Retro Reads: Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain

book of threeIt’s Retro Reads week with Lloyd Alexander! Today, we take a look back to Lloyd Alexander’s marvelous Chronicles of Prydain, the first of which was published 50 years ago. The Prydain Chronicles are modern classics which have influenced contemporary fantasy literature for children and remain highly readable/enjoyable in their own right 50 years after their first publication.

The Prydain Chronicles in Briefblack cauldron

The 5 Prydain Chronicles follow the coming-of-age of young Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, and his loyal, eccentric companions: Eilonwy, princess of Llyr, Fflewddur Fflam, an aspiring bard, Doli, a dwarf who can become invisible, and Gurgi, a strange creature with the most delightful expressions (“crunchings and munchings” being a household favorite). As with so many high fantasy greats, these books show a young man of indeterminate origins rising to take on his full responsibilities as high king (oops! Gave away the ending!).

The Prydain Chronicles: Still Captivating

What keeps readers coming back to the Prydain Chronicles 50 years after publication? Many of the same qualities that keep readers coming back to The Lord of the Rings Series: epic battles between good and evil, tremendously well-developed characters, heroic quests, sacrifice, triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds. In fact, the Prydian Chronicles make a great precursor to The Lord of the Rings. Slightly less complex and more approachable to younger readers, these books provide a good introduction to the intricasies and elements of high fantasy.

castle of llyrThe Prydain Chronicles might be slightly less complex than something like The Lord of the Rings, but please know your young readers before reading this series. I’ve listened to The Black Cauldron with my own three (two almost-7-year-olds and one 8-year-old), and we all enjoyed it immensely. That being said, I had to stop the book a number of times to clarify things like the “cauldron born,” discuss the magical elements in the book, and reassure them in general that the faithful companions obviously don’t die since there are more books about them! If your children are particularly sensitive to otherworldly elements and/or suspense and the violence that comes with good v. evil battles, wait until they are closer to fourth or fifth grade. These books are rich enough for even grown-ups to enjoy; if your family enjoys fantasy, this might be a good series to look into for some family read aloud time. It is worth noting, too, that Lloyd Alexander has such a good sense of when enough is enough; the gory battles aren’t told in excruciating detail. The “cauldron born” never actually appear in the book–just the idea of them. (Notable given today’s cultural fascination with the undead.)

The Prydain Chronicles: Worldview

taran wanderer

As with all fantasy (all literature!), we need to take a closer look at the worldview undergirding Prydain. One of the advantages we have with Retro Reads as opposed to contemporary literature is that we remember reading these books as children. Therefore, our analysis factors that in. I grew up in a Christian home (my dad is a pastor), went to a Christian school, and cannot remember a day when I did not trust in Christ as my Savior. I have no memory of reading these books and thinking: “Pagan!” Or of them causing me to yearn after pagan spirituality or anything else along those lines. They affected me much like Tolkien’s works did: I enjoyed “living” in the other world, imagining the magical creatures, getting caught up in the coming-of-age issues with Taran and Eilonwy, following their quests.

As an adult, however, when I reread these books, I recognize much of those pagan elements. Indeed, The Prydain Chronicles were hotly contested in their day for pagan elements. The “cauldron born” in The Black Cauldron are basically zombies: the undead. Druidic magic is referenced. There’s a sense of dualism as well: each person has good and evil warring within him or her and someone can turn either way.

The Prydain Chronicles: Worth Reading!

high kingFor all their pagan elements, I still think The Prydain Chronicles are worth reading and enjoying. They’re wonderfully well written (one Newbery honor and one Newbery medal amongst other awards). For those who hope their children will be able to appreciate and enjoy high fantasy like Tolkien’s work, series like these are a perfect introduction. And, for all their pagan elements, these books show much of what we hope to find in great literature: good triumphing over evil, the sacrificial cost involved for good to triumph, the maturing of young characters into men and women of principle and great courage, the example of true friendship, the placing of honor/country/cause above selfish interests, … and on and on! If you’re interested in diving into this series with your children, know that it is rich enough to make a great literary unit. For some good (secular) discussion questions as well as helpful pronunciations of those Welsh-inspired names, see this Reading Guide. The books, in order, are The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King. General age/interest level: 9-12.

Please let us know what your favorite Lloyd Alexander book is in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.

Janie covered another Retro Reads fantasy gem earlier this week: The Sword in the Stone. Tomorrow, Hayley will look at Alexander’s Vesper Holly series, and Megan will look at his picture books on Friday. Be sure to check those out! 
cover images from goodreads


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10 Responses to Retro Reads: Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain

  1. Emily March 20, 2014 at 5:46 am #

    Glad to hear you second our recommendation, Dani! I actually hadn’t heard of these books, and since our kids are studying the Middle Ages this year, I am going to have to track them down asap.

  2. Dani March 18, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    Our family reads these through aloud almost as often as the Narnia books. In fact, when we were stumped for another boy name we could really get behind, our older kids helped name their youngest brother: Taran.

  3. Cathy March 14, 2014 at 7:30 am #

    Thanks, Betsy!

  4. Amy @ Hope Is the Word March 13, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

    My children and I just finished The Black Cauldron last week. We’re hooked!
    http://www.hopeisthewordblog.com/2014/03/13/the-black-cauldron-by-lloyd-alexander/

  5. Betsy March 13, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    Oooh, Cathy, I love both of these series! They’re similar in age/interest level. Cooper’s series is based on the Arthurian legend and some Welsh mythology, and Alexander’s books are grounded in Welsh mythology and his own world creation. Cooper’s works straddle the present world a touch (or, at least, appear to be set in our own world at times). I think Cooper’s works are a touch more intense with more dualism/mythological elements present. They’re both great reads, but I might start with Alexander’s works. I don’t know if that answers your question or not. It’s been a while since I read Cooper’s works. But my MA thesis looked at the Welsh “wise woman” in mid-20th century fantasy; both Eilonwy (from Alexander’s Prydain books) and the Green Witch from Cooper’s featured in it ;-).

  6. Cathy March 13, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    This is a series I missed as a child. I got a nice set at a used bookstore for my daughter, but we haven’t gotten to them yet. How would you compare these to Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Series?

  7. Betsy March 13, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

    Ha ha ha, Megan. That took us an entire class period at the graduate level to discuss and the details are still fuzzy! ;-)

    The real question that still remains: does Harry Potter count as “high fantasy”?

    For those readers of ours who are unclear on the differences, we can sum up:
    **takes place in a completely alternate world (this means that Narnia is only questionably high fantasy–we nerds would then debate)
    **has magical/otherworldly creatures (dwarves, trolls, faeries, etc.)
    **epic good v. evil battles
    **often has quest/map/dragon elements

    It’s a sub genre of “fantasy” which would include everything from magical realism to scifi.

  8. Hayley March 13, 2014 at 8:13 am #

    Wonderful review, Betsy! It makes me want to read the Prydain Chronicles again so that I can appreciate them from a grown-up perspective :-)

    As a young reader, I think I consumed most of Lloyd Alexander’s books. Two that I particularly loved and read multiple times were “The Arkadians” and “Gypsy Rizka.”

  9. Megan March 12, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    I echo the sincere recommendation of these books–I read them only about twelve years ago and found them delightful. Even though they aren’t Christian books, the common grace thread of good-versus-evil is clear.

    Now Betsy dear, you need a follow-up explanation: what is the difference between high fantasy and fantasy? :-)

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