When I finished reading the last book of The Chronicles of Narnia in my early teens, I was heartbroken. I never wanted to leave C.S. Lewis’ magical land of talking animals. Narnia had become like a second home; I had lived and breathed the characters for seven books. In my imagination, I had friends called Mr Tumnus and Mr and Mrs Beaver and I had neighbours who were giants and dwarfs.
To cope with the homesickness, I searched for a similar series of books. I did not have to search very far because my edition of the Narnia series had recommendations of similar novels at the back of the books, and The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander were among them. The blurb said that they would “appeal to Tolkien and Narnia addicts” and that was all the recommendation I needed. I was excited: a whole new set of chronicles to get my teeth into! I asked our school librarian to acquire them for the school and very soon I was reading the first book in the series.
The Chronicles of Prydain comprise five books published annually from 1964 to 1968. The second, The Black Cauldron, was awarded a Newbery Honor while the last, The High King, won the 1969 Newbery Medal. The books are as follows:
- The Book of Three: Taran’s quiet life is disrupted when Hen Wen, the oracular pig that he is in charged of, runs away. In his search for the pig, Taran finds adventures, new friends and danger. He finds that it is up to him to save the kingdom of Prydain.
- The Black Cauldron: Taran and his friends must find a way to destroy the Black Cauldron which Arawn, the Lord of the Land of Death, uses to create his army of dark warriors. His mission can only succeed if a great sacrifice is made.
- The Castle of Llyr: Eilonwy must leave Taran and their friends for the Isle of Mona where she will be trained to be a princess. But the evil Queen Archen has other plans for her and Taran must come to the rescue.
- Taran Wanderer: Not content with being a hero, Taran now wants to win the hand of Eilonwy, but first he feels he has to find out who he really is. He leaves Caer Dallben to search for the father he never knew.
- The High King: Taran must rally with the good people of Prydain for a final battle with the Lord of Death. In the process, he finally learns who he really is.
A companion volume and a collection of short stories, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain (1973), were also released. The stories were all set before the events in the main series.
Not a Clone
The Chronicles are based on, but not a retelling of, Welsh mythology. I knew nothing about Welsh mythology when I read the series but this did not prevent me from enjoying the books. They are darker and more serious in tone than the Narnia novels, and in this respect they probably have more in common with The Lord of the Rings (another series of books that I loved). One reviewer has described the Prydain books as “the strongest fantasy being created for children”, a well-deserved accolade. The Black Cauldron and The High King are particularly thrilling, with action, danger and sorcery that would keep even the most demanding fantasy reader satisfied.
Each book is self-contained and can be enjoyed individually like the Narnia books but, unlike the Narnia books, the Prydain series keep the same core characters throughout. The books form a thread and the events all lead up to the satisfying climax in the final book. Although the series follows the familiar tale of a young man who dreams of a world beyond the sleepy village he grew up in, the Chronicles have depth that many children’s book lack. We see the characters grow to maturity as they discover their identities and destinies. They all search – and find – the answer to the question we have all asked ourselves: Who am I and what am I doing here?
For this reason, there are some who regard the fourth book, Taran Wanderer, as their favourite. It does not involve a grand quest to save the world, but a quest to find oneself. Our protagonist leaves the only home he has ever known to search for his father. What results is an episodic and sometimes slow paced book as we accompany Taran and his internal struggles in what is ultimately a journey to self-acceptance. Our parentage is only secondary to our identities.
I started reading the Prydain books because I wanted another Narnia to explore and be lost in. But Prydain demands not be regarded as a Narnia clone or be compared unfavourably to Lewis’ better known chronicles. The Chronicles of Prydain sets its own standards in children’s fantasy and Alexander has created a world that is as real and worthy of affection as Narnia.