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Millions of young readers have been enthralled by the adventures of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper and his lively companions as they journey through the magical land of Prydain. First published more than thirty years ago and translated into twenty different languages, Lloyd Alexander's beloved series has become the standard of excellence in fantasy literature for children. Among their many accolades, the award-winning Chronicles of Prydain count a Newbery Medal, a Newbery Honor, and more than two million copies in print.
Along with the Chronicles of Narnia, the Prydain books were my first real introduction to fantasy. I loved these books as a child! I wanted to be Princess Eilonwy and longed to live in Prydain. I cheered Taran’s every success, and I cried every time I read the ending of The High King. My early love for the tales has never died. To my mind, the Chronicles of Prydain remain one of the best MG fantasy series ever written.
While each of the stories is an adventure in itself, and several of them are quest tales (The Black Cauldron and Taran Wanderer in particular), the overall story arc is that of the Hero’s Journey: the coming of age of Taran, orphan and Assistant Pig-keeper. Taran starts out as an impetuous boy, eager for battle, for glory and adventure. His rashness and his pride get him into trouble on more than one occasion, and he and Eilonwy bicker frequently, usually when Taran assumes a superior or dictatorial tone because she’s “just” a girl. As time and the books go on, however, Taran slowly matures, acquiring the marks of a true hero: wisdom, humility, persistence, patience, leadership, respect for his fellow men and women, and strength of character.
Taran is accompanied along much of his journey by a series of companions, each with their own strengths and weaknesses – and their identifying characteristics. Tomboy Eilonwy, with her predilection for unlikely similes; the bard Fflewddur Fflam and his constantly snapping harp strings; and fiercely loyal Gurgi all have a special place in my heart.
Alexander drew on Welsh myths and legends in creating Prydain and some of its inhabitants, particularly Gwydion, the bard Taliesin, King Math, and the series’ chief villain, Arawn Death-Lord,King of Annuvin. He also drew on other myths; older readers will spot the Wyrd sisters or Fates in the persons of Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, while Dalben the enchanter reminds me not a little of Gandalf and of Merlin in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. Alexander weaves them all into an original and captivating land and story which deservedly take their place beside the tales of Narnia and Middle-Earth.
If you somehow managed to miss the Prydain books when you were growing up, run, don’t walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and get them now! If you prefer audiobooks, James Langton does an excellent job with the narration, voices, and accents for all five books. However, purists may note that he slightly mispronounces several of the Welsh names.
And here’s a link to a downloadable map of Prydain from publisher Macmillan. (I was lucky to find the link; it’s not on Macmillan’s Prydain page.)