The Castle of Llyr

Image.ashxWe’re continuing to enjoy Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and we finished the third book, The Castle of Llyr, this morning after a few marathon read-aloud sessions. This tale included the further adventures of Taran and Eilonwy and their band of delightfully ordinary friends. They run up against a befuddled princeling named Rhun, a small-spirited giant named Glew, a giant wild cat named Llyan, and a few familiar heroes and enemies from previous books. Eilonwy is kidnapped and we had a few tense chapters while reading, but we came out on the other end completely satisfied.

I liked three things in particular. One is that this was a good book for girls because it involved consideration of what makes for a good princess. Eilonwy is not merely a fun, verbose, level-headed maiden in this story, but a royal princess with her own important destiny. Will she rise to the occasion?

Another aspect I continue to enjoy is the utter likability of the characters. Taran is impulsive but able to learn. Gurgi grows braver and wiser in every adventure, but he never loses his penchant for picking up twigs and leaves in his fur coat, or for quotable phrases. Fflewddur Fflam seems to embellish the truth (and therefore break harp strings) less and less, but he never loses his basic decency or bravado (or his spiky hair). And Gwydion, the noblest of princes, somehow comes across as real even though he never seems to misstep.

I think what I liked best about this story is that even the wicked sorceress Achren is given a chance at redemption. It’s one example of the depth of characterization that makes these tales more than just action-packed adventure stories. Both daughters took turns reading to give me a break, and now they are insisting on picking up both remaining books in the Chronicles of Prydain from the library — so that we don’t have to waste even an hour before moving from the end of one to the beginning of the next. I’d call that a success!

My reviews of the two previous books are here: The Book of Three; and here: The Black Cauldron.

I’m linking up to Read-Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the Word.

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The Black Cauldron (Aloud)

9780805080490_p0_v1_s260x420I reviewed this book a few years ago, and looking back, I find that I still appreciate the same things after reading it aloud to my daughters over the last week (on the heels of The Book of Three). As I said then, the book makes me think of lots of other stories, and I liked that:

My brother-in-law says there are only about 5 stories out there, remixed over and over. I’m not sure if I agree, but I did find lots of connections between this story and others, especially Tolkein’s. Like The Two Towers, The Black Cauldron as the second book in the series is (in my opinion) the darkest. Its central mission is serious: to secure and destroy the cauldron Arawn uses to turn corpses into “cauldron-born” warriors who can never be killed. Alexander’s characters also reminded me often of Tolkein’s: Arawn and Sauron; the cauldron-born and the ringwraiths; Taran and Frodo; on and on. Both authors include a fellowship in which rivalries fester and threaten to break it apart. Both include an evil, enchanted object that magnifies the characters’ inner wrestling with good and evil. Even the imaginary kingdom of Prydain, and its inhabitants with their difficult-to-pronounce names, calls to mind Tolkein’s much more elaborate, meticulous alternative world and language in Middle Earth.

There are links to other stories too. The 3 enchantresses, Orwen, Orgoch, and Orddu, remind me of L’Engle’s Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, who also take the form of dishevelled crones and leave us guessing whether they’re entirely to be trusted. The cauldron itself hearkens to the biblical story of redemption, for it’s used to keep those who are dead alive as slaves to the evil will of Arawn, and it can only be destroyed if a living person willingly climbs in and loses his life. And the cast of characters– a young man coming of age, a princess, a bard– could serve as the template for any number of classic tales.

180px-Black_Cauldron3My daughters too saw parallels with other stories. But I think the richness of the characterization, and the consideration of some of the big questions of human nature, moved me more this time. For instance, the three hags turn many of our assumptions about what makes a character good or bad on their ear. After finishing the book, we’re left wondering: are these curious characters good, evil, or some third possibility tending toward neutral? I asked the girls about this and we had a great conversation. They are deliberately uninvolved in some ways, and in some lights they appear quite ominous. Yet they do no harm, and arguably even do some good by stealing the pot from Arawn.

