“Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we can do. Our capabilities seldom
match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart.”
I was at Half Price Books awhile back, a usual hangout for me when I have some time to kill, and I was browsing through the young adult fiction section. As I was glancing around I saw a book, cover facing outward, with a Newbery medal. And for some reason, whenever there is a big golden or silver medallion on a book my brain programs it as: “This one has to be awesome.” Unfortunately for me it was book 5 in a series of 5. Now, enter the dilemma of all readers of young adult fiction: do I really want to start a new series when I am in the thick of about 50 other series that I already enjoy? Let’s be real here, the reason the collection is up to 50 is because we can’t say no to a good (kids) book. So I grabbed the 1st in the series of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain,’ called ‘The Book of Three.’
The book follows an assistant pig keeper (that’s right, an assistant pig keeper) Taran, in the mythical land of Prydain (which bears an incredible resemblance to Wales). Taran is frustrated in carrying out the menial tasks of an assistant pig keeper in Caer Dallben, and longs to be an adventurer like Prince Gwydion. When his oracular pig, Hen Wen, escapes, Taran must chase after her outside the safety of his own home. His quest to find her becomes a wild adventure with classic elements of fairy tales and fantasies that lovers of Narnia, Middle Earth, and Hogwartz will all enjoy. It is a fun and funny coming-of-age tale that satisfies the reader, while creating a sense of excitement to tear through the next installment.
While reading the book I had to set aside my frustrations with similar themes I was finding in Prydain with Tolkein and other works of fantasy literature. But after doing a little research, it was clear that Alexander wrote the Prydain Chronicles in an effort to retell Welsh mythology. And while he does utilize elements from other writers, (most notably a character that could literally be replaced with Gollum) his enchanting book is a gripping collage of what fantasy readers love best.
The Book of Three, written for a younger audience, is packed with intriguing lessons that children and adults alike can benefit from. Told with a magnificent sense of humor intertwined with powerful prose, there is a constant thread throughout the book of how true heroism is not something that can only be accomplished by a king, a bard, or an adventurer, but can be found in the most unlikeliest of places: like an assistant pig keeper. This quote comes from a moment when Taran attempts to sound heroic and noble while talking to Eilonwy, one of his partners on the quest, as they flee a wicked queen and her crumbling palace:
‘Spiral Castle has brought me only grief; I have no wish to see it again.’ ‘What has it brought the rest of us?’ Eilonwy asked. ‘You make it sound as though we were just sitting around having a splendid time while you moan and take on.’
Alexander often has sharp retorts for conventional ‘heroism’ or nobility in a way that makes the reader understand that they are capable of great things even if they aren’t a king. And even if they’re an average man browsing the young adult fiction section in a second hand bookstore.
4 out of 5. I’m excited to read the second book.