(1924-2007) US author best-known for his Chronicles of Prydain which, as with the works of J R R Tolkien, progresses from a relatively lightweight Children's Fantasy to deal with altogether higher, deeper and darker matters. The central series comprises The Book of Three (1964), The Black Cauldron (1965), The Castle of Llyr (1966), Taran Wanderer (1967) and The High King (1968). The Land-of-Fable setting approximates to the mythic Wales of the Mabinogion, portions of which LA has freely and sometimes playfully adapted. This entails simplification: the Mabinogion's engagingly amoral Gwydion and grim but honourable Arawn (a king of the Underworld) become respectively a spotless if unshowy hero and a routinely evil Dark Lord.
The Book of Three is something of a romp, whose villain the Horned King is routinely overcome, but introduces continuing characters: Gwydion (as above); the oracular pig Hen Wen; Taran, the rootless, aspiring (and often comically overreaching) young series hero, Ugly Duckling and Assistant Pig-Keeper; his mentor Dallben, recalling the Merlin of T H White; sharp-tongued Princess Eilonwy; the king and Bard Fflewddur Fflam, whose Magic harp's strings snap at his least untruth; and Taran's hairy, greedy, smelly and loyal pet/Companion (of uncertain species), Gurgi.
The sequence darkens almost at once in The Black Cauldron, where admirable characters can die, "good" men can turn traitor or evince major flaws (notably the corroding pride of one Prince Ellidyr), and real Sacrifices are demanded. The Cauldron or Crochan, borrowed from the tragic Second Branch of the Mabinogion, restores the dead as Zombie slave-warriors and requires a life as the price of its destruction . . . a price which is paid. Ambiguous light relief comes from the Crochan's guardians, the sinisterly comic hags Orwen, Orddu and Orgoch – who, despite lip-smacking eagerness to turn people into toads, later emerge as more than they seem (> Fates). The Castle of Llyr is quieter and focuses more on character: the amiable but colossally inept Prince Rhun acquires a certain stature almost despite Taran's impatience, Eilonwy has to make her own first significant sacrifice, Glew the self-made alchemical Giant is a genuinely pitiable minor villain, and Queen Achren (the Enemy of this episode, vaguely reminiscent of the Mabinogion's Arianrhod) also finally commands pity.
Taran Wanderer takes Taran on a bleaker, stonier road unfamiliar in Heroic Fantasy: a Quest for his roots among the neglected ordinary folk of the Free Commots, whose weaving, farming, pottery and Smith skills supply the nobility of Prydain. Hoping to find himself well born, Taran suffers painful humiliation before settling to learn what he can of common crafts and emerging, slightly to his own surprise, as a kind of leader after all. This quality is tested almost to destruction in the final war of The High King – a Newbery Medal winner – which is full of betrayal, hard-fought defeats and journeys without hope. Here we are shocked by deaths of characters who, in the standard grammar of Children's Fantasy, seemed unkillable. As in Tolkien's Middle Earth, victory over Arawn ends the age of enchantment (> Thinning), and the conventionally noble or magical folk sail off to eternal bliss in the "Summer Country" . . . leaving the now predictable new High King and consort to the long job of Healing Prydain's brutal scars.
Pendants to the main books are Coll and His White Pig (1965), The Truthful Harp (1967) and The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain (coll 1973). The movie The Black Cauldron (1985) takes its story chiefly from The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron.
The five novels about Taran and his companions show Prydain and LA's talent at their best, and unlike his other work are constantly reprinted. [DRL]
other works: Time Cat (1963), The Cat who Wished to be a Man (1973) and The Wizard in the Tree (1975), all for younger readers; The Westmark Graustarkian adventures (> Ruritania), comprising Westmark (1981), The Kestrel (1982) and The Beggar Queen (1984); the Vesper Holly YA novels of an alternative Victorian era, comprising The Illyrian Adventure (1986), The El Dorado Adventure (1987), The Drackenberg Adventure (1988), The Jedera Adventure (1989) and The Philadelphia Adventure (1990); The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen (1991), an Oriental Fantasy; The House Gobbaleen (graph 1995), for younger children; The Arkadians (1995), set in an Alternate-World ancient Greece; The Iron Ring (1997).
Lloyd Chudley Alexander