Most fascinating are the bad characters that Alexander insists upon drawing with complexity — like Morgant, the king gone bad who at the end is honored with a barrow because, as Prince Gwydian remarks,

It is easy to judge evil unmixed… But, alas, in most of us good and bad are closely woven as the threads on a loom; greater wisdom than mine is needed for the judging. King Morgant served the sons of Don long and well… Until the lust for power parched his throat, he was a fearless and noble lord. In battle he saved my life more than once, These things are part of him and cannot be put aside or forgotten.

This, along with Taran’s refusal to simply write off the arrogant, untrustworthy Ellidyr — another “bad” character who eludes easy categorization — sounds an awful lot like a profoundly Christian view of humanity. It’s what lies behind the biblical injunction to “judge not,” and behind God’s patience with fallen humanity.

I also loved the magical brooch that Taran wears for a time — a brooch that gives him a privileged level of insight into nature and the future and human character. Again, I read from my Christian perspective even though there is nothing explicitly “Christian” in the text, but I can’t help but think of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The effect of the brooch is to deepen Taran’s reluctance to judge anyone quickly, and to make him more gracious and even loving toward “enemies.” It makes him wiser, as Eilonwy points out, even after he isn’t wearing it anymore.

I find I could go on and on — but I won’t. My daughters and I all enjoyed this book very much, not least because of the likable cast of characters in Taran’s little band: Eilonwy the talkative, Flewddur Flam the wonderful bard, Gurgi the half-man, half-beast (another fascinating idea) whom Medwyn says is “neither one thing nor the other,” Doli the grumpy and resourceful dwarf, Dallben the sage, and Prince Gwydion the noble. We find ourselves imitating Eilonwy, Gurgi, and Fflewddur Fflam all the time now. I think it’s inevitable that we’ll continue to progress through these chronicles together.

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The Return of the King

We finished The Return of the King last week. I’ve been rereading the trilogy, supplementing with the audiobook and sharing it with my daughters. And I was ready for it to be brought to its conclusion. But it has been a great experience to revisit these tales.

I have to admit that there are a couple of things that made me uncomfortable this time around. There is a lingering over evil that seems almost prurient at times: the threats of the orcs when they argue, the use of human heads as cannonballs, the overall disgusting and deformed nature of all things related to Sauron. Even the landscape is utterly befouled by the touch of the Dark Lord. It’s essential to the story for Tolkien to spell out the profane effects of Sauron’s will to destroy and dominate, but at times it seems to go on for so long that I wondered at it.

Another thing I wondered about at times, though I hesitate to admit it, is the relationship between Frodo and Sam. It doesn’t really fit the mold of males adventuring together, but seems to belong more to the domestic hearth. It made me think about how all authors are working with familiar categories, and when they seem to mix them my signals jam as a reader.

Nevertheless, Return is a satisfying conclusion to the tale of Middle Earth. I’ve enjoyed the stories of character emerging: Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf all are called to rise to formidable challenges, and all respond with valor. Aragorn is revealed as truly kingly; Frodo is wise and brave; Sam is the ultimate self-sacrificing friend; Gandalf is transformed from mere grey to dazzling white as a protector of the order and a keeper of mysteries.

Most of all, what I love about this conclusion to Tolkien’s epic (and sometimes eccentric) narrative is the crushing defeat of evil. After we finished the story, I let the girls watch selected excerpts of the movie: the ring falling into fire, Sauron’s tower collapsing, the reunion of friends. The girls loved the huge eagles, Sam’s heroic “I can’t carry the ring, but I can carry you!” scene, the joyous reunion of the fellowship. But at the very end, when Frodo and Gandalf and Bilbo depart with the elves, there was protest. “No more elves??!!?” Younger Daughter exclaimed tearfully.

It’s true. Something is lost; a level of mystery and glory departs from Middle Earth. But what remains is a restored order, the lordship of humankind. As the eagles proclaim after Sauron has been defeated,

Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
for the realm of Sauron is ended forever,
and the Dark Tower is thrown down.

