A good friend or mine suggested these books, the Taran wander series, in a conversation about genre fiction that was initially written as juvenile fiction. I found a few of these books, The Book of Three and The High King, at a used book store on New Year’s Day and I agree with my friend and fellow gamer, the series may have been conceived as juvenile fiction but they read like classic fantasy fiction.
Alexander dedicates the book, “For the children who listened, the grown-ups who were patient,” which implies that he wrote the book for young readers. At the beginning of the book we are told that Coll is, “charged with the practical side of his (Taran) education.” Based on these comments alone as evidence that these books were intended as juvenile fiction I suggest, simply because the main character or characters are juvenile, doesn’t categorize the book to the childrens' shelves. Of course, Harry Potter’s the most famous modern example of this point. I am probably over analyzing this subject and ignoring the fact that these books, Alexander’s and Rowling’s, are juvenile fiction because they contain no content of an adult nature. This brings up another comparison between The Book of Three and Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions. Anderson’s main character engages in “adult situations” throughout the book but there is no suggestion of adult-only activities in The Book of Three.
The characterization in The Book of Three, like Three Hearts and Three Lions, could easily be the bases for player characters in a fantasy role playing game. The characters are; Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper, Eilonwy the sorceress apprentice, Fflewddur the bard, Hen Wen the oracular pig and Doli the dwarf guide and magician, This is as solid an adventure party as I’ve had at the gaming table in the last four months. The characters’ names give me another argument against The Book of Three as juvenile fiction, what young reader would be accustom to these Old English names? I will, again, concede the point, I am sure many young readers could adapt to the ancient linguistics as easily as I did.
I have, unintentionally, left out one among the adventures of the tale. I feel certain that Alexander was familiar with the work of Prof. Tolkien because Alexander’s character Gurgi is so similar to Golem. Gurgi is the guide for the adventurers in the early chapters of the book and is an annoying, occasionally childish, but ultimately entertaining character.
Other elements which I feel make this a good, if not great, fantasy story are the magic items, magic creatures, monsters and bad guys. The Book of Three, a magic tome in the story, is introduced in the first chapter, “The Book of Three… the boy believed, held in its pages everything anyone could possibly want to know.” (p. 15) Taran is never allowed to read the tome but he cannot resist the temptation to access the secrets of the book. When he reaches for the book his fingers receive a shock as if being stung by hornets. Coll, Taran’s guardian, explains, “that is one of the three foundations of learning; see much, study much, suffermuch. “ (p. 19) After this introduction to the magic system, the Book of Three is forgotten while the tale explores other magics.
The bard, Fflewddur, has a unique magic item. Fflewddur explains that he actually failed his examines to enter the Bard’s Guild, he is a fine storyteller but is not a talented musician. His stories could be referred to as tall tales, bordering on lies, so the Guild Masters rewarded Fflewddur with a magic lute which allows him to perform beautiful music. The balance being that the lute will break a string each time Fflewddur’s tales become too tall.
A third magic item is the sword Dyrnwyn which is stolen from the crept below the Spiral Castle as Tarran and Eilonwy escape the castle dungeon. The castle begins to crumble from the foundation as Eilonwy crawls from the crept with Dyrnwyn in tow. When the adventurers reach safety, away from the tumbling masonry, Tarran attempts to inspect Eilonwy’s new treasure. Eilonwy refuses to give Tarran the sword as if she is controlled by an evil charm associated with the sword.
Later the adventurers gain the assistance of the Fair Folk. This group or race resemble what we traditionally call fairies and Alexander’s treatment reminds me of the presentation of fairies in the works of Jack Vance. They are as likely to play tricks on the humans as assist them, “Spare me from fools and Assistant Pig Keepers,” Doli the Fair Folk guide exclaims at one point.
I could go on listing the details of this book and describe the story completely. This would hardly do justice to the fine work of Lloyd Alexander and leave little reason or enjoyment in reading the book. I did discover, while planning the blog, that The Book of Three is an available e-book at Google Books. Thanks to the magic of modern tech we’re all “just a click away” from this old-fashioned fantasy tale for the enjoyment of Old Schoolers or Junior Grognards.