The Book of Three, which is the first book in the series The Chronicles of Prydain, is by Lloyd Alexander and was first published in 1964. This is around the same era as when C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit were both taking off. In many ways, these three writers’ works for children (though in today’s jargon we would call these Young Adult fiction) set the stage for all the fantasy writing that came after them. Never having read the Chronicles of Prydain but always having wanted to, I finally went to the library and picked up the first book. The Book of Three is a short, easy read which only took up most of my afternoon and a little of my evening.
The plot is fairly straightforward: Taran, a youth who lives at Caer Dallben, is tasked with mundane things such as making horseshoes, gardening, and taking care of his master Dallben’s pig, Hen Wen—who, by the by, is an oracle. That’s right! The pig is an oracle. She tells the future by arranging rune sticks. Taran thinks his life is dreadfully boring, and even the fact Hen Wen is magical doesn’t excite him much, since she never tells the future to him. He longs for adventure and swordplay, and fears he will never do anything worthwhile with his life. Coll, a man who also works for Dallben, tells Taran that if it’s a grand title he wants, he can have one: Assistant Pig-Keeper.
Taran is not terribly impressed.
When danger is on the way to Caer Dallben, Hen Wen panics and digs out of her pen. Taran is forced to go after her as she runs away into the woods. Once in the woods, however, he loses her—but finds something worse. An army, led by the Horned King, is marching to Caer Dallben. After the army passes, Taran runs into Lord Gwydion, a great and famed warrior and leader, who is also looking for Hen Wen. They also meet Gurgi, a bizarre furry creature who is good at sneaking around. They are attacked by the evil Arawn’s Cauldron Born, dead people resurrected by the power of the Black Cauldron, and dragged away to Spiral Castle, where the witch Achren imprisons them. Taran is freed from captivity by Eilonwy, a young woman sent to apprentice under Achren as an enchantress. Eilonwy, however, hates Achren and agrees to help Taran. Gwydion is nowhere to be found, but Eilonwy also sets free Fflewder Fflam—a bard with a penchant for stretching the truth. Together, Taran, Eilonwy, Gurgi, and Fflewder Fflam set off for Caer Dathyl, Gwydion’s home, to warn the other leaders there.
In many ways, this setup is familiar to Young Adult novels of today. There is the disenfranchised teenager who wants more than the boring life he or she already has, the potential love interest, and being swept up into an adventure one never had any intention of going on. What makes this more unique, however, is that by the end Taran comes to the realization that maybe he ought to be content with his mundane life. It is an interesting character arc.
The book conveyed a good, clear theme about what it really means to be a hero and how not everybody has the same part to play in such heroic endeavors.
There were many things I truly enjoyed about this book. Firstly, the humor is genuinely funny, and this humor forms a great hook at the beginning of the story: “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long.” For some reason, that made me laugh. It does a great job setting the tone for the story—lighthearted, but also showing the struggle of the heroic versus the mundane in the first sentence.
I also ended up liking some things I did not like at first. I hated that the adults were not telling us things they obviously knew, but were holding back for the sake of what I thought was keeping suspense. Then I realized this was because they were not telling a kid these things because they thought he could not handle it. Of course he hated it, and we are meant to hate it too. We are meant to feel what the main character feels, and that’s that. So that was well done on Alexander’s part. At first, I also hated that Taran got knocked out during the final battle scene, only to realize that Tolkien does the same with Bilbo in The Hobbit during the Battle of the Five Armies. There was just enough info to go on, but I do wish Taran had gotten a moment to really shine. However, if Taran had this moment in the spotlight, it would not have fit with the theme of the book. Instead, he gets to listen to the story of the battle secondhand. As a result, he sees his own role more clearly.
There were a few things about the book that I did not like as much. I didn’t like the fact that Alexander used a lot of passive voice and ‘was’ sentences. That, and he used several adverbs that might have been cut and given a stronger verb rather than the weak verb-adverb pair. However, considering this is aimed a young readers (middle grade or so) and it was written in a different time period, one can expect to find different conventions. Besides, only people who obsess about writing probably notice stuff like that. Also, the exposition was not as gracefully done as in similar age-group books, like The Chronicles of Narnia or Harry Potter. It seemed forced rather than organic. For example, the first chapter had a lot of the “As you know, this is the history of…” type of exposition.
I really, really wanted to like Eilonwy. At first I did, but then she got more an more annoying as the book progressed. I hated how she constantly put down Taran, and that she prattled so much. In her know-it-all attitude, she was a lot like Hermione from Harry Potter, but she never seemed to soften or become less annoying. Upon further reflection, I realized that Eilonwy rebels against her society’s expectation for a young woman—she is anything but quiet and prim. Really, it makes her strong a strong character.
But she’s still annoying.
Finally, the title seemed not to match the book. It’s called The Book of Three, but it barely focuses on Dallben’s tome “The Book of Three” from which he reads to Taran. “The Horned King” would have been a better title, in my opinion.
Despite its few foibles, I liked this book a lot. There is an exceptionally well written action sequence in the chapter “The Broken Sword,” and Alexander does a great job of writing descriptions. I love Taran’s persistence despite continued put-downs. I love the mythos, even if I wish a lot more of it was shared in this book. Fflewder Fflam was great, too. He was an amusing addition to the cast. Also, Alexander includes a pronunciation guide at the back of the book, which was useful.
All in all, I recommend this book to anybody who likes fantasy and is looking for a fast read. The book contains no objectionable material beyond some violence and blood here and there—which is by today’s standards downright mild. I can’t wait to read The Black Cauldron! Check back next week for the review of that.
Have you read The Chronicles of Prydain? What did you think of The Book of Three? (Be considerate of others and be sure to announce if your comment has spoilers.)
Image taken by me of my library copy; used for review purposes only under fair use. Support your local libraries!