David Bruce: Lloyd Alexander’s THE BOOK OF THREE: A Discussion Guide — Introduction

Alexander, Lloyd. The Book of Three. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, c. 1964.

Parents looking for a way to encourage children aged 10 and up to entertain themselves may wish to introduce them to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, a series of five novels and one book of short stories dealing with the mythical kingdom of Prydain, which resembles the Wales of medieval times.

The obvious place to start is at the beginning, which in this case would be the first novel: The Book of Three. (The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain, which gives some of the background to the Chronicles, is best read after the novels, in my opinion.) However, these are stand-alone volumes, so readers can start with whichever book they want to read first. The genre of the Prydain Chronicles is fantasy, so magic will be a part of the chronicles, although its use by the human characters is limited.

Boy readers will most likely identify with Taran, the young hero of the chronicles, who lives at Caer Dallben, where he longs for adventure but instead has the duty, along with the bald-headed and stout Coll, of taking care of Hen Wen, a pig with oracular powers. (Strange as an oracular pig sounds, Hen Wen has a basis in Welsh mythology.) Because of Taran’s desire for adventure, honor, and high titles, he is given a title of his own: Assistant Pig-Keeper.

Taran lives during interesting times — another way of saying that he lives during a time of danger, when Prydain is threatened by forces of evil emanating from Annuvin, a land ruled by the evil Arawn, master of the Black Cauldron, which turns dead warriors into fighting zombies. When Hen Wen senses the forces of evil, she runs away, leading Taran to run after her and experience the adventure he has so longed for.

During Taran’s adventure, in which he seeks Hen Wen and tries to warn the Sons of Don — the good guys — of a sneak attack emanating from Annuvin, he runs across a number of beings who become both friends and companions in the fight of good versus evil.

First he meets Prince Gwydion, a warrior whose travel-stained cloak does not meet with Taran’s approval — Taran’s idea of a prince is someone who dresses in fine and grand clothing — but who Taran soon realizes is immensely brave and immensely competent and who Taran soon realizes is a true prince. (Fans of the trilogy ofThe Lord of the Ringsmovies can think of Viggo Mortensen as perfect for the Prince Gwydion character should a new movie be made from this book.)

The next major character whom Taran meets is Gurgi, who seems to be part human and part animal. He is capable of speech, but is covered with hair. Oddly, only one of his species seems to exist. The major characteristics of Gurgi are a fondness for food and a habit of using alliteration and rhymes in his speech. For example, Gurgi is very much concerned with “crunchings and munchings.”

Girl readers are likely to be much interested in Eilonwy, a princess with limited magical powers. Her major magical item is a golden ball that can cast light. In other words, Eilonwy has a magic flashlight. Eilonwy will develop into a love interest in the Prydain Chronicles, although in this first novel, Taran thinks of her as a little girl — a characterization that Eilonwy vehemently disagrees with.

Quickly, readers will notice that Eilonwy is very blunt in her speech to Taran. When Taran calls her a little girl after she has told him that she is not a little girl, she tells him, “But I am not a little girl. Haven’t I just been and finished telling you? Are you slow-witted? I’m so sorry for you. It’s terrible to be dull and stupid.” A little later, she asks, “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings by asking, but is Assistant Pig-Keeper the kind of work that calls for a great deal of intelligence?”

Another characteristic of Eilonwy’s speech is her use of original comparisons. At one point, when Taran is surprised, Eilonwy tells him, “You should really see your expression. You look like a fish that’s climbed into a bird’s nest by mistake.”

Much of the delight of reading the Prydain Chronicles centers on the relationship between Taran and Eilonwy, which can be rocky, as very often Eilonwy will decide that she is not speaking to Taran, although very quickly she will reverse herself and start speaking to him.

Other major characters are Fflewddur Fflam, a wandering would-be bard and sometimes ex-king with a magic harp whose strings break when Fflewddur exaggerates, as he so frequently does to make his stories better, and Doli of the Fair Folk, whose face becomes blue during his many unsuccessful attempts at turning himself invisible.

The Book of Threeis an entertaining page-turner, with many chapters ending in cliffhangers. It is also filled with humor. (Dallben, an elderly enchanter, meditates, a job so exhausting that he can do it only while lying down with his eyes closed. He meditates especially after meals.)

It is also a book that educates while telling an exciting story. Taran learns such lessons as not to judge the bravery of a man by how much hair he has on his head or by the clothing he is wearing, and Taran learns the importance of home. In the Prydain Chronicles, Taran grows.

The entire series is highly recommended and award winning. In 1969, the fifth novel in the series, The High King, won the Newbery Medal, which is given for the best American contribution to children’s literature in a certain year. In 1966, the second novel in the series, The Black Cauldron, was a Newbery Honor Book (runner-up to the Newbery Medal winner).

By the way, the Disney movie titled The Black Cauldronshould probably be avoided although it got the voice of Eilonwy exactly right. At least, read the books — the movie is based on the first two Prydain books, The Book of Threeand The Black Cauldron— first.

If your 10-year-old-and-up child has not already been introduced to the Prydain Chronicles, now may be the perfect time for them to make the acquaintance of Taran, Eilonwy, Fflewddur Fflam, Gurgi, Prince Gwydion, and the other residents of this mythical, magical kingdom.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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