, that the joke was carried on far too long.

The odd thing (which I never noticed at ten, but which is obvious to me now) is that this silly title stands for, and actually obscures, a thoroughly impressive reality. For Taran is not just the assistant keeper of any pig, but of the famous Hen Wen, the only oracular pig in Prydain. The plot of The High King turns essentially on her prophecies, which she spells out slowly and painfully by pointing with her snout at Dallben’s enchanted ‘letter sticks’. In The Book of Three she makes no prophecy, but starts the plot going by running away from Caer Dallben in a sudden panic. Prophesying, it seems, is hard work for a pig. Kings and princes travelled from all over Prydain to consult Hen Wen, and treated her revelations with the utmost gravity. To be the assistant keeper of Hen Wen was a place of considerable honour. But in all the times Taran introduced himself as an Assistant Pig-Keeper, I cannot recall a single instance where he mentioned Hen Wen by name. It would have made a difference.

Now all this, grating as it was on my ten-year-old nerves (and sadly ironic as it is to my antediluvian grown-up self), points up both the method of Alexander’s opus, and one of its frequent morals: ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’, or if you prefer, ‘No pig is a hero to her valet’. But the moral is never stated; you have to absorb it indirectly from the story. It is simply the Tao of that world, as Lewis or Le Guin would say; and Alexander’s attitude towards that Tao, it seems to me, neatly holds the middle position between those two. There is no God, there are scarcely even any gods, in Prydain, except, perhaps, for a single mysterious reference to Gwyn the Hunter’s unknown liege lord. There are supernatural powers, as in any proper fantasy; but these are either radically hostile, like Arawn the Death-Lord, or eldritch and indifferent, like Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. Good and evil are clearly delineated, but nobody (except perhaps the Sons of Don) is unequivocally on the side of Good; whereas Evil has realms and castles and armies all its own, and a pretty large share in the hearts of most men. It is a bleak and unforgiving view of the moral universe, and for the most part, Alexander faces it without flinching. To this extent, it reminds me of the Norse myths rather than the Welsh.

Hen Wen reveals something more about Alexander’s method, a consistent point of technique; and since a story must be told before it can have a moral, this technical point may be more central to his work. He uses names out of Welsh legend, and often in a way that genuinely evokes the mythical resonance of the original places and characters. Henwen (so spelt in the Welsh Triads), Dallben, and Coll ab Collfrewy, for instance, are all found in genuine Welsh tales. But they are very different characters there, and their deeds do not much resemble anything that happens in the Chronicles of Prydain. Alexander puts out his call to Central Casting for reliable Welsh character actors, and half the cast of the Mabinogion turns up; but the script is almost entirely his own. The effect is peculiar, and I suspect it might make a genuine scholar of Welsh legend rather angry. If there is a commandment saying, ‘Thou shalt not take the names of the Welsh in vain,’ Alexander breaks it on every page.

So, for instance, Arawn of Annwn is an important personage in the Mabinogion, where he appears as a rather jolly lord of the afterlife, fey and dangerous, to be sure, but not particularly evil. In Alexander’s Prydain he becomes Arawn the Death-Lord, ruler of Annuvin, a figure almost as satanic as Sauron. He even wears an iron crown, like Tolkien’s Morgoth. The crowns of Annuvin and Angband, between them, establish a trope: the iron crown as a symbol of naked power, devoid of nobility, legitimacy, or justice. An earthly king’s crown is of gold, and symbolizes, among other things, the burden of responsibility: the king’s head upholds the heavy and precious metal, as the king’s actions are meant to uphold the still heavier and more precious weight of law and judgement. But iron is not precious; it is only hard and dangerous. The symbolism is powerful and subtle; it conveyed its emotional meaning to me even at ten, when I was not yet wise or learned enough to understand that meaning in rational and political terms.