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your King hath passed through,
and he is victorious.

Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life…

The biblical ring of such passages can’t be missed. Tolkien’s Catholic imagination was well furnished with such images and language. He brings it all to bear here in ways that draw a parallel between the Middle Earth of the pages and the world outside the book, which is, for Tolkien and for other Christians, still in the middle of an unfolding story of restoration.

Breadcrumbs

I picked up Breadcrumbs because it looked attractive on the new books shelf at the library, and because I remembered reading Amy’s review awhile back. I read it because I needed something on the light side. It was an “easier” read than some of the denser fare I’ve waded through lately — which is to say, it’s readable and absorbing. But it’s not trivial. Anything but.

The plot centers around Hazel and her best friend Jack, who suddenly becomes mean. Though Hazel’s mother explains that this happens sometimes when kids reach a certain age, Hazel is unconvinced. “Jack’s heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice,” the front flap explains.

The story of Hazel’s trip into the woods — a dream-like landscape populated by various broken-hearted beings — and her attempt to rescue Jack brings us face to face with some of the darker truths of the human heart. Sometimes, it’s easier to let your heart freeze, and to let your mind take over — a theme worked out both in the prosaic world of Hazel’s school day life, and in the dark wilderness of the woods. Most of us will face the temptation at one time or another. And most of us will need rescuing from the chilling, deadening effects of retreating inward. Ursu’s woods seem to stand as a vivid picture of all that is murky and dangerous in the human heart.

Ultimately, what saves is love. At many turns, Hazel is urged to give up her quest because Jack probably doesn’t want saving. It’s true, in the same sense as the wisdom of teachers and parents in the book is true. It makes sense. “Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do,” Hazel’s mother tells her at one point, and one could hardly argue with that. But it’s also hopeless, a line of thought that leads to paralysis and maybe even despair.

Jack’s hope of salvation — and really, Hazel’s too — lies in Hazel’s refusal to accept the cold rationality of such logic. Ursu uses the snowflake to suggest the potentialities of the human soul. On the one hand, it’s an ideal hexagon, perfectly symmetrical, made of ice. At times in the story snowflakes are a picture of the mathematical precision of logic, and at other times, of beauty and poetry. The difference is in how it’s viewed, which goes back to the orientation of the heart. Much though she’d like to bury it at times, Hazel’s heart is a compassionate one, alive to the possibilities of goodness and creativity and grace.

One other aspect of the book that I liked was the way it weaves in references to other fantasy stories, some of which I’ve read, others not: Narnia, The Golden Compass, The Phantom Tollbooth (I adore this story, and the airwaves around here have been full of it this week via audiobook), Harry Potter. Ursu seems to acknowledge her imaginative kinship with these stories, and they play a role in her heroine’s imaginative life too.

I think it’s a great book, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it in the sense of looking forward to every reading session. Yet I have to acknowledge, too, that it leaves me feeling a bit heavy-hearted. It contains truths, but though it ends well, the resolution is both abrupt and limited. It’s not a feel-good book, but it’s one that succeeds as a beautiful, suspenseful, thoughtful weaving serious themes. It’s not one I’ll forget quickly.

The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic

What do you do when your ten-year-old daughter hands you a book and says, “You have to read this. Then, I want to see it on your blog. And I’ll help.”

You read it, of course. So I did.

Persimmony Smudge lives in Candlenut, by the Willow Wood, where the summit of Mount Majestic is plainly visible. The castle of King Lucas the Loftier is there, and to all appearances it’s an ordinary mountain. But appearances can be deceiving. Underneath it sleeps a giant. If he awakes, the whole island will be destroyed, and it’s up to Persimmony to spread the word to a skeptical population of Leaf-eaters, Rumblebumps, King and villagers.

