Tag Archives: children’s fantasy

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

So, I’ve finally reached the end of the His Dark Materials series.  I have my answers as to what happens to Lyra and Will — for the most part.  I also have answers for what happens to all the major characters, which is satisfying.  Out of all the books, The Amber Spyglass is the most complex of the three by far.  It is, therefore, the most rewarding to read.  Pullman constructs a universe whose properties lend us the freedom to imagine many answers to our questions, and to make what we will of the final events in Lyra and Will’s story.

We start out the book with Lyra kidnapped and drugged by her mother, with Will and Iorek in pursuit.  Meanwhile, Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, is raising an army — and an armory — to wage war with Metatron, the angel who has taken control of all the forces loyal to the Authority.  The main story in a more conventional book would be the fight between Lord Asriel and Metatron.

Instead, we follow Will’s efforts to free Lyra from her mother and keep her safe.  They are joined, at various points, by angels, Gallivespians (a sort of fairy-like creature), and Mary Malone, the scientist from The Subtle Knife.  Their main task, Lyra discovers from the alethiometer, is to set free the spirits in the world of the dead.  The two of them, along with two Gallivespians, travel to perform this task, facing significant peril along the way, not the least of which is separation from their dæmons.

Meanwhile, Mary Malone, who slipped through into another world after destroying equipment back in Oxford, finds herself at home among a species of creatures called mulefa.  She lives with them, learns their ways, and discovers that even they are untouched by the problems of Dust; it’s required for the survival of trees the mulefa depend upon, and it’s not flowing as it used to.  Mary constructs a spyglass in order to view the Dust directly, which comes in handy when she happens upon Will and Lyra once again.

I think the beauty of The Amber Spyglass is that it has a lot to say about religion — especially Christianity — but that one can interpret its message in many ways.  There’s a historical commentary in there, as well as a warning about the dangers of blind faith.  That’s one of the reasons I liked the book so much; I can see many of my own attitudes toward organized religion (as opposed to faith come by honestly) folded within.  I don’t agree with everything Pullman suggests, but I at least enjoyed the food for thought he provides.

I’m going to miss this series.  I whizzed through it, by my own standards — I usually break up series in order to provide myself a little bit of time to process what’s going on.  It was just too engrossing for me to do that this time.  I think the His Dark Materials series is one of the best I’ve read that’s intended for children and young adults.  I’ll be holding on to them for my own children to read some day, and that’s one of the highest sorts of praise I can offer a book.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

I’ve already read the entire Chronicles of Prydain series.  I loved it, so I picked up a matching copy of this book, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain.  I’m not quite sure what I was expecting — maybe a story about Taran’s early childhood mixed in with some more traditional background lore — but what I got was perfectly delightful.

The book is made up of eight short stories.  The first, “The Foundling,” is not, as I had expected, about Taran’s origin or early childhood.  It is, rather, about Dallben’s early years.  It turns out that he has some interesting foster parents — Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, the three fate-like figures who seem to know all (or cause all) events in Prydain.  We also learn how Dallben became so wise, the story of which echoes how Finn MacCool earned his intelligence in Celtic mythology.  Finally, we also get to find out how Dallben obtained The Book of Three and what consequences he had to face for owning it.

The second story, “The Stone,” is modeled on a traditional folktale frame; we do have Doli, but it’s not really a story about him.  He merely serves as the fairy-world representative for the main character, Maibon.  In exchange for helping Doli out of a jam, Maibon compels Doli to honor the rule of granting a boon to a human who comes to a Fair Folk’s aid.  Maibon wishes for something foolish, and we get to see the result.

“The True Enchanter” feels both familiar and new.  Drawing from both the Western fairy tale structure and the plot of at least one Greek myth I can think of, Alexander writes of an enchantress princess, Angharad, and her difficulty with the rules placed on her regarding her choice of a husband.  Told by her mother she must only choose from the pool of enchanters, Angharad quickly decides that the first two suitors, based on their magical performances, are not for her.  The third suitor, however, turns out to be more interesting.

“The Rascal Crow” truly reminds me of one of Aesop’s fables.  I think it could fit right in with his canon.  After the animals of Prydain learn of the evilness of King Arawn, Kadwyr the crow disparages the offers of help the other species bring to the defense.  Insisting, teasingly, that he can carry out all the tasks better than the other animals, he sets off to protect the land.  Alexander shows us the consequences of believing only oneself to be competent and the value of learning to trust and rely on others.

For the fifth story, “The Sword,” Alexander writes about the origin of the great sword Dyrnwyn and of how it became tainted.  Rhytta, the King of Prydain, inherited the sword.  Through his arrogant and dismissive behavior toward his subjects, Rhytta commits a terrible act.  From there, the sword changes slowly from shining to stained as the king makes further and further mistakes, yet refuses to change his behavior.

