I’ve decided to start a new series of posts here, each one focusing on a book that carries particular meaning for me. I think this will be valuable for me as a writer, since I wouldn’t be a writer at all if I weren’t first an avid reader. I’m currently reaching the climax of my latest work-in-progress, and it feels like I need some kind of extra push to get me through it. Reminding myself of the books that have shaped my tastes and my own writing should provide at least some of that push. (The rest will probably come if I can just have enough days to write at home by myself while the kids are at school, days that have been quite rare during this last over-wintry month.)
I’m going to start with the first book I can remember falling in love with so completely, I read it over and over and eventually attempted to read every book that author had written. I learned to read when I was four and always had a passion for books, but this was my first truly memorable favorite book. The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander. It wasn’t actually the first book I’d read by that author; I’d found The Wizard in the Tree at a school book fair before then, bought it and liked it. But there was something about the first book of The Prydain Chronicles that was really special to me.
I was probably eleven years old. We were at a used book sale that a local organization used to hold at the mall every fall, and everyone in my family was wandering the aisles, looking for the sort of treasures you can always find among used books. There was a cover that caught my eye, with medievalish-looking characters, a young man confronted by a terrifying horned-skull figure on horseback. I decided to give it a try.
I always had an affinity for fantasy. My father read The Hobbit to us when we were younger, and my preferred book covers usually had some sort of indicator of an other-worldly setting. The Book of Three did not disappoint my expectations. It had humor, warmth, adventure, magic and thrilling battles. I loved the hero, Taran, a headstrong, inexperienced boy who longs to be great and chafes at being a mere Assistant Pig-Keeper. I loved Gurgi, the well-meaning, simple-minded creature who talks of “crunchings and munchings.” I loved Eilonwy, the wilful girl who never hesitates to say whatever she’s thinking. I was intrigued by the mazes of Spiral Castle and shuddered at the undead Cauldron-Born.
I still chuckle to remember that all through my first read, I mistook the meaning of Hen-Wen’s name and thought she was a chicken, right up until she says “Hwoinch!” in the last line of the book. I paged back through the story and realized how obvious it was. Who did I think Taran was Assistant Pig-Keeper of, for heaven’s sake? No matter. I loved it.
Imagine my delight when someone pointed out that the little “1” in the upper corner of the cover meant this was the first book of a series. As fast as I could (lots of begging to be driven to the bookstore – ah, the days before online book buying!) I got hold of the other four and read them in rapid succession. Watching my beloved characters grow and suffer and learn and finally reach the end of their tale was at once wonderful and heartbreaking. I wasn’t the least surprised that The Black Cauldron and The High King were given Newberry awards (honor and medal, respectively); I only wondered why they hadn’t given the medal to all five books. I became a Lloyd Alexander fanatic. I read everything he’d written that I could get my hands on. I loved every book. Most of them had male protagonists, but the female characters were always vibrant, well-rounded and strong in their own right. And the Vesper Holly books offered a heroine adventurer who, in my opinion, beats out Indiana Jones for sheer awesomeness. Along with reading everything new, I began a yearly tradition of re-reading The Prydain Chronicles every fall.
There’s something important, I think, about being able to say who your favorite writer is, the same as deciding what your favorite of anything is. It becomes a part of your identity, how you see yourself and how you know what you like. I recall being outraged when I read someone criticizing the books for just being a kiddie rip-off of The Lord of the Rings. ( I knew The Hobbit and had a decent familiarity with LOTR, though I only got around to reading the trilogy when I was in college. And, still being an ardent fan of Lloyd Alexander, I feel it’s my duty to assert that he didn’t rip anything off. They share a lot of fantasy elements, sure, as well as drawing on similar mythological tropes. It’s a function of the genre.) I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t constantly reading this incredible writer’s books.
As I went into high school and on into college, I knew that I’d passed the supposed target age for these books. And what I loved about Lloyd Alexander was, it didn’t matter. He used to write for adults, until he realized that writing children’s books was so much more freeing. His books never talk down to children. They respect the reader without being condescending or patronizing. And they’re so honest, acknowledging some really challenging things like death, suffering, selfishness, and the eternal clash of optimism and pessimism.
When I heard that that he had passed away in 2007, I was heartbroken. No new books from him, and worse, I’d never be able to meet him in person and tell him what a difference he’d made in my life. But his influence continues. I can still see how his style and writing aesthetic color the way I write, and I aspire to portray even of a portion of his humanity and warmth and humor in the characters and settings I create. To finish, here’s just a few of my favorite quotations from his books and from the writer himself:
“‘Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men’s hearts whose flame can never be quenched.'” – from The High King
“‘Not everyone who fights on the side of the angels is an angel.'” – from The Beggar Queen
“We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.”
“Using the device of an imaginary world allows me in some strange way to go to the central issues – it’s one of many ways to express feelings about real people, about real human relationships.”
“My concern is how we learn to be genuine human beings.”
Thank you, Lloyd Alexander.