One could make an instructive list of names out of the Mabinogion and the Triads that occur in The Chronicles of Prydain, with different stories attached to each; but such a list would have to include almost every name in the Prydain books. As far as I know, of all the characters in the series, only Taran and Eilonwy have names not taken from genuine Welsh sources. Gwydion ab Don is a warrior, a trickster, a magician of parts, and a bit of a rogue; as Ursula Le Guin has said, he is ‘not only crazy, but Welsh’ — a double dose of the same heady drug. Gwydion Son of Don, as drawn by Alexander, is not much like that; he is the Aragorn of Prydain, heir to the throne of Caer Dathyl, a war leader and a wanderer, wise in healing and wood-craft, learned in ancient lore, grave and sometimes haggard from the weight of his cares. The Book of Three can be roughly summarized, once you know the dramatis personae, in a single sentence: ‘Taran tries to do Gwydion’s job, and bungles it repeatedly.’ The High King completes the ‘arc’ of both characters: this time it is Gwydion who fails, and Taran who saves Prydain. The apprentice has grown to surpass his master.

Part of the appeal of mythology is the endless interplay between stories that it offers. A cycle of legends, worked on over the centuries by many hands, inevitably acquires the depth and Sehnsucht that Tolkien correctly identifies as one of the deepest elements in Story:

A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving. I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached — or if so only to become ‘near trees’. (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 110)

Prydain ‘works’ largely because Alexander appropriates so many of the old names, and just enough of the tales that go with them; the untold stories are really there, though the genuine Welsh legends are in a very different mood, and disagree with his tales in both detail and tone. No matter: it is enough. But it is not only on the Mabinogi that he depends; he has his own store of invention, more than most writers. The character of Achren is a splendid example. A person named Achren occurs in the Triads, but she is a mysterious figure about whom we know almost nothing. It was Alexander’s invention that made her the former Queen of Prydain, the first to wear the Iron Crown, overthrown by the usurper Arawn. She is, of course, consumed by the lust for revenge, though she humbles herself to accept Dallben’s help and even becomes his house-servant for a time. In personality, she strongly resembles Jadis, the White Witch in the Narnia books; but where Jadis opposes Aslan to the end and destroys herself, Achren submits to the authority of the Sons of Don and is redeemed. Her self-sacrifice is one of many without which the victory over Arawn could never have been won. Here the Tao of Prydain most clearly reveals its roots in the Christian ethic. Achren saves her soul by surrendering her self-will; she achieves her desire by reducing it to its proper place in the ordo amoris, subordinating it to the greater good. Seek ye first the kingdom of Math Son of Mathonwy, and all these things shall be added unto you.

The central plot of the Prydain books, and most of the subplots, could be summarized in the words of the Magnificat: ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble’: except that the he is never named and never visibly present. King Morgant, Pryderi Son of Pwyll, and Magg, the steward of Mona, are among those who abuse their power and turn to evil, and are destroyed by their own hubris. On the other hand we have Doli the dwarf, who starts out as the least of the Fair Folk, the only one of his family who cannot make himself invisible; and Rhun Son of Rhuddlum, the feckless and scatterbrained king’s son of Mona, who knows he is unworthy to succeed his father; and of course Taran himself, who begins as an orphan and rises to be High King. The most interesting case is Ellidyr Son of Pen-Llarcau, who both rises and falls at the same time. The impoverished scion of a minor royal house, he clings to his pinchbeck royalty as Taran clings to his piffling title; he is rash, selfish, petulant, and disobedient — but in the end he destroys the Black Crochan, the evil enchantment for which The Black Cauldron is named, at the cost of his own life. The quality of Christian mercy, in almost the full theological sense, is well expressed in Gwydion’s words: ‘I honour Morgant for what he used to be, and Ellidyr for what he became.’ This, too, is part of the Tao of Prydain.

The Chronicles are rich in comedy, and the best kind at that: not extraneous ‘comic relief’ stuck onto the surface of the story (‘like currants on a bun’, as Tolkien remarks somewhere or other), but a vein of sheer good humour that arises naturally from the characters and their interactions. There are some exceptions. I always found Gurgi a little hard to take, and his ‘crunchings and munchings’ dialogue painfully overdone — though the pathos of his character emerges despite the ham-handed technique. He is something between Pinocchio and Caliban, more than a beast, less than a man, but self-aware enough to want to be fully human; the slow process by which he makes his soul is often moving, but just as often exploited for cheap laughs.

