Fantasy has always been my first love when it comes to reading. The first fantasy books I found in fourth or fifth grade were fun, but quick: one story, one book. Up until then all my favorite books had all been mystery series, so it was a bit of a transition. It wanted a fantasy series– because you know when you finish the first book, there’s another one waiting. Then, along came The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander.
Wow! A fantasy series. I was smitten. Since then, I’ve discovered (along with everyone else in the publishing world) that if one book is good, a trilogy is even better! Or a quartet! Or a series! But I think many readers of fantasy, then and now, would agree that The Book of Three, the first book of The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander, is still one of the best.
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Taran wants more than anything to be a warrior like his hero, Prince Gwydion. He tries making sword blades and practicing fighting. Unfortunately, his job is to be the assistant pig-keeper at Caer Dallben. It’s true that Hen Wen is a famous oracular pig rather than just a normal one, and that Coll, the current Pig-Keeper was a former warrior. Even Dallben, the ancient wise man who is Taran’s guardian and head of the castle, has an interesting past. But none of that makes up for all the chores that Taran has to do, since oracular pigs need just as much care as regular ones.
When something strange frightens all the animals on the farm, Hen Wen panics and flees into the woods. Taran follows, only to discover that Hen Wen wasn’t quite as stupid as he thought she was…the oracular sow is fleeing from the Horned King, the most evil being in existence. When Taran collapses after trying to run after his pig, a stranger comes out of the trees behind the Horned King and his horseman and helps him. The unassuming man turns out to be Taran’s hero, Prince Gwydion.
Taran discovers that the Horned King’s presence threatens the kingdom of Prydain’s very existence, and that if the Horned King manages to capture Hen Wen, the kingdom is doomed. In order to rescue his charge, Taran sets out on a dangerous mission. Along the way, he gathers a group of companions who help in a variety of ways.
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The Book of Three was first published in 1964; the fifth and final book in the series, The High King, came out in 1968. Each book was as hotly anticipated by young readers in the 60s as Harry Potter books were in the 90s. A short story collection called The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain was published in 1973, because author Lloyd Alexander received so many requests for more Prydain stories. These short stories mostly fill in the backgrounds of favorite characters. They’re now marketed as the sixth book in the series.
The Book of Three and the other Chronicles of Prydain books were extremely popular through the 60s and 70s, and into the 80s. Since fantasy series exploded into the children’s/teen book world, The Chronicles of Prydain tends to get a little lost in the crowd. It shouldn’t though! The books have dangerous quests, a brave hero, a funny sidekick, a courageous heroine, and lots of humor. There are good and evil sorceresses, The Lord of Death, warriors and wizards and bards and even a strange little character called Gurgi, who talks in rhymes.
The first two books in the series were made into a pretty bad animated film The Black Cauldron, by Disney. If you saw that movie, forget everything you saw and start the books with a fresh perspective. They are SO MUCH better. The second book in the series, The Black Cauldron, was a Newbery Medal Honor book in 1966, and the final book, The High King, won the Newbery Award in 1969.
The books are loosely based on Welsh mythology, and are populated by gods and monsters from The Mabinogion. So if you liked Percy Jackson and the gods of Greek mythology, you should thank Lloyd Alexander and check out The Book of Three. I bet you’ll be finishing The High King before you even know it!
These books are great for all ages–if you’re a parent who missed them the first time around, I’d recommend reading them now. The early books are aimed at the fourth through sixth grade readers, but the later books are definitely for sixth through eighth. (Like Percy and Harry, Taran and his band age in each book.) Fans of Percy Jackson and Harry Potter should definitely try The Chronicles of Prydain…those characters may owe their existence to Taran and his band of adventurers.
And if you do read them, let me know what you think!