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The Book of Three (1964)

by Lloyd Alexander

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Chronicles of Prydain (1)

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7,9291681,113 (3.99)3 / 276
Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper to a famous oracular sow, sets out on a hazardous mission to save Prydain from the forces of evil.

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English (162)  Spanish (1)  All languages (163)
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In which Taran the assistant pig keeper sets out with a merry band of followers, to find a pig and thus save the world.

If the Amazon.com reviews are any indication, Lloyd Alexander's five-book series, The Chronicles of Prydain, has its detractors. They see it as a pale imitation of Lord of the Rings, complete with gollum-esque creature (who at least happens to be working for the good guys). They point out Alexander's expository dialogue, his rapid descriptions that leave little time for characters or sequences to make an impact, and the fact that - unlike the best children's fiction - his work is designed to appeal only to children and not to adults.

Well, I won't deny: all of those things are - to some extent - true. The obvious debt to Tolkien (and C.S. Lewis) is undeniable and occasionally uncanny. And Alexander is neither a literary giant nor a consummate non-literary storyteller on par with, say, J.K. Rowling.

Yet, I'm inclined to think the haters are being a bit unsporting about it all. The Book of Three, which opens the series, is a delightful little quest story. It's an easy, fast-paced read, which opens up an entire world of characters and species. The most delightful characters are the Princess Eilonwy, whose refusal to be relegated to the role of "female" is laudable, and the dwarf Doli, who wishes he could be invisible. Alexander's morals are in the right place for a book aimed squarely at children, but this is no bloodless Narnia. The injuries and horrors committed by the Horned King and his minions are all too real. It really raises the stakes, and if the book is about Taran learning there is more to the world than an idyllic life raising pigs, it succeeds.

There's also a great humanist skein running through the book. Medwyn, the protector of animals, eats only a vegetarian diet, while Taran is constantly forced to learn that there are many outlooks and ways of being in Prydain. And the dialogue is actually quite apt for each character. You know you're in safe hands when Gurgi - Prydain's equivalent of Gollum or, dare I say, Jar Jar Binks - is adorable rather than mawkish.

I do wish sometimes that Alexander would let each sequence breathe. I'm halfway through the second book, The Black Cauldron, and I feel like I've met an endless array of characters while drunk at a party, never able to get a firm grasp on them. But perhaps these are the limitations of a children's author when facing book length and the attention span of youngsters.

Either way, I'll give the thumbs-up to The Chronicles of Prydain so far. Even if it isn't always beautifully or densely written, it's intelligently written, and that makes all the difference. ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 21, 2024 |
My husband's mother read this series to him as a boy, and they cried together when they finished the last book and didn't have any more to read together. I see why this is a class - I thought the characters were a lot of fun, and I love the concept of an oracular pig.
  sloth852 | Apr 10, 2024 |
Taran was obnoxious and never truly learned from his mistakes. He said plenty of times that he was wrong and he would do better, and then next thing you know he's ignoring everyone else and insisting that they all do something stupid. This happened over and over again and it got tiresome. ( )
  LynnMPK | Mar 29, 2024 |
It’s a pop children’s (boy’s, really) fantasy adventure. Both the heroes and villains are ancient Celtic/Welsh pagans, which is a choice with some promise. It has its faults, of course. The whole “male heroes don’t have to be handsome; they just need to think deep thoughts and spear shit”—always delivered with the feeling that those awful women are forever imprisoning men inside their boudoirs, forcing them to comb their hair against their will, when the average husband cares about as much about his wife’s estimation of his beauty routine as a commie for the details of investment theory…. Also not terribly Celtic. (A lot of “Celtic fantasy” is terribly Victorian and patriarchal.) Physical imperfection legally debarred you from kingship among the Celts—if you lost a hand in battle, you hand to abdicate after the battle was over: and really I suppose handsomeness and male beauty in a king was ideal. (The Greeks also liked their kings and leaders to be physically developed.) But it’s a commonplace for a midcentury writer, I guess. A little bit worse was the way the, I don’t know how to describe him, the ‘goblin’ or whatever is portrayed in the third chapter. To make a long and in another person’s hands quite possibly painful, wretched story short and simple, basically the goblin appears to be a sort of colonial native sort of character, such as you might have met in India in the recent past—and not that love for the ex-colonial natives really would have blossomed in the hearts of Britons in the intervening years. The author was actually an American, but the story is Welsh, and like it was filtered through a later Victorian/midcentury filter; I suppose there’s also a sort of ‘British’ filter, too. It’s easy for an Anglo American to imagine himself as a loyal British imperialist, you know. “Come you back, Come you back, British soldier, come you back to Mandalay”, I once heard Frank Sinatra sing, you know. We don’t really imagine ourselves to be ancient colonial natives, not now, not really; certainly not in 1964, right.

