Kids get all kinds of mixed signals from adults. If our parents love us, why do they punish us? If learning is good, why does school suck? If we follow their rules, why do we sometimes still get in trouble? The biggest mixed signal, though, has to do with honesty. Growing up, we’re told we should always tell the truth. So how are we supposed to feel when we find out adults have been lying to us? Or keeping secrets? Or simply aren’t who they say they are?
I was 16 when I found out that my father wasn’t my father. The lie wasn’t a small one. It was an elaborate falsehood that all my close relatives had been in on my entire life. To top it all off, my real father was someone I’d never met, and who’d made many offers of help since I was born, all of which my mother refused. She made this decision, she said, to shield me from the hard reality of the situation. But the lie was much worse. When I was told the truth, I didn’t feel like I’d been protected. I felt more lost than I ever imagined I could. Deep in my teenage brain, though, something clicked. Years of vague evasions and mismatched facts suddenly made sense. The fog of mixed signals I’d been living in for so long began to slip away.
Taran, the hero of Lloyd Alexander’s beloved children’s fantasy series The Chronicles Of Prydain, doesn’t know who his parents are. At least not at first. As with so many stories of its type, Taran is an orphan of simple means whose lineage—and destiny—is gradually revealed to both him and readers. As it turns out, those close to Taran know the truth, or at least strongly suspect it. Taran is an Assistant Pig-Keeper, a title mockingly bestowed on him by Coll, one of the two people who raised him on the humble farmstead of Caer Dallben in the land of Prydain. The other man is Dallben, the bearded, elderly man who spends too much time with his mysterious old tome, The Book Of Three.
With the best intentions, Coll and Dallben have kept Taran ignorant of his origins, leaving him to flounder in a cloud of doubt and distrust. They don’t fully lie to him, but they don’t fully tell him the truth: that there’s a strong possibility he’s the heir to the throne of the High King of Prydain. Taran’s childhood isn’t miserable because of this deception, but the bedrock of his existence clearly has cracks in it. Because of that, he’s rarely able to stand on steady ground, feel secure, and truly know himself.
I first read the five volumes of The Chronicles Of Prydain—The Book Of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle Of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King—when I was 8. I’d never read anything so sprawling or involved. I was still a couple years away from discovering J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings books, or another five-book fantasy series that wound up being strikingly Prydain-like: David Eddings’ The Belgariad. Even at 8, though, Prydain felt familiar. Although I was unfamiliar with the Welsh mythology on which Alexander’s books were based, I’d already read plenty of Arthurian legend—which pops up frequently in Prydain, most notably regarding the sword Drynwyn, which functions more or less as Excalibur.
But there was another story about an orphan raised on a farm, by adults who lied about his parentage and destiny: Star Wars. And that was already burned into my mind by age 8. Prydain was written and published in the ’60s, long before A New Hope, but neither Alexander nor George Lucas have ever been shy about acknowledging that they appropriated well-worn archetypes. Cultural anthropologists of the Joseph Campbell stripe would say Prydain felt instantly familiar because these kinds of heroes’ journeys are part of our universal consciousness as human beings. I believe there’s some truth to that. But when I recently sat down to read Prydain for the first time in more than 30 years, I realized something else: Back when I was 8, although I was still years away from learning the truth about my own parentage, I related on a fundamental level to Taran’s unsteady, mixed-signal life.
When I was a kid, The Chronicles Of Prydain did more than speak to me—they enchanted me. Part of me wanted to be enchanted by them again, and part of me was. Alexander’s prose and dialogue are crisp and fluid, an effortless mix of exposition and characterization that so many writers, especially in fantasy, strain to perfect. His humor is wry; his sentiment is genuine. His plotting, though, is another matter. In The Book Of Three, the deus ex machina is off the hook. You can practically see Alexander’s heavy authorial hand as he shoves together Taran and his companions in adventure: the valorous High Prince Gwydion; the annoying, furry pseudo-human Gurgi; the peevish, enchantment-wielding Princess Eilonwy; the monarch-turned-bard Fflewddur Fflam; and the crotchety dwarf Doli.
