As a child I was a big fan of the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, and must have read them three times through — the last time when I was fifteen or so. For some reason though I went back and re-read a lot of childhood favorites, I was reluctant to re-read these, partly because fantasy series were few and far between and felt novel when I was a kid; now there is so much of it that follows the same design as Prydain (the well-trodden hero’s journey) I thought I might be annoyed by it even though he did it first (or firstishly).
However, once I did dive in I was hooked. Lloyd Alexander has complex characters and a whimsical sense of humor that makes these book transcend most epic fantasy and subverts the usual expectations for chosen-hero-fulfills-destiny type tales. In fact, Alexander admits in one of the forewords that it wasn’t until halfway through the series that he brushed up his Joseph Campbell so he could bring it around to a satisfactory conclusion — and says so almost apologetically, since it means drifting from the impulsive plot turns that make the first three books so delightful.
This brings me to Taran Wanderer, which is the fourth in the series. There is a rather typical-for-Prydain beginning, with an evil wizard getting bested by Taran’s quick wits and good luck, but the book then turns into a longish, episodic, and mostly realistic series of experiences as Taran searches for himself: he seeks both knowledge of his parents (growing up as a foundling and presumably an orphan) and of his calling. In the latter ambition he takes up farming, pottery, weaving, and smithing with a series of mentors, becomes passably good at each but decides it is not for him, and then (after a somewhat unlimactic, or at least unresolved, battle with a minor villain), sets back for home with no more answers than he had before, but with fewer questions as testament to his new wisdom.
Sound boring? As a kid I dreaded the second half of the book and may have skipped it on one of my read-throughs. This time, as a grown reader who has put some thought into the interior lives of characters, I was absolutely in awe of the care Alexander takes in shaping Taran’s inner life and the man he is becoming.
I now see the peculiar design of the book as brilliant. The first, more comic and adventurous half of the book involves a series of encounters with powerful men like kings and wizards; the second half with laborers and craftsmen. I see how each of the characters in the first half represents a kind of superficial virtue like ambition, glory, the desire to be loved, or the desire to be feared. The second half exposes Taran to deeper virtues like resiliance and hard work, patience and discipline.
It’s not as preachy as it sounds, though the relatively quieter passages without the humor and adventure found earlier in the series might test immature readers (like it did my boy self). I’d now put it on a short-list with books like Hatchet and The Midnight Fox on my coming-of-age canon, and it’s the first fantasy book I’ve put there. Usually in such books the heroic calling substitutes for growing up.