Most of the time, Alexander does better. Eilonwy is a typhoon in human form, sometimes impulsive, sometimes arrogant, always tomboyish, but wise enough to serve as the voice of reason in Taran’s frequent moments of idiocy. There is a good deal of sense in her utterances, though filtered (to good comic effect) through the medium of silly similes: ‘If you don’t listen to what somebody tells you, it’s like putting your fingers in your ears and jumping down a well.’ King Smoit is a real creation, almost a fatherly version of Obelix the Gaul, from the Asterix comics. (There should have been a live-action movie, and Smoit should have been played by Brian Blessed.) Then there is Doli of the Fair Folk, incurably bad-tempered, always doing the right thing under furious protest; and his cousin Gwystyl, who hides the heart of a lion and the cunning of a fox under the mournful exterior of an Eeyore. (I discovered Prydain before Narnia, and thanks to Gwystyl, I recognized Puddleglum as a long-lost friend.) Perhaps the best humour in the books arises from the plight of Fflewddur Fflam, who is blessed (or cursed) with an imagination that has got to embellish every story he tells, and cursed (or blessed) with a magic harp whose strings snap every time he does it. His embarrassed back-pedallings and corrections provide some of the best moments in the series. If I ever become High King of Prydain, every politician will be issued a copy of Fflewddur’s harp.

Alexander even manages to make the Fates amusing. They do a turn in The Black Cauldron and another in Taran Wanderer, under the names of Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch; and it is a tribute to the author’s skill that they keep all the other characters in a perpetual state of confusion, without ever confusing the reader. In this version, the Fates do their spinning and weaving and cutting of threads, but their tapestry is an almighty tangle, and they themselves are not much better off. It is characteristically brilliant that Alexander makes them take turns at each of the three roles, exchanging identities frequently; and still more brilliant that they argue about it, because nobody wants to be Orgoch.

The passage in The Black Cauldron where Taran and his companions try to buy the Black Crochan from the three crones is one of the best scenes in fantasy. Alexander brilliantly conveys the unearthliness, the inhumanness, of the Fates, both by their utter indifference to most of the things that men and women want, and by the value they place on things that we take utterly for granted. It reminds me of the scene in Clifford Simak’s ‘The Big Front Yard’ where the newly encountered aliens, unimpressed by anything else about Earth and its denizens, are delighted to trade for the wondrous human technology called paint. But like Simak’s aliens, Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch play strictly by the rules of the Tao: they never give anything without a price — and that adds both danger and pathos to the story whenever they appear.

The second appearance of these three weird sisters, in Taran Wanderer, marks a turning point in the series, when it becomes definitely darker and more serious in tone. Taran is growing up, and the readers (for the books were released at annual intervals) have been growing along with him. Dissatisfied with his status as a foundling with neither kin nor homeland, he goes to the Marshes of Morva to bargain for the truth about his parentage. Orddu tells him that she cannot answer the question, but counsels him to consult the Mirror of Llunet at the other end of Prydain. That is Taran’s ostensible quest; but his real quest, and the true business of the story, is summed up in Orddu’s apparently casual remark: ‘Has the darling robin ever scratched for his own worms? That’s bravery of another sort.’ Like most of us, he tries his hand at many trades in the course of the book; and as so often happens, he learns that the one nearest to his heart is one that he lacks the talent to pursue. There have been many sad moments in the books before, but none so sad as this.

In The High King, nearly all the moments are sad. The book is a sustained exercise in grimness on the fairy-tale level: never too much for a child to take, never wallowing in despair or taking delight in gore. But one by one, the delightful things that made Prydain a joy to visit are taken away or broken for ever. Fflewddur loses his harp; Eilonwy loses her magic bauble; Caer Dathyl itself, the golden castle of the Sons of Don, goes up in flames, and the High King Math is treacherously slain. The compass of the story is reduced to Taran and his friends, fighting a desperate rearguard action to keep the dread Cauldron-Born from returning to Arawn’s stronghold; for the longer they are away from Annuvin, the weaker they become, and if the Sons of Don must perish, they hope at least to take the undead warriors with them. Alexander tells this part of the tale with a master’s touch, conjuring pathos without a trace of sentimentality to spoil it. This is not the death of Little Nell.

