The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
Digital Audiobook narrated by James Langton
Published by Square Fish on May 16, 2006
Series: The Chronicles of Prydain #1
Genres: Children's, Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade
Length: 190 pages or 5 hours, 3 minutes
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Taran wanted to be a hero, and looking after a pig wasn't exactly heroic, even though Hen Wen was an oracular pig. But the day that Hen Wen vanished, Taran was led into an enchanting and perilous world. With his band of followers, he confronted the Horned King and his terrible Cauldron-Born. These were the forces of evil, and only Hen Wen knew the secret of keeping the kingdom of Prydain safe from them. But who would find her first?
So much of me wanted to roll my eyes at the common tropes and general unoriginality in The Book of Three… but then I had to remind myself: this book was first published in 1964. A lot of the tired tropes in The Book of Three were fresh and new 54 years ago. For all the fantasy I read, I rarely stumble across classic epic fantasy I haven’t read before. That makes this a bit complicated to review.
So. Taking a step back from modern fantasy. Taking a step back from the diverse themes and relationships woven into a lot of the YA we see now… lets look at The Book of Three objectively in its time.
First of all, for 1964, I am impressed by the gender roles. Any diversity is lovely, and Princess Eilonwy is properly brave and clever. I appreciate the bits where she tells off the men for treating her like a helpless child just because she’s a girl (or perhaps because she’s a princess? … regardless…).
I know a very little of Celtic mythology, so the reference to Taliesin made me smile. The Book of Three is inspired by Welsh mythology, and honestly? If you’re going to have a Western European-inspired epic fantasy… this is how you do it. Don’t just follow the Arthurian tropes – delve into the mythos and embrace it. Do nothing halfway. For all the Western European-esque fantasies, so few of them actually do the research and incorporate all aspects of that aesthetic choice. So this was great.
The plot drags a little for my taste. The pacing isn’t bad, although it feels more like YA than childrens or MG. Where the plot often feels like it’s not going anywhere, the scenes pass really quickly, and the whole book is left a little unbalanced. There are several sections in here where other characters go off and have adventures, then they come back and tell Taran all about it. That left a little excitement to be desired.
Okay, we also need to talk about this whole “assistant pig keeper” thing. Our hero, Taran, is not a hero in the traditional sense. Taran is an Assistant Pig Keeper. Don’t worry though. If you tuned out somewhere near the beginning of the novel, you’re be reminded every few pages. At first, the repetition of this fact was kind of amusing and felt like gentle teasing, but after a while it started get annoying. Not to mention a little condescending to poor Taran? On one hand I see the whole aspect of coming from humble beginnings and surpassing your challenges, but egats, yes, I know he’s an Assistant Pig Keeper!
All in all, this was a light book and I’d say even in the modern era it’s a good introduction to epic fantasy for younger readers. For seasoned veterans of the genre, it’s not the peak of the genre, but I do respect how fantastic it surely was in its time. I had this feeling as I listened that I’d read this before, a very long time ago. Something about Eilonwy and her glowing bauble struck a cord…. It wouldn’t surprise me – Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat was one of my favorite books growing up and I still have my old battered copy on my shelf. I would continue reading the series, mostly for this strong nostalgic feeling. I really do think young readers would like this one, and it would be a good book to introduce this type of fantasy.
What was the first fantasy book you remember reading? Mine was Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce… though now I’m wondering if maybe I’d read The Chronicles of Prydain even younger… Tell me your fond memories in the comments!