“The Smith, the Weaver, and the Harper,” explains how a disguised Arawn managed to take the forging and weaving knowledge of Prydain away from its artisans.  Neither the smith nor the weaver Arawn tricks manage to realize that something for nothing is never really for nothing — there is always a cost.  The harper, however, manages to see what his fellow tradesmen were not, and confronts the true face of Arawn.

The penultimate story, “Coll and his White Pig,” is, delightfully, about Coll.  We still don’t learn how Coll happened to own Hen Wen.  Alexander does, however, show us Coll’s nature through the actions he takes while attempting to rescue Hen Wen after she is captured by Arawn’s henchmen.  Not one to leave us completely hanging, Alexander also tells us how Coll and Dallben came to be living together in Caer Dallben.

The last story is about Fflewddur Fflam, our favorite truth-bending bard.  “The Truthful Harp” begins with Fflewddur’s study to become a bard, and how that didn’t go so well.  After failing his test, Fflam is given a new harp by the Chief Bard.  Fflam goes through several adventures (and several harp strings) before arriving back to the Chief Bard and reporting on his exploits, first through fibbing and later by telling the truth.

I love the lessons Alexander imparts to the readers of The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain.  He takes inspiration from several different traditional folklore and mythological traditions while keeping Wales in the forefront of his mind.  While the stories can stand on their own, they are, I suspect, easier to understand and enjoy if one has first read the books in the Chronicles of Prydain series.  That’s the only reason I can’t give it a 5; some younger readers, especially, are likely to be a little lost coming in to some of the stories.  Overall, however, I think most children, young adults, and, yes, adults, will enjoy what Alexander can tell them about the goings-on in Prydain.

Rating: 4/5

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The High King by Lloyd Alexander

So we’ve come to the end of the Tales of Prydain.  Lloyd Alexander’s young adult fantasy series about Taran, an Assistant Pig-Keeper with a most interesting history, is tied up neatly here, with small events occurring far in the past making big differences in the end of the story.  It makes for a rich conclusion, made bittersweet by the more serious tone Alexander employs.

The story starts with Taran and his companions setting off to assist Gwydion with the task of stopping Arawn from achieving total control over Prydain once and for all.  On the road to completing this task, the group faces down adversity from varied sources.  In these challenges, Taran leads his followers admirably, facing difficult choices well — not without debate and doubt, but always with a mind as to what’s best for his companions and his land.

One thing that sets this book apart from the others is the number of notable deaths that occur.  I won’t say who, but many of the people Taran holds dear end up falling along the way.  The darker tone creates a mood of foreboding and sadness that is appropriate; after all, we are seeking the end of an evil man.  Because of this, the book also has a greater sense of urgency than the previous four, with a more doubtful ending — indeed, it may not be the ending the reader expects.

The culmination of this series is the development of a boy into a man.  Before our eyes, Taran has gone from a headstrong youth eager for a fight to a man who seeks truth and wisdom.  It’s a worthy example for younger readers to be exposed to.  For those of us who are older, we get to enjoy his development (and perhaps be reminded of our own paths of growth).

The Chronicles of Prydain have come to their end.  Yet the lessons they teach — that we can shape our own destiny, that we should strive for the correct path and not the easy one, that true friends are worth sacrificing for — endure.  What a treasure of a series.

Rating: 5/5

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Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

The Chronicles of Prydain is a young adult staple series.  The books have been nominated for and won awards in the world of children’s literature.  They have been read widely since their publication in the 1960s.  After reading Taran Wanderer, the fourth and penultimate book of the series, I have a deeper understanding of why the books are so well-regarded.

Our tale picks up with Taran a little older than he was when we left him.  He has realized his feelings for Eilonwy are romantic, and wishes to marry her.  There’s only one problem — how does an Assistant Pig-Keeper get the courage to propose to a princess?

Taran has no idea of what his parentage is.  He sets out on a quest to find out who his father is.  Adventures ensue.

The special thing about the adventures is that, wherever he goes, Taran proves himself to be a mature young man.  He acts with honor and honesty, fights only noble fights, and seeks peace and belonging where he goes.  He makes a place for himself wherever he ends up through his good actions.  He earns himself a dozen “parents” along his path, one so desperate that he lies about being Taran’s father.  Yet Taran, like all teenagers, needs to find and realize himself; only when he gets to the end goal of his journey does he realize the truth.

This is a different book from the others.  Taran is in a very different head space, already knowing right from wrong, and able to restrain himself.  Alexander has crafted a storyline that is much closer to traditional stories and myths in Taran Wanderer, and the result is pleasant.  It retains our familiar characters while giving them room to show us that they are more than they were at the beginning through the use of variants of often-invoked archetypal plot lines.  I found the twining together of our hero’s tale with folktale elements comforting.  Alexander does a masterful job of making the traditional plots and Taran’s story one, and produces something wonderful for his effort.

Rating:  5/5.

