The other day, I had somebody ask me what my favorite book is. A small, obnoxious part of me wanted to respond with something impressive and mildly pretentious because there’s a certain expectation of people in my field (not writing, my real life field) to engage only with intellectual reading.
I didn’t. I went with an honest answer, and from the raised eyebrow that accompanied the “well, isn’t that interesting” response, my intellectual merit went down a couple notches in that person’s estimation.
This is precisely how much I care:
I read for my own reasons, not to impress acquaintances. Sure, it’s great to have discussions about books I enjoy, but I’m not interested in the pitying expressions of people who think simply because my favorite book is a middle grade book, that I am physically, emotionally or psychologically incapable of appreciating a more sophisticated literary work. I am not poor, simple little Melion who must be patted delicately upon the head because she cannot appreciate the themes of A Tale of Two Cities–as a point of fact, I happen to really like A Tale of Two Cities, and I think Sydney Carton is one of the most fascinating characters in English literature. There. Judge me on that, if you want. I still don’t care.
So, what is my favorite book? Well, I’m glad you asked (ok, I know you didn’t ask, but if you’re still reading this post, I’m concluding that you want to know). If I were stuck on a desert island and could read only one book–you know, actually, I’m going to cheat because I’m choosing a series–I would say it’s The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.
Now, I say this on Friday the twenty-fourth of February anno domini 2017. Ask me again at a later date, and my response might change. So don’t point to me and scream, “Liiiaaaar!” if I give a different answer. I am allowed to change my mind.
But even if I change my mind, this series will always merit a privileged place on my shelf. There’s action, adventure, fantastical creatures, complicated heroes and more complicated villains. It’s a book that doesn’t talk down to the reader–even though the intended audience are children–and it doesn’t pull punches. The writing is at once elegant and accessible, never getting in the way of the story while still enveloping the reader in a distinct sense of place.
And yet the real beauty of this series is that it unfolds its depths and richness as the reader ages. The series I read as a kid seemed a different series when I reread it as a teen, and different again when I reread it in my early twenties. And now that I’m a full-fledged grown up who has taken up the mantle of existing in the complicated sphere of adulthood, I approach the series with a different perspective and still find its themes relevant. Only now, I am looking back on the hero’s journey and identifying not with the boy Taran was, but the adult he must become.
Life has asked me the hard questions, and I haven’t always responded with the correct answer. And I’ve paid for that. My life has been mine to squander or to invest, and I have squandered much. And yet, there lies within that recognition the hope for future investment. As I reread this series, it strikes me as truly prescient that a writer aiming for children could speak with such insight to adults–as though the story is intended not only for kids, but for the adults who they will become. The series holds truth for those whose lives are currency yet to be spent, and for those of us who have buried our talents in the soil.
When I first read the series, without a doubt my favorite book was The Book of Three. And why not? The young man from humble, unassuming origins goes on adventure and becomes a hero. My least favorite was Taran Wanderer because, well, all he did was wander. I mean, nothing happened. Or at least young Melion didn’t see things happening.
Older Melion understood that the real story took place in Taran Wanderer, in the choices that Taran had to make about himself and about his own place in the world. That was the book about his growth as a boy becoming a man. Not to say that Taran remained static in the other books, but his development as a person in Taran Wanderer better reflected the awareness of self that we all must encounter as we leave behind our fantastical, yet childish, perspective about the world. He cannot become the hero he must become without the experiences in Taran Wanderer.
And I’m on the verge of spoiler alerts, so I’m gonna rein myself in here.
What I’m trying to say, is that this series about an apprentice pig-keeper growing into a hero is a richly rewarding series. Alexander wove Welsh mythology in with a deft hand, and created a vibrant world, but his greatest accomplishment was creating a hero who was every-man (or, in my case, every-Melion) and who must face hard choices. And Alexander makes Taran pay for those choices–there is no Deus ex machina to yank the young protagonist out of the suffering of his tasks, there is no plot twist to save the friends he must lose. Even the series’ ending, while satisfying, still lingers bittersweet upon the palate. But an ending which spewed forth nothing but happiness would have ill-served such a poignant series. After all, those of us who have grown understand that even in happiness, there is loss. Triumph comes with costs, and all transitions mean the ending of something we once cherished.
And that is why I enjoy The Chronicles of Prydain. I doubt anybody will take it up as a master’s thesis, nor will it rank among the grand Pantheon of great English works, but it deserves a read and consideration. It speaks truths which are great for being mundane and explores life as it is, not as we wish it to be.