A classic fantasy, first published in 1964, The Book of Three begins the epic tale of the adventures of Taran, an Assistant Pig Keeper in the mythical land of Prydain as he fights to keep Prydain from falling under the evil Arawn. The Chronicles of Prydain series, which begins with The Book of Three and includes The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer and The High King, is about Taran’s journey from youth to adulthood and maturity, as he learns and grows in each adventure.
It is a timeless story of good versus evil and of a boy learning to be a man, and suitable for ages 9 to 12, though it can be enjoyed by some older and younger kids, as well.
The StoryTaran is an orphan, Assistant Pig Keeper at Caer Dallben, with the primary responsibility of caring for the oracle pig, Hen Wen. He has big dreams, wishing for adventure, because he finds his education at the hands of Dallben and Coll to be quite tedious. Taran gets the opportunity for adventure when the Horned King and his armies of undead warriors, the Cauldron-Born, come close enough to Caer Dallben to terrify Hen Wen into escaping her pen. On an impulse, Taran takes off after her. He fails to immediately find Hen Wen, but does find the warrior prince Gwydion.
As Taran travels with Gwydion, they discover that their goals are the same: to find Hen Wen, because she has information that Gwydion needs in order to beat the Horned King. Unfortunately, they get captured by the Cauldron-Born and taken to the Spiral Castle, the home of Queen Achren, a compatriot of the Horned King, for interrogation.
Gwydion keeps Taran from telling Achren anything, but Taran still ends up in the dungeon.
There he meets Eilonwy, the plucky ward of Achren and an orphan, as well. She helps Taran get out of the dungeon, inadvertently rescuing the bard Fflewddur Fflam as well, thinking he’s a friend of Taran’s. After some initial disagreements, the three of them head out again to search for Hen Wen. They are soon joined by Gurgi, a furry character who tries Taran’s patience.
After Gurgi injures his leg, which no one is able to heal, they find Medwyn, a reclusive healer for animals, who is able to help the rag-tag band. They had hoped that Hen Wen would have been able to find a haven with Medwyn but she didn’t make it there. Discouraged, the group heads out for Caer Dathyl, if only to deliver the message that Gwydion’s missing to his family.
On the way, they take a detour through the kingdom of the Fair Folk, dwarfish-like creatures with a grudge against humans. It ends up being fortuitous: Gurgi discovers that the dwarves have captured Hen Wen. They wheedle the release of everyone out of the dwarf king, and gain a guide, Doli, to help them get to Caer Dathyl.
Under Doli’s competent guidance, they soon reach Caer Dathyl where they find the Horned King and the Cauldron-Born camped out at the door of the castle. The friends decide that the only thing they can do is make a stand against the forces of evil, and prepare for battle. Entirely outmatched, Taran and Eilowny go up against the Horned King, and Taran attempts to use the sword Eilowny has been carrying. That was a bad idea: he blacks out entirely.
When he wakes up, Taran finds that the Horned King has been beaten. Taran is being lauded as a hero in the battle, even though he professes he didn’t do anything. The friends are rewarded by Gwydion for their laudable efforts of rescuing Hen Wen and bringing her to the place and time where she could do what was needed to win the battle. As his reward, Taran only asks to go home to Caer Dallben and live quietly.
My RecommendationOn the one hand, the story line is incredibly simple: a boy leaves, has adventures, and learns life lessons on the adventures. But, even with its simplicity, it’s a fantastic adventure tale, as well as a great beginning. I think it's because Alexander is a brilliant storyteller, and he knows how to create characters that are incredibly relatable. They are flawed, with characteristics that make them realistic, even though the world around them falls into strict categories of good and evil. In addition, it’s a grand adventure story, one which grabs you and encourages you to read the rest of the series as well. (Square Fish, Macmillan, 2006. ISBN: 9780805080483)
Author Lloyd AlexanderLloyd Alexander was born in 1924. He died in 2007. He attended the University of Paris after World War II. His first work of fantasy for children, Time Cat, was published in 1963, and from then on, Alexander specialized in children’s fantasy. A visit to Wales and Welsh mythology served as inspirations for The Chronicles of Prydain. (Sources: Macmillan, Scholastic Interview with Lloyd Alexander, New York Times, May 19, 2007 obituary of Lloyd Alexander)
For more about the author and the series, as well as other recommended middle grade fantasy series and books, see The Chronicles of Prydain.