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The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

Oh, back to Prydain and the usual cast of characters.  I can’t get enough of Lloyd Alexander’s imaginary land; these books are timeless with regards to the quality of the story.  The lessons they impart and the plots they follow are at once familiar and fresh.  They are, in one word, delightful.

I actually liked The Castle of Llyr better than the last one, The Black Cauldron.  This book, rather than being a story about sacrifice for the good of all, is more about the exploration of relationships.  Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but the development and growth of the children from Caer Dallben is just as interesting as the fighting of battles for the fate of the people.

We are introduced here to some new characters, most notably Prince Rhun, a bumbling young man who, to Taran’s dismay, is betrothed to Eilonwy.  When Eilonwy goes missing, Taran is given the task of watching after Rhun when they go out searching for her.  Adventures ensue, but lessons are also learned.  While he is unaware of the consequences of his actions at times, and is not the most competent of people, he is not a bad person.  While Taran saw him as a burden at the beginning of their trek, he learns to view him as someone who has value and an honorable inner core.

Rhun also does not have illusions about how he actually performs on tasks.  He is aware of his limitations.  Alexander has crafted a character that is easier for children and teens to relate to in Rhun, I think, than in Taran, who, despite his faults, somehow always manages to have things fall his way.  Prince Rhun doesn’t have that, and is a more believable supporting character due to it.

Another delicious part of the story of this book is the relationship between Taran and Eilonwy.  There’s always been hints that there is a romantic relationship tying the two together, but it is in this book, with the premonitory presence of Prince Rhun, to actually kindle something more blatant.  It’s rewarding to know that two characters I love also love each other.  I can’t wait to see what happens in the next two books, and wonder if they also are in the collection of short stories by Alexander about the land of Prydain.

Don’t tell me, though.  It’s too fun to find out on my own

Rating:  5/5.

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The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

No matter how I think I have grown up, some books manage to put me back in the head of the little girl I once was.  The Black Cauldron is one of those books; it’s a pity I didn’t manage to read it when I was young.

I was, unfortunately, one of the kids who only knew about The Black Cauldron through the Disney movie adapted from The Chronicles of Prydain series.  I absolutely loved that movie.  Now, with two of the five sequenced books under my belt, I see how poorly that movie treated such rich material.

We pick up with Taran and the crew after they have resettled in Caer Dallben and are living normal lives once again.  In the first couple of pages, the entire population of the estate has been agitated into participating in a dangerous venture: stealing and destroying the Black Cauldron.

Taran, eager once again for adventure, readily agrees to go along.  Unfortunately, he is paired with unpleasant Prince Ellidyr, who frequently and unceasingly maligns him and his other companions, goading Taran into angrily confronting him on a regular basis.  He appears to have no checks on his behavior, nor remorse for his mistakes.  Ellidyr eventually runs off to find honor on his own, leading to the scattering of the group when they are left without someone on watch one night, only to return to cause further harm later.

The wonder of Lloyd Alexander’s second book about Prydain is that it provides nice lessons for children around the age of Taran without seeming to preach about them.  He writes on how to treat those who treat us badly, on what honor truly is and what your word means, on how to think on the greater good while ignoring your own wishes.  These are valuable lessons, and they’re presented in a remarkably approachable way.  Even I, ostensibly an adult, have a wish to act in a more honorable and admirable fashion after reading one of his books.

Alexander provides us with a hero who is a work in progress, which I think most of us can relate to.  He has big-name warriors to look up to, villains to escape from, odd characters to negotiate with, and companions who are as imperfectly charming.  He learns throughout his story, becoming less and less foolish and more admirable.  This is probably the most valuable lesson Taran has to offer:  no matter who you are, if you learn from your experiences, you also learn to be a better person.

Rating:  5/5.

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The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

Okay, this was a reread, but for good reason.  I finally got a matching set of The Chronicles of Prydain series, and this is the only part that I’ve read before.

Alexander’s influence by Wales and Welsh myth is unmistakable.  The names are patterned after Welsh names.  The landscape he paints is similar to Wales.  The story is structured like those told in the British Isles.  I feel this provides the reader with a familiar and comfortable land in which to enjoy the overall story, which relies on morals that are often found in the traditional stories of the land.

I absolutely love the underlying lessons in this book.  First, there is the sense of growing maturity in the protagonist, Taran.  He goes from a child, longing for excitement and adventure, to a more introspective youth, finding that the peace found at home is something to be treasured above most other things.

Second, we experience his frustration with how his forays into being a hero have ended.  He feels he has failed in all his attempts to be a leader, but is reminded that, even when mistakes are made, if you learn from them, they more often than not are worth having been made.

Third, he learns the value of cooperation to reach a goal.  Even if he made mistakes, his companions performed admirably.  They all had their roles to play.  The task was too great for any one person, but a group together can do remarkable things.

As a piece of classic children’s literature, The Book of Three is delightful, and can stand on its own without further reading into the series.  I, for one, do not want to stop here, and will be going on with my exploration of Prydain.

Rating: 5/5.

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