But in the end, as I thought when I was ten – and find that I think still – the author overreaches a little. He stacks the deck against his hero so very much that even Taran’s victory feels like a defeat; and to my older and more critical (and possibly wiser) self, it seems like cheating in the service of a predetermined moral. A story means what it means, and that may not be what you intend it to mean; and unless you are a Swift or a Voltaire, telling a masterful satire with no pretence of realism, you cannot force it to mean more or less than it does. (The Prydain books, of course, are not realistic in the matter of magic, or for that matter, in their treatment of the Welsh legends; but they are very realistic indeed in the matter of human psychology. All of Alexander’s people behave like real people; their actions arise clearly and plausibly from their natures and motivations. This is a very great merit.) To change a story for the sake of a tacked-on moral, to force a happy ending onto a tragedy or a sad one onto a comedy, at best mars the story, at worst destroys it. The High King is marred, not destroyed, by its ending; it is not even seriously marred; but there is a tone of excess, of piling on, that marks the one place where Alexander risks slipping into bathos.

For when Arawn the Death-lord is slain, and all his works are destroyed, an end comes too for the Sons of Don in Prydain. They embark on their ships and return to the Summer Country whence they came. With them goes Fflewddur Fflam, who has a drop or two of their blood; and Gurgi, who will faithfully recapitulate the story of Pinocchio by finally becoming human; and Dallben, and Gwydion himself, and many another. Eilonwy, too, must depart, as an enchantress of the House of Llyr, for magic is departing from the world of men; and the Fair Folk are closing their realm to mortals once and for all. It is all very reminiscent of the last sailing of the Elves at the end of The Lord of the Rings; the resemblance is too close not to be deliberate.

Indeed, the resemblances, for those who have read both tales, are impossible to miss, and only serve to point up the shockingly original twist that Alexander gives his ending. Frodo had to leave Middle-earth to find healing. But Taran has made many promises to his dead, more than was wise, more than any man was likely to keep; so he refuses to take ship, and stays in Prydain on the most hopeless quest of all – the quest to keep his word. Dallben warns him that he may fail, and even if he succeeds, he may do so without thanks, or even a mound for his bones when he dies. But Taran will not be dissuaded:

‘Once, I hoped for a glorious destiny,’ Taran went on, smiling at his own memory. ‘That dream has vanished with my childhood; and though a pleasant dream it was fit only for a child. I am well-content as an Assistant Pig-Keeper.’

‘Even that contentment shall not be yours,’ Dallben said. ‘No longer are you Assistant Pig-Keeper, but High King of Prydain.’

Taran caught his breath and stared with disbelief at the enchanter. ‘You jest with me,’ he murmured. ‘Have I been prideful that you would mock me by calling me King?’

Dallben explains:

‘Long ago, when The Book of Three first came into my hands, from its pages I learned that when the Sons of Don departed from Prydain the High King would be one who slew a serpent, who gained and lost a flaming sword, who chose a kingdom of sorrow over a kingdom of happiness. These prophecies were clouded, even to me; and darkest was the prophecy that he who would come to rule Prydain would be one of no station in life.’

Taran, who was born to no station in life (even ‘Assistant Pig-Keeper’ was technically a promotion), chose the kingdom of sorrow over the kingdom of happiness; and at that moment, Alexander lays on the sorrow with a leaden trowel. He relents a little; Eilonwy renounces her powers of enchantment so that she can remain with him. But though we rejoice a little that Taran has finally won his princess, we mourn all the more to see another precious thing lost, another gift given up.

It is all very neat, and has something of the inevitability that a true fairy-tale price ought to have; but not all, for Alexander has dragged it in by the heels at the last moment. It was scant pages before, when Annuvin was already in flames, that Gwydion happened to mention this little detail: When Arawn is defeated, the Sons of Don must leave Prydain. This is a significant fault. In The Lord of the Rings, the departure of the Elves was a certain outcome, was indeed already happening at the beginning of the story; whether Sauron stood or fell, their time was ending. And Tolkien made it perfectly clear that the power of the Elven-rings was bound up with the One Ring, and that all the works of the Elves would perish when the Ring was destroyed. The world as they knew it was ending, and they chose to help Frodo destroy the Ring all the same.