It’s a tall order, but somehow we always believe that Persimmony, a spunky 10-year-old heroine with hair like dirty dishwater, will rise to the occasion. She and her band of unlikely companions — a poetry-writing general, the shriveled and fearful Worvil, and an aged potter named Theodore — all work together to save the day.

The book is filled with memorable characters, including Mrs. Smudge, who has moral objections to many things including reading and birthday parties; King Lucas, whose favorite food is pepper; and Theodore, who makes magic pots that produce not necessarily what you want, but what you need.

I love the story’s premise. Who hasn’t looked at a hillside and had the fleeting thought, “That looks like a giant sleeping”? Yet what an uncertain, wonder-filled world it would be if the ground underfoot might rise up and crumble any minute. Also under the ground are the Leaf-eaters, a humanish species with their own code of conduct and a deep-seated grudge against the “Sunspitters” who live on the earth’s surface. Somehow the surface-dwellers need to make a kind of peace with these and other forces beyond their control.

The conclusion affirms the wonder and the gift of each day, but not without a few thrills and chills along the way. Both my daughter and I were a little disappointed with one mystery that never gets solved, and I wished we could have gotten to know the giant a little better. But all in all it was a great adventure story with a very likable heroine. I especially liked that this was the first book my daughter has ever assigned to me!

Charlotte Sometimes

This haunting novel is classified as a children’s book, though to my mind it seems more like an adult book with child characters. Although it’s poetic and truthful in its depiction of character and psychology, its storyline is intriguing, and for many it’s considered a modern classic, it’s not a book I recommend.

First, the details. Charlotte Sometimes is a time-travel story with a twist, originally published in 1969. 13-year-old Charlotte Makepeace goes to boarding school and sleeps in a unique bed with wheels. Though it’s never explained how or why, the bed facilitates an exchange with Clare Moby, a girl sleeping in the same bed 50 years earlier in 1918. Every other day, the girls find themselves trading places. They start to keep a diary whereby they communicate essential details to make the transitions easier. Then they find themselves trapped in the wrong times. How will they get back where they belong?

The story is told through Charlotte’s perspective, and the loss of identity she feels is quite delicately and compellingly drawn. When she finds herself transported back to 1918, she “becomes” Clare, and pervading the novel is her sense of wondering what makes her uniquely “her.” Clare has a sister, Emily, at the boarding school, and even she doesn’t catch on right away to the fact that her sister has become someone else. The ordinary, and our expectations and assumptions, exert a tremendous power over what we perceive, the novel suggests. Sometimes they cloak reality. And sometimes they isolate and alienate.

The World War I historical context is deftly drawn in realistic detail. We are immersed in the experience of boarding school life in an England at war, where water, gas and food must be consumed “patriotically,” and where one can never be sure whether she’ll see her father or brother again because they are doing their duty as soldiers.

What I didn’t like about the novel was the introduction of occult themes. While trapped in 1918, Charlotte and Emily go “into lodgings” with a British family for a season. Instead of living at the school, they live with the Chisel Brown family — an elderly couple and their grown daughter Agnes — at their tomb-like home, Flintlock. Flintlock is essentially a shrine to Arthur, the couple’s son who went to war and was killed.

One evening Charlotte has a dream in which she “becomes” Arthur as a child having a nightmare. At another point, the family has a seance to conjure up their dead son, and somehow they get Clare, trapped 50 years into the future, instead. The whole conception of a chaotic spiritual realm full of souls with permeable boundaries between life and death, and between one person and another, is disturbing. It was further compounded for me by the characterization of Clare as an extremely pious Christian. The idea that she could be conjured from one era to another by a medium is as false to anything the Bible has to say about spiritualism as it’s possible to get.

The fictional situation does get resolved eventually, but it’s a bittersweet resolution at best. For me the atmosphere of the tale is pervaded by sorrow; whatever its literary merits, its overall effect is oppressive. I read the 1986 edition — the only one available in our library system. It wasn’t till I sat down to write this review that I learned its ending had been altered from the 1969 edition. (Apparently there are three versions: 1969, 1986, and now a more recent one that restores the original ending.) The original ending sounds like it might offer slightly more closure, but still no real satisfaction.

