Books That Grow With You: <i>The Chronicles of Prydain</i> by Lloyd Alexander

Out of respect for that fear, and the memories I want to enshrine, I tend to leave my childhood books undisturbed on the shelf. But some books can withstand the test of our aging and grow with us, like a second skin.
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There are special fears associated with rereading the books from one's childhood. Foremost among them, for me, is that at my advanced age and admittedly jaded outlook--these days, it takes a lot for me to give my heart to a book--I will realize that my treasured memories are built on quicksand; that the book is terrible, or at least not very good.

Out of respect for that fear, and the memories I want to enshrine, I tend to leave my childhood books undisturbed on the shelf. (I still have most of them, despite several moves across the Atlantic Ocean and back, their covers corrugated and shriveled as if from a wreck.) But some books can withstand the test of our aging and grow with us, like a second skin. For me, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain are among these books.

A five-book series set in a fantasy world drawn from Welsh legend, the Chronicles are marvelous entertainment, employing powerfully imaginative plots, rapid pacing and barely a wasted word. Though they are children's books, there is as much violence and death as can be found in Young Adult books today. I was bit bemused when parents of America went wild following J.K. Rowling's killing of Cedric Diggory in The Goblet of Fire; thanks to Lloyd Alexander, I had been reading books that killed off characters since the age of nine. Personally, I recommend it. Kids can handle more than we tend to think.

People who have read the series as children often report feeling as if the characters are their family. Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper, Princess Eilonwy, Flewddur Fflam, and Gurgi are names to conjure with in children's literature, at least among those of us who were fortunate enough to get past the books' often dreadful covers. (Just google "Taran Wanderer" or "The High King" if you want to see what appear to be scenes from a He-Man cartoon.) This is probably because at heart, it is the growth of these characters that concerns the author most. While Taran, who begins the series as a young boy, is the protagonist, no one is exempt from the hard choices that are necessary to battle evil--for in Prydain, "evil is never distant." One of the great pleasures of the books is the emerging facets of the characters and the ways in which they are transformed as their youthful innocence falls away.

Perhaps that is a reason the books keep their relevance over decades, or have for me. I felt very superior when I began rereading them as a teenager. Lloyd Alexander was preachy, I decided as I reread the first book, The Book of Three. And it's true sometimes he can be, with characters occasionally saying things like, "For each of us comes a time when we must be more than what we are." Whatever, said my teenage self with an eyeroll. The Book of Three is a romp--it was cute, was the verdict of my determined-to-be-sophisticated teenage self, but I carried on because we lived in Jerusalem and I had no new books to read. But then I reached The Black Cauldron, the second of the series and a book which is almost unbearable in its beauty and profound loss. Yet like all the Prydain books it is also plangent with humor, even at the darkest moments; so that this year, when I reread the series for what may have been the tenth or twentieth time, I found myself laughing aloud constantly on the subway despite knowing the lines almost by heart.

In childhood, the exquisite sadness of The Black Cauldron was a miasma that passed through me, might have elicited a shiver, but otherwise did not penetrate. The terrible choices Taran is forced to confront, not once but twice, strip him of what seems like everything. As a teenager I had lost my home, friendships, but above all a cherished self-identity; when Taran, in a bargain with the Three Fates, must relinquish the things that give him a sense of value in the world, it was a pain that made sense to me at fourteen in a way that it simply could not have done at nine. I learned what it was to be moved to tears by a book, a lesson that as I recently discovered is a double-edged sword when you are on the subway without tissues.

By far the hardest of the books to relate to as a child was Taran Wanderer, in which Taran ventures out into the world to learn who his parents are. This journey soon becomes a quest for self-knowledge, as he asks himself, "Where do I belong?" The book carries Taran on a series of adventures but also to lands where craftspeople ply their trades, and he attempts to find the craft that will help him to feel that he, at last, belongs and knows who he is. I have a vivid memory of rereading this book in my parents' kitchen in Jerusalem, on Friday night long after everyone had gone to bed, though the Shabbat candles were still burning. I was in my early twenties, recently graduated from college, working as an administrative assistant in New York City and trying to write a novel at nights and on weekends without success. The structure of college gone, life suddenly loomed ahead shapeless and frequently grim; I came home to a basement apartment in evenings and tried to write before falling into bed, to do the same thing again the next day. The intensity of Taran's desire to belong somewhere, his endless wandering, was an echo of my deepest longings and fears. Luckily there are always tissues in my parents' kitchen.

The end to the series in The High King appropriately brings it to a crescendo of loss, a thing in which Lloyd Alexander perhaps was experienced as a veteran of World War II. Just as appropriately to the theme of the books throughout, the end calls upon Taran to face greater challenges than ever before; in Prydain, victory never comes cheaply or as expected, and the work of being human is never done. When Prince Gwydion--a character modeled on the Gwydion of legend--gifts Taran with his once-magic sword, Taran protests, "Yet Arawn is slain...evil is conquered and the blade's work done."

"Evil conquered?" said Gwydion. "You have learned much, but learn this last and hardest of lessons. You have conquered only the enchantments of evil. That was the easiest of your tasks, only a beginning, not an ending. Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Among these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men's hearts whose flame can never be quenched."

I share this because over the years it is a passage that has grown in meaning with each reading; and I share it, as I share my love of these books, because it's the only way in which I can pay tribute to an author whose work so indelibly marked my life.

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