Monday, May 21, 2007

RIP, Lloyd Alexander

More sad literary news today -- I just learned that one of my favorite writers from childhood, Lloyd Alexander, passed away over the weekend. He was 83.

Lloyd Alexander was the author of many books, but I loved him for his Prydain Chronicles. I was, in fact, obsessed. Perhaps it's why I understand the Harry Potter mania so well. I would've bought every piece of Prydain swag I could lay my hands on (I did, actually, but the only swag was a video game) and waited at the stores at midnight for new books. I would've decorated my bedroom entirely in Prydain stuff, had it been available. What i really wanted was to BE Eilonwy or Taran, but I would've settled for sleeping in Eilonwy sheets and carrying a Taran bag.

The five books chart the life of Taran, who lives with a powerful enchanter named Dallben and works as Assistant Pig-Keeper on his farm. Taran is very young when the books open -- they never specify, but perhaps as young as 12, and certainly no older than 15. One would not think that an Assistant Pig-Keeper would have many chances for adventure, but Taran manages, thoughout the course of the series, to go on several missions to fight the evil Arawn, and to make friends with a colorful and powerful cast of characters. Eilonwy is a princess, sorceress and fellow orphan. Fflewddur Fflam fancies himself a wandering bard, and has a wonderful harp that snaps a string every time he stretches the truth, but we learn much to our surprise that he is really a lord. Gurgi is a not-quite-human, not-quite-animal creature who speaks of himself (and everyone else) in the third person.

The books are based, loosely, in Welsh legend. I was surprised to see the name of the crown prince, Gwydion, plastered all over a classroom in Wales, and the Isle of Mona, where the third book in the series is set, is a real place, known as Ynys Mon (or Anglesey) today. Lloyd Alexander was an American, but travelled to Wales while serving in the Army and, as anyone who has spent much time there would, fell in love with it and never forgot his experiences there. (Just looking up the spelling of "Ynys Mon" has made me want to return!)

The final book in the series, The HIgh King, won the Newberry Award that year, although I hate the ending of it. But my favorite book in the series, The Black Cauldron was the victim of one of the worst film adaptations I've ever seen. The book was rather dark, dealing with the darker human emotions like pride and anger, but also with the nature of heroism. The film was cheesy and rosy, and uniformly failed to capture the essence of Alexander's characters. Eilonwy was the worst. In the books, she's independent, funny, brave, smart, an excellent fighter, a real adventurer, and the kind of woman girls should aspire to be. In the movie, she was so simpering and wimpy that the change could only be explained by blatant sexism. Perhaps Disney felt the world was not ready for an Eilonwy, although they probably changed their minds when their film sank faster than Gigli yet the books have endured to this day. I still think that a film version of this series, an honest adaptation, would do well, but I would not have blamed Lloyd Alexander if he didn't want the film studios within 500 feet of him after The Black Cauldron.

Lloyd Alexander could have left the world a substantially better place on the strength of these five books alone, but he wrote over forty books. He had two other series, and several stand-alone books. I tried some of them, but none of them were like the Prydain books. In a way, I guess, no books have ever again been like the Prydain books for me. I read them on the cusp of, not quite adulthood, but as I was leaving childhood. I was coming to understand, once and for all, that no matter how many wardrobes I walked through, they would contain nothing more than coats, ever. I still enjoy good fantasy books from time to time, but that is all they are to me now. The Prydain books were the last books that I believed I could, in some way, be a part of somehow. They are still good when I read them today, although not the same. Thank you, Lloyd Alexander, for those last few moments of belief. I hope you are now in a place that is ten times better than Prydain and Narnia put together.

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