The Dragon of Og

I’ve never seen Rumer Godden’s The Dragon of Og on a list of classic children’s books, but if it were up to me it would be there. I picked it up at the library last week and read it to my kids, and all of us were charmed.

I have Rumer Godden classified in my mind as a heartbreaking writer. I’m not sure why. I know I read The Diddakoi, but I don’t remember much of it at all.

The Dragon of Og is only briefly heartbreaking. And although it concerns a dragon, it isn’t scary, but whimsical. The pictures by Pauline Baynes, some in color and some in black and white, are lovely and look like medieval tapestries.

The basic situation is that a dragon has lived quietly in his cave in a pool in Scotland for years, eating a bullock every two or three weeks. Angus Og decides he should not be allowed his bullocks anymore. A battle of wits ensues — between Angus and his spirited wife Matilda, his steward Donald, and the knight Sir Robert Le Douce, who’s commissioned to come and deal with the dragon.

The ending leaves you with the feeling that even though you don’t live in Scotland, and even though you live in the twenty-first century, the whole thing just might have happened very close by, so you’d better keep your eyes open:

This was all a long time ago. Angus Og and Matilda lie in the churchyard now, and all the little Angus Ogs and Matildas. On the hill there is no Castle, only an ordinary house and where the bailey used to be there is a garden. The meadows are still rich in grass and clover though the forests are only woods, but the Water of Milk still runs and the big pool is there; people say so is the Dragon but no one has seen him which is not surprising as he is now very old and spends most of his time asleep.

Now and again, the taste comes back to him of junket and mead; then he gives a sigh that sets the pool water swirling. People think it is the wind, but it is the Dragon…

Westmark

Westmark was published in 1981, but it’s a new Lloyd Alexander find for me. I’ve read the Prydain Chronicles, but hadn’t ever delved into this author’s other books. There are quite a few, and perhaps I didn’t know where to begin.

Westmark has some of the same qualities I loved about the Prydain Chronicles:

  • a flawed but true boy/young man for its main character
  • a quest for identity
  • fast-paced adventure
  • a fictional realm that (apparently) gets developed in the rest of the series
  • exuberance and wit at every turn

I found Westmark more philosophical, though. The effects of propoganda, war, and corrupt governance all figure into the story, as does the question of whether killing is ever justified or right.

The king of Westmark, grieving the mysterious loss of his only daughter, is all too willing to surrender the bulk of kingdom-running to his scheming chief minister Cabbarus. (I quoted him here.) Theo, an apprentice to a printer who has been destroyed by Cabbarus’ oppressive policies, is left to fend for himself. In his travels he meets a good-natured con-man and his dwarf assistant, an orphaned street girl, and a band of high-minded rebels led by a disillusioned aristocrat named Florian who thinks the monarchy should be abolished entirely.

Theo, especially, wrestles with moral questions. He asks Florian,

I have to understand… Killing is wrong. I believed that. I still do. But now I wonder. Do I believe it because I want to be a decent man? Or — because I’m a coward?… Who decides what’s right?

Which group of seemingly good people should he ally himself with, and to what extent? In the moment of crisis, what should be his response to an evil person? How responsible is he for his friends? Some of these types of questions, as I recall, are raised in Taran’s adventures in Prydain. But there’s something, not less lively, but less quirky, about their treatment in Westmark. I think I liked it a little better, much though I like Prydain. It’s one of those “children’s books” that packs a punch for readers of all ages.

I’m glad Sherry mentioned this title in her recognition of Lloyd Alexander’s birthday, and I may go back and pick up the others in the series.

Stardust

I thoroughly enjoyed this fairytale for adults. Fast-paced, witty, and full of the off-beat mystery of the realm of faerie, Stardust appealed to me in the same way Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell did. It’s no wonder Susanna Clarke and Neil Gaiman are friends. How I’d love to hear one of their conversations about their art.

