The first book I read (well, finished reading) in 2017 was one I have read countless times before. Perhaps, in that sense, it should not count. But this time was special. This time, I read it to my little sister, who was around the same age (9) I read it for the first time almost twenty years ago. She loved it, and I–who have always found a beautiful magic in this book–loved it more than I ever had before. (That’s saying something, as it was always one of my favourite books as a child.)
Taran is a young man living on a small farm called Caer Dallben with only Dallben, an old enchanter, and his man-who-actually-runs-the-farm, Coll. As the Assistant Pig-Keeper of an oracular pig named Hen Wen, Taran wants more than anything to have an adventure. When the Horned King, warlord of the evil king/god/enchanter Arawn (it’s never really clear what he is) comes seeking Hen Wen, the pig flees and Taran follows. On his journeys he meets an assortment of wonderful quirky characters: a prince who doesn’t dress like his status; a bizarre half-animal-half-human thing with an empty pit of a stomach; a girl with a magical ‘bauble’ who never stops talking; and a bard whose harp strings snap whenever he ‘colours the truth’ (which is often). Together, they go on a quest to warn the King of Prydain of the Horned King’s approaching army and trying to find Hen Wen along the way.
It is these characters that make the book so charming. Taran is a wonderfully flawed protagonist with the sort of flaws that aren’t just made up for the sake of making him not a ‘Gary Stu’: he makes mistakes, jumps to conclusions, gets angry easily, and is sometimes remarkably short-sighted. But he has heart, and–something I appreciate much more now that I am an adult–he never hesitates to apologize and admit that he was wrong.
You can tell the book was written decades ago, but for fantasy that is not always a bad thing. In this case, it gives the narration a beautiful simplicity. It does not contain any moralistic soliloquizing, either by some omniscient narrator nor by the characters themselves, of the sort which can be found in some old-fashioned writing for young people. The plot is not full of twists and turns, and to some degree the characters do happen into the events of the plot, but not in a way that feels contrived. You won’t find any steamy love triangles or gray morality, but there is an earnestness in Taran and his companions’ quest.
And this time I read, there was something that struck home in how Taran grows and matures in this quest, something that rang true in my own fumbling attempts to somehow be an Adult. (I would like to be able to confidently say, at 28, that I have life figured out. Hell, I’m writing a PhD–I’m still a student! Adulting for me is being able to flip the switch when the fuse goes.) It also rings true to me as someone who has lived most of my adult life in a country that I was not born in. Soon into his quest, Taran realizes the beautiful simplicity of his home. But when he returns, he speaks to the enchanter Dallben, saying,
“I have dreamed often of Caer Dallben and I love it–and you and Coll–more than ever. I asked for nothing better than to be at home, and my heart rejoices. Yet it is a curious feeling. I have returned to the chamber I slept in and found it smaller than I remember. The fields are beautiful, yet not quite as I recalled them. And I am troubled, for I wonder now if I am to be a stranger in my own home.”
Dallben shook his head. “No, that you shall not be. But it is not Caer Dallben which has grown smaller. You have grown bigger. That is the way of it.”
This end brought me almost to tears when I read it this year. My sister will not understand this for many years–maybe never. But I was delighted that I could find something new that touched the soul in this book after so many times reading it before. And yet it is exactly this sort of heart that made me fall in love with Prydain two decades ago.