(shrugs) The Welshness of it is still charming, of course—the names; the polytheist Celts not being demons and Jesus or whoever not beating them down, just the encounter with the your own, same-culture shadow, right. That’s what it is at its best. It even mentions in passing the existence of powerful Celtic queens, ruling queens, although they’re basically mentioned only and the notable, major characters seem to be basically male….

(shrugs) But I got the book as one for the boys; realistically, you let the boys have their turn, they take it and spit used gum in the girls’ eyes; at the risk of being resigned, that’s life. Although the pop children’s lit books I have aren’t quite as Anglo lad deficient as I remembered; I had an old school baseball boy book, that I was okay with—perhaps pretty good praise in that a lot of children’s lit from the early 20th century was just…. Nonsense; crap: even the famous hero writers were ordered to worship, you know: and the Neil Gaiman children’s book was great. And there are only two girls so far in that group of mine—the first Mary Poppins book, and the first of those wonderful Esther Hicks children’s books, right—and “Bud, Not Buddy”. So I guess I didn’t need to rush reading this, you know. But I suppose it was alright. (shrugs) The date almost doesn’t matter. Maybe a few great and good people have changed since 1964, but if you’re surprised even today at random Anglo lads looking out for the Anglo lad tribe and not anybody else, (except Wales, I guess, thanks to the ethnic miracle—Welsh boys are now Anglo boys in Philadelphia), well then you might need your head examined, because it’s far from unusual, you know. Fucking FAR from unusual.

…. Vaguely misogynistic, you know. Reminds me of Star Trek or something. I feel like Kirk got captured by the Borg Queen, you know. And by the men who love their mothers…. Who do not know true life, comes from God, lol…. And from the information. Information must be kept from the woman, so that when we meet her on the street, we can spit on her feet.

Holy shit; I’m a poet. Do I get an award, now? Do I get cake? After all, I’m a male; I win wars and shit; that means I get to have cake…. Makes sense to me, bitches. (Random villain from “Charmed”) “Clever witch!” Oh, God, that fucking show needed ~writers~, holy shit….

…. It is a curiosity how often in stories like this the hero gets captured—it really is a lot like Star Trek—as it’s a convenient way to paint the discomfort of war, defeat and the shadow in war, and also to introduce a new character, either in the form of an enemy or a rescuer…. It is strange, though, or it would be if it weren’t so predictable, how much suppressed hostility the midcentury male hero has with even a friendly female, you know…. “I’m a solitary bookish male! And you’re a ~female~! None of the books I read were written by women, you know! Nobody knows what you’re like, not really…. I don’t like that about you!”

Although it is true that people have an image of the solitary bookish male, regardless of what he reads, you know. Although part of it is, the art of reading books and learning to read people’s psyches and all the rest of it is one side of the coin, and the art of presenting yourself to people so that it’s a little easier for them to like you, and not to have to guess, based on ~nothing~ that you’re not just another solitary bookish male doing some misanthrope jive talking, right, is the other side of the coin, right…. And, unless I’m greatly mistaken, on MOST of the worlds that the Enterprise visits, coins do have, two, sides, right….

But yeah: since Lloyd neither does nor appears to give a fuck about girls and most people, right…. I don’t know. But I won’t read his other books. I mean, it’s readable. It’s not 100% 24-carat awful, you know…. Again, realistically, to let the boys have their turn is to occasionally read an adventure story that others girls, you know. Hardly the most fun anyone has on an adventure, to be like that, but you’d have to be awfully suspicious and weird to filter out all of them, and probably to weed out all the bad ones you’d have to filter out a lot of fun things, too…. As well, you know, as lots of just ordinary, middle bad, you know. That’s just the way that people act, sometimes.

…. Although the good news is, I can discard that awful Roald Dahl book, you know: Jimmy the Shit-Faced Loner, the Unworthy Planet Earth, and the Chocolate Ticket, right…. I mean, fuck that, right: “kids are bad, there might be a decent boy but never a girl”, right: and in a book where there is a girl hero; it’s like she’s marble: you make her ~apologize~, basically; yes, fucking romantic, for the little children with delicate ears, a Classic of the White Race…. (waves) I have enough pop books, you know: I can discard the little children’s books that make me vomit….

…. But yeah, it’s better than a lot of Dahl-style stories where it’s like the One Lone Male, basically; it’s like, there’s a girl who’s sorta an important character, although the guy is always toying with the idea of turning on her…. It’s an adult book, but Jason Bourne kinda falls midway between those two…. But yeah, it is modestly better than a lot of Merlin-y TV shows, say….

