Embark on a rollicking adventure with Taran and his friends as they chase after the oracular pig, Hen Wen, while staving off the advancing army of the Horned King.
Lloyd Alexander has woven a spectacular tale in The Book of Three, which tells the story of a farm boy who tries to save the world from impending doom. Taran has dreams of embarking on great adventures like the knights he often hears of in stories but Dallben, a wizard and master of Caer Dallben where Taran resides, keeps him at his dreary chores and lessons. On the day he is assigned as the assistant pig keeper, Taran loses his charge when the animals on the property are thrown into a frenzy. It was all Taran could do to keep Hen Wen in her pen. Hen Wen was in such a fright that she barreled Taran into the ground and dashed into the woods.
Set on his duty, Taran chases after her but bumps into the Horned King, a fearsome warrior that wears the antlered skull of a stag over his face, and his Cauldron-Born army (akin to zombies). The Horned King is a pawn of Arawn’s, ruler of the land of the dead. Taran barely manages to escape them with a slash across his back. Luckily, he is discovered by Gwydion, a high prince, who nurses him back to health. Gwydion is one of the mighty knights Taran often hears of in stories but in reality he seems nothing more than a man. It so happens that Gwydion was on his way to Caer Dallben to visit Hen Wen for a prophesy. But since Hen Wen has fled, he decides to help Taran find her and warn his people at Caer Dathyl in the north of the Horned King’s advancing army.
“It is not the trappings that make the prince nor, indeed, the sword that makes the warrior.” — Gwydion
The two stumble into Gurgi, a queer creature that is half human and half animal, who informs them of the direction Hen Wen ran. However, their search is interrupted by an attack and they are taken captive to the Spiral Castle, the fortress of the evil sorceress, Achren, by a band of Cauldron-Born soldiers. While a prisoner in Achren’s dungeon, Taran makes friends with Eilonwy, a chatty princess who’s studying to become an enchantress. She agrees to free him and Gwydion but the rescue goes awry when the fortress collapses after Taran and Eilonwy crawl out a barrow with an ancient sword. It’s then that Taran learns Eilonwy had rescued the wrong man.
Instead of freeing Gwydion, she had rescued Fflewddur Fflam, an aspiring bard and ruler of a small kingdom. Distraught that Gwydion died in the castle’s collapse, Taran abandons his search to warn Caer Dathyl of the growing army. They are rejoined by Gurgi and later, after being captured by the dwarf king Eiddileg, accompanied by Doli, a skilled dwarf who vainly tries to make himself invisible. The five companions encounter numerous obstacles along the way but continue to strive towards their goal even while outnumbered by the undead cauldron borns. In the end, Taran is the unlikely hero who saves the day and resigns with the humblest of gifts to his home at Caer Dallben.
I enjoyed reading this story. It was simple and fun. Taran is your run-of-the-mill innocent farm boy who wishes for adventure. He is stubborn but brave, impulsive yet kind, ambitious but humble. He strives for greater things even if they seem unattainable at first. Taran is the kind of character that a parent would like their kid to admire. He’s not bad but not entirely perfect either. His companions’ faults add a touch of humor to the tale. There is the chatty Eilonwy who is clear of sight and speaks true; Fflewddur, who can’t help exaggerating his tales; Gurgi, who talks in the third person and always asks for “crunchings and munchings;” and Doli, whose fervent desire for invisibility makes him dour and blue in the face.
I can see why many have listed Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicle of Prydain books among their favorites. He is a good storyteller who infuses his stories with moral lessons without forcing it on you. The simplicity of his story reminds me of Ursula Le Guin. It’s not dull or condescending. It’s a simplicity that heightens the telling of the tale. It’s the sort of simplicity that one finds in folklore and other narratives that tend to hook people over time. The essence of the story never fades. Another plus is that Alexander draws his characters from figures in history and legend, such as Gwydion. There is even “an authentic mythological basis” for Hen Wen, Dallben, and Arawn. Thus, if one is really interested in the characters, there’s more to to discover if that person chooses to do a bit of research.
“The three foundations of learning: see much, study much, suffer much.” — Dalben
The story has its faults but they are minor in comparison to my overall gratification. Still, I was looking forward to an intense climax. It’s obvious that Taran and the Horned King, or Gwydion and the Horned King, would have to face off at some point but although this happens, it was resolved all too quickly and cleanly for me to be satisfied. I was hoping for an epic battle, a massive show down, but instead got a little fight that was resolved in moments. I should have known better, judging from the other conflicted encounters in the story but still, I hoped.
Regardless, The Book of Three is a good read and is quite engaging. I definitely recommend it to young readers and adults who would like to take a break from hardcore fantasy novels or depressing dystopian YA novels or escape the reality of the contemporary YA novels that’s all the rage now.
Quotes from the book:
“We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.” — Dalben
“It’s always nice to see two friends meet again. It’s like waking up with the sun shining.” — Eilonwy
“Once you have courage to look upon evil, seeing it for what it is and naming it by its true name, it is powerless against you and you can destroy it.” — Gwydion (It’s a common saying that is apparent in almost all fantasy novels I’ve read but I like it.)
- Exploring the meaning of heroism: The Book of Three (tor.com)
- The Chronicles of Prydain: For Those Of Us Still Trying To Prove Ourselves (attackofthebooks.com)