This tale begins in Victorian England, in the village of Wall, so named for the wall that marks the boundary between the town and the enchanted lands. There is one opening in the wall, guarded at all times to protect the village children (or anyone else, for that matter) from wandering through and getting lost in the dreamlike lands beyond. But for reasons explained early on, Tristran Thorn ventures in after a fallen star, and finds himself involved in an adventure intertwined with two other stories. The account of his escapades beyond the wall and their ultimate resolution makes for entertaining, gripping reading.

It’s not surprising that Stardust reminded me of Susanna Clarke, for one of her short stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a response to this one. By turns I was reminded of other authors and characters, too: the enchanted woods of Phantastes and The Hobbit, the stars dropping from the sky in The Last Battle, the animal nature within people in The Princess and Curdie, the by-all-accounts commonplace figure who pursues a grand destiny in Lord of the Rings. And so on. As his poem “Instructions” makes plain, this is an author well-versed in the conventions of the fairytale, using them inventively to further his own story.

When I come to the end of a tale like this, I marvel at the imaginative reach and the superb writing. I started American Gods earlier this year and didn’t like it, but this one I couldn’t put down and even left the lounge during my one free period at homeschool co-op on Friday to seek out a quiet place to read. (I ended up in the deserted baby nursery, nervous that someone would stumble upon me and think I was utterly weird and antisocial, but reading on, helplessly.) Stardust is my first real acquaintance with Neil Gaiman’s fiction, but I suspect it won’t be my last.

The Book of Three

On the way home from church today, my youngest daughter informed me that her pencil was stuck, point-first, through the “leather” (plastic) of the car door. When I asked her how it happened, she said, “It was an accident. I didn’t know it was that strong!”

Later, it was determined that my husband had shut the car door on the pencil, which was sticking out in that direction. Any visions of my daughter jamming her pencil full-force into the door were erased, and the penalty — no more pencils in the car — was lifted.

“Mommy, when you were thinking it was my fault, it was like giving someone an apple pie, then someone taking it, then having it turn out that it wasn’t a thief,” Younger Daughter reflected.

“No, it was like handing them a toad. Or like turning the other way when someone’s about to walk into a hole,” offered Older Daughter.

“Huh?” I said. “Maybe we should clean up and have some crunchings and munchings!”

We owe such conversations to The Book of Three, in which a chatterbox named Eilonwy is always making novel comparisons to explain her feelings, and the ape-like Gurgi speaks of “crunchings and munchings,” “whackings and smackings,” “seekings and peekings” and “fightings and smitings.” I guess it’s obvious that this read-aloud got under our skin!

I’ve read it twice before, once when I was around middle school age, and once about two years ago. It’s the first of five chronicles set in a fictitious medieval realm, inspired by Wales, called Prydain. It was fun to read it aloud. There is a rollicking (Chaucerian?)  feel to it, thanks to the exaggerated characterizations, and this keeps the tension under control. In a nutshell, it traces the adventures of an assistant pig-keeper, Taran of Caer Dallben, who sets out on a quest to recover his escaped oracular pig and ends up head-to-head with the forces of evil that threaten the kingdom. He collects an odd set of companions: Gwydion the wandering king, Flewddur Flam the bard, Gurgi the ape-man, and Eilonwy the princess. Over the course of their adventures he does some growing up and manages to become a hero.

Lloyd Alexander has said, “In our times, every fantasy realm must be measured in comparison with Narnia.” But this tale is more indebted to The Lord of the Rings. It includes a dark lord who has thrown an enchantment over the land, an evil king with a troop of semi-living thralls like Tolkien’s ring-wraiths, and an unlikely “fellowship” on a quest full of dangers. My 8-year-old liked it more than my 5-year-old. Maybe it’s because she’s old enough to appreciate one of the central attractions of the story, stated by Lloyd Alexander in his author’s note at the start:

The chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy. Such things never happen in real life. Or do they? 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.