After reading a smidge too much big kid literature, I decided to reread one of my favorite YA book series of all time: The Chronicles of Prydain. I reread these stories at least half a dozen times in middle school through high school. They inspired my love of fantasy stories that persists to this day, and I can tell that the lessons they imparted were important, because they were hard for me to hear as a kid.
The story is set in a half-history half-mythological kingdom based on Wales, drawing from Welsh mythology and folkloric figures to provide a rich and varied storyline about an eclectic band of heroes in the vein of Tolkien. The Book of Three begins with Taran, Assistant Pig Keeper at Caer Dallben, being called to adventure when his oracular pig, Henwen, is startled by an ill wind and runs from home. Taran is almost immediately beset by The Horned King, warleader of the brutal Arawn Deathlord.
Taran is saved by the intervention of Prince Gwydion, warleader and prince of the realm, and travels with him while learning a few harsh lessons about the reality of heroism vs. what he expected it to be. This really is the primary theme of the story, since Taran, as a bored teenager in a mythical realm, yearns to be a hero. Unfortunately, it turns out that crossing swords with seasoned warriors is nothing compared to swinging a stick around a pigpen, and that he hadn’t even considered the less sexy aspect of adventuring, like sleeping in the rough or marching for twenty miles before you even have a chance to fight.
Eventually they are separated, and Taran is forced to seek help from the faithful yet bizarre Gurgi, the beautiful and headstrong Princess Eilonwy with the red-gold hair, and a compulsively lying bard named Fflewddur Fflam, whose lies are called out by his own harp, which snaps its strings when he “colors facts.” Their journey takes them from the dungeons of an evil witch, within the reach of cult-like ancient warriors who sacrifice prisoners via fire, and into an underground kingdom ruled by the Fair Folk.
In terms of lessons imparted, the difference between expectation and reality stands apart, but that’s not really why I love these stories. Prydain occupies one of those wonderful corners of imagination, where there’s danger, but not to a perverse Game of Thrones level, a scope that makes a kingdom feel big but not so much that it stops being a fairytale, and a unique setting based on a country that’s more load-bearing to high fantasy than we tend to realize.
Fun for children of all ages, including the tall-children-holding-drinks who stubbornly call themselves adults.