As the series progresses beyond its first installment, though, Alexander’s string-pulling begins to take on a larger meaning. The Chronicles Of Prydain are about destiny. Propelled by various prophetic engines, the series’ young hero has to grapple with what he’s fated to do vs. what he chooses to do. It’s a conflict that pops up many times in fantasy literature, but this was my first exposure to it, and it was profound. No wonder Eddings’ The Belgariad resonated with me when I read it at the age of 11; that series’ first book is titled Pawn Of Prophecy, and its protagonist, Garion—an orphaned farm boy who doesn’t know he’s a king-in-waiting—struggles openly with his fate. Eddings goes into far more technical detail regarding the philosophical ramifications of destiny vs. free will, but he wasn’t writing expressly for children as Alexander was.
In trying to simplify such a complex issue, though, Alexander hits his readers with the most confusing mixed signal a grownup could give a kid. Throughout the episodic, self-contained volumes The Black Cauldron, The Castle Of Llyr, and Taran Wanderer, Alexander smoothly, ably expands his pseudo-Welsh mythos and cast of characters. Gurgi becomes less annoying and supremely heroic; Eilonwy does likewise, although Alexander’s weakness with female characters comes to a head in the series’ conclusion, The High King. At the end of the book, after the Death-Lord Arawn has been defeated and his henchmen and minions vanquished, the newly crowned High King Taran is faced with a choice: marry Eilonwy and live in the distant, idyllic land known as The Summer Country, or stay in war-torn Prydain to help his people rebuild. He picks the latter, knowing it means he’ll never see Eilonwy again.
Eilonwy then throws a temper tantrum. Even though she’s one of the most capable characters in the series, she gives up her powers of enchantment to remain with Taran. When her “bauble”—a magic, glowing globe that seems to symbolize her life-force and agency throughout the series—is extinguished forever, it feels cruel rather than liberating. Even worse is the muddled takeaway provided by Dallben, who tells Eilonwy, “Yes [your enchantments are gone], yet you shall always keep the magic and mystery all women share.” Having a female character with as much inherent strength as Eilonwy go out like a piece of furniture is one of Alexander’s most grievous inconsistencies.
Even worse is the entire idea of fate. I never picked up on this mixed signal as a kid, but it’s glaring as an adult: Alexander uses the last few pages of The High King to try to reconcile Prydain’s competing ideas of prophecy and free will. He utterly fails. “For the deeds of a man, not the words of a prophecy, are what shape his destiny,” Dallben proclaims at the end of The High King, in essence nullifying the basic force that his driven Prydain’s characters through the series. Alexander begins speaking of ifs, and of the end of prophecy, where men will once again be masters of their own destiny.
It’s a wishy-washy, ass-covering, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too kind of copout. Maybe it’s the jaded adult in me who, like all of us, has had to sacrifice, compromise, and ruthlessly revise my path through life—that is, when I’ve actually had any control over it at all. As I’ve gotten older, the lofty idea of fate-vs.-free will has given way to nature-vs.-nurture. And from there, it’s just dissolved into something far more ambiguous, messy, and unknowable. For Alexander to wrap up his epic with a handful of conflicting platitudes not only robbed me of my lingering fondness for The High King, it robbed the series’ characters of their triumphs. (I decided not to watch The Black Cauldron, Disney’s much-maligned 1985 adaption of Prydain while re-reading the series; I saw the film during its original run in theaters when I was 13, and it was the first time I remember ever getting pissed off at a movie for differing significantly from the book that inspired it.)
Thankfully, none of those faults was enough to wholly disappoint me in Prydain. Its riches still outweigh its pitfalls. The series’ ever-escalating darkness is still a thrill, but it’s never without a silver lining of humor or charm. All those qualities converge in who’s now my favorite character, although I never felt much for him when I was 8: Fflewddur, the quixotic, sad-sack bard who fears magic, ran away from the “dreary” kingdom he once ruled, and feels most like a flesh-and-blood, semi-dysfunctional adult. In other words, he’s someone I can now relate to far more than Taran, even though Taran and I once had far more in common.
But there’s one thing about Fflewddur that struck the deepest chord in me. In a brilliant bit of externalization, Alexander turns the bard’s instrument of choice, his harp, into a lie detector. Every time he stretches the truth—which is often, and usually in the service of his own reputation—a string breaks. It’s all bathos at first, but Fflewddur’s bullshit-detecting harp signifies so much about the character, and about Prydain as a whole, that I love: the corny yet enduring themes of heroism, humility, and truth. If only all adults came with one.