But in Alexander’s tale, there has been no mention of any reason why the downfall of Arawn should mean the end of all magic in Prydain. It is not altogether a bad idea in itself; it fits very well with ‘the Customs’, the laws of Faërie; for the Sons of Don were the enemies of Arawn, just as Gandalf was the Enemy of Sauron, and their work was done. And many a modern fantasy tale ends with the ‘thinning’ of the world and the passing away of enchantment. But it feels like a cheat, when thus brought in at the last moment, in the coda of the tale. We have had no preparation for the idea that this – this bitter choice – would be the real crux of Taran’s quest. It seems almost as if the author gave this last turn of the screw without premeditation, just to spoil the hero’s reward.

Nearer the truth, I imagine, is my suspicion that he did it to imitate the beautiful but bittersweet ending of Tolkien’s masterpiece, and to make his own commentary upon it. It was a thing worth doing; but this, perhaps, was not the best occasion for it. It puts the ending of the series subtly out of tune with what has gone before. Not as badly, say, as the ending of Great Expectations, which was supposed to be a tragedy, and which Dickens turned into a comedy because Bulwer-Lytton pestered him to change it. But the flaw remains. For a writer to cheat on behalf of his characters is a grave offence against art and the Customs; we laugh at the deus ex machina, and the hero’s sixgun that fires thirty bullets, and the villain’s gun that cannot hit the broad side of a barn at ten paces, and only goes click when fired point-blank, and all the other ways that a writer can put his thumb on one side of the scales. To put his thumb on the other side is often excused by those who mistake despair for realism; but it is no more true or honest. The author has his Tao, and he has kept to it scrupulously for five excellent books; it is sad and disappointing to see him turn aside from it now, even though only by a fraction.

Though this flaw comes where it can least be overlooked, it can still be forgiven; and I do forgive it. I will not say that Lloyd Alexander produced a masterpiece of children’s fiction, for that might be taken as patronizing by those who have forgotten what it is to be a child. Rather I will say that he produced a masterpiece of fantasy, and a very considerable achievement in the realm of literature as a whole; and he did it under the heavy restrictions of length, style, and content which were imposed by his choice to write for children under the editorial standards of the 1960s. His achievement stands on its merit, and it stands high indeed.

 

I am glad to see that The Book of Three has been re-released (though never out of print) in a new edition to mark its fiftieth anniversary. The gifted M. S. Corley has paid a remarkable homage to the original cover by recreating the design entirely in digital media. Mr. Corley, who has done sterling work for authors like Hugh Howey, deserves credit for recreating the spirit of the 1964 design.

 

The Book of Three

 

Comments

  1. Polynices says:

    Brilliant analysis! This is why I read your blog. Thanks.

    I loved them as a kid and recently read them to my sons. I had a similar experience to what you describe as I experienced the stories as an adult.

  2. (As part of the 3.6, I am fully repaid for any support by this post – thanks.)

    Having recently completed the 4th book of my contemporary Virginia foxhunter in a Welsh-based fae otherworld, I can COMPLETELY identify with:

    “Alexander puts out his call to Central Casting for reliable Welsh character actors, and half the cast of the Mabinogion turns up… ”

    I, too, found myself digging thru the Triads and Mederei Badellfawr made an entrance in a bit part.

    The laugh was on me when I did my own narration for the audiobook of book 1 and had to face the Welsh names directly.

  3. What I remember best about “Assistant Pig-Keeper” is the way it impressed Eilonwy on their first meeting. New and unique — she has met princes enough not to be impressed by them.

    • ‘Impressed’ may be a shade too strong a word. It certainly intrigued her; on the other hand, she quickly guessed that Assistant Pig-Keeping was not ‘the kind of work that calls for a great deal of intelligence’.

  4. Bob McMaster says:

    Having begun to read this series to my daughters after having not read them for many years, I have had many of the same emotional reactions, though not nearly the same incisive intellectual responses.

  5. Magdalena Aders says:

    In my web search to find answers to some of the “untold stories” that were hinted at in the Prydain books but never fully told, I stumbled across this blog and I am so gratified that I did. What a thorough and in-depth perspective in psychological, philosophical and spiritual terms. Thank you for this.

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