…. The polite hero is always prepared to grandly/out-of-unworthiness dismiss all his friends and companions at the moment of his greatest need.

And that’s a big lol, bitches.

…. I happened to see that throwaway movie Disney made in the 80s that was I guess based on this—all that happened in the 60s, and THAT was Disney’s “Sixties” movie in the 80s, right—I guess it took until At Least the 90s before the 60s happened for Disney, you know…. But yeah, in the movie there was that one awful line, “What would girls know about swords?”—and granted at the time I was afraid for men, “We must not allow our sexism to be revealed!!!!”—it was an awful, awful line, and nobody took him to task for saying it. In the book, the girl and the boy kinda share a mutually abusive relationship, which is…. Different, at least…. From it all going one way.

But yeah, the one thing better about the movie is that he’s “assistant pig keeper” when he’s five minutes in, and when he’s reached mid-movie, that whole title is over. In the book, they’re calling him “assistant pig keeper” after he single-handedly slayed the King of Doom, or whatever. Realistically, he’s the assistant pig keeper when he’s being mentored by the older man, and he’s the leader of the war band (boys’ story! Gnarly, bro!) he’s not a pig keeper, anymore…. Realistically, that’s why the older man makes his exit, so the young kid can take over, you know…. It’s funny: when you’re little, you think a story like this is so objective, or realistic, or something….

…. But yeah, aside from 80s Disney making the story more unambiguously sexist, it’s the same story. It is kinda throwaway, but it is better than say, “The Rage of Doctor Who”, or some generic “Merlin the Victorian Londoner”—although maybe it is a bit like that. It’s like, “Boys’ Story”, you know. But yeah. Okay. A lot really “well-written” pompous shit is really a lot worse, although some of that stuff is better, too….

…. (author note, & bio) Yes, part medieval mythology, part 20th century military technical support person…. (ad) Imagine! King Arthur! And now! For the first time! Entirely, in grey!

(laughs) But it passed the time. A lot of books are really, really terrible, you know: books that never should have been, at least the way that they ended up. This is merely middle-bad, you know: really, only bad, if this is the best you’ve got, basically….

…. And, what the fuck, I’ll call it positive. It’s a little negative, but it certainly isn’t ambiguous. Ambiguity implies things like reticence and subtleness and that is not this…. This is just positive, you know, that’s a little negative.
  goosecap | Mar 2, 2024 |
I have not read this book in literally decades. Yet there were scenes and lines of dialogue that I just knew were coming up, even after all that time. Truly, that is a testament to Alexander's writing skill. (See notes on The Black Cauldron for a bit of irony, though.) ( )
  Treebeard_404 | Jan 23, 2024 |
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» Add other authors (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Lloyd Alexanderprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hale, ShannonIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Langton, JamesNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lee, Jody A.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maitz, DonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ness, EvalineCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pilhjerta, Ritva-LiisaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wyatt, DavidCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For the children who listened, the grown-ups who were patient, and especially for Ann Durrell.
First words
This chronicle of the Land of Prydain is not a retelling or retranslation of Welsh mythology. Prydain is not Wales—not entirely, at least. The inspiration for it comes from that magnificent land and its legends; but, essentially, Prydain is a country existing only in the imagination.

[From Lloyd Alexander's "Author's Note" to The Book of Three (1964)]
Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long. Taran's arms ached, soot blackened his face. At last he dropped the hammer and turned to Coll, who was watching him critically.

[From "The Assistant Pig-Keeper", chapter 1 of Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three (1964)]
Medwyn, Taran saw, had gardens of both flowers and vegetables behind the cottage.  To his surprise, Taran found himself yearning to work with Coll in his own vegetable plot.  The weeding and hoeing he had so despised at Caer Dallben now seemed, as he thought of his past journey and the journey yet to come, infinitely pleasant.
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Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper to a famous oracular sow, sets out on a hazardous mission to save Prydain from the forces of evil.

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Blending rich elements of Welsh legend and universal mythology, Lloyd Alexander creates the imaginary kingdom of Prydain to tell a tale of enchantment, both good and evil, and of the Assistant Pig-Keeper who wants to become a hero.

In an enthralling chronicle, Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper to a famour oracular sow, sets out on a hazardous mission to save Prydain from the forces of evil. He meets adventures in which humor and valor are blended in a way that will keep readers of all ages completely absorbed — for this is fantasy that is rooted in reality and truth.

Mr. Alexander says in his introductory note: "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."

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