In the land of Prydain, evil is on the move. A warlord known only as the Horned King is gathering together a warhost great enough to overwhelm Caer Dathyl and end the rightful rule of the noble Sons of Don. The evil enchantress Achren is growing ever bolder in her schemes. And behind it all lies Arawn, Lord of the dark lands of Annuvin, the enemy of all things good and true, whose undying legions wait to extend his dread dominion over all the world.
But none of this matters to young Taran. His world is the farms and cottages of the tiny village of Caer Dallben, where he lives a quiet and unremarkable life along with his friend and mentor Coll, and the wise sage Dallben, over three hundred years old, who spends his days meditating (and often lightly snoring at the same time). Taran dreams of big adventures and legendary deeds , but there's not much chance for that in the life of an Assistant Pig Keeper – even if the pig he tends, Hen Wen, happens to be the only oracular pig in the whole land.
But when evil forces attack Caer Dallben and Hen Wen runs off, it's Taran's task to venture into the big wide world and retrieve her. And maybe, just maybe, save the world at the same time.
That's the story told in Lloyd Alexander's classic 1964 children's (allegedly) fantasy, The Book of Three, the first book of The Chronicles of Prydain, which would eventually extend to five books and a rather terrible animated movie. But that's a matter for another day...
So what's it like?
Let me explain it this way, in true Hollywood pitch style: The Book of Three is The Once and Future King meets The Lord of the Rings, without all the boring stuff (actually, that's more applicable to the whole series – to be precise, this particular book is like The Sword in the Stone meets The Hobbit, and yes, I know that last one wasn't actually part of LOTR, shut up). Young hero with hidden depths, weird and magical world, lessons learned and character developed along the way. You feel me, right?
No? Okay, let me explain it this way then: this is a really great story, short and sweet (and also simple and straightforward), though with plenty of odd twists and turns along the way. There are evil enchantresses, noble warriors, mysterious wizardly figures, magic swords, exasperated Faerie Folk (it's not easy adding enchantment and beauty and mystery to the lives of humans who not only don't appreciate it, but also happen to have stolen land that was once rightfully yours, you know) and all sorts of wonderfully odd and unpronouncable names – the kind of stuff you might expect from a fantasy inspired by Welsh mythology (if you don't know anything about that, don't worry about it – it's not important, and the story will tell you everything you need to know).
There's action and adventure and danger aplenty, but for all that, it's not very big. No great epic battles or heroic speeches or anything like that. This is the battle against darkness seen from the perspective of orfinary (or ordinary-ish) folks. And they're folks you can't help but care about, with a wonderful group dynamic: there's Gwydion, the greatest hero of Prydain, whose swordplay is matched only by his nobility; Gurgi, half-man, half-animal, all coward; Eilonwy, the annoyingly talkative, opinionated and (of course) beautiful princess from a far land; Fflewddur Fflam, a failed king turned failed bard with a harp that prizes honesty above all; and Doli, a dwarf who, try as he might, just can't turn himself invisible.
And of course,there's Taran himself, a hero unlike most others: not the smartest, or the strongest; not the bravest, or the most skilled swordsman; heck, he's not even the head pig keeper. His true talent is one greater than any other: he's all heart. He genuinely believes in people, and through his kindness and generosity, makes them want to be the best they can be. He's the kind of guy you want to hang out with a bit more (so it's fortunate that there are four more titles in the Chronicles of Prydain).
And you thought I was kidding when I said it was sweet.
In The End
This is a fun fantasy tale with a great cast, an amazing setting, and a genuine emotional core. Highly recommended, for children of all ages (that means you).
More Old-School Fantasy
Tales Before Tolkien: Before fantasy was a proper genre, people were writing some really great fantasy tales being written. Ever heard of Lord Dunsany? George MacDonald? James Branch Cabell? Read and learn!
The Broken Sword: When the elves and the trolls go to war, only the changeling warrior Skafloc can decide the fate of the conflict. But even Skafloc is just a plaything of Odin and his fellow gods – and the gods play rough.
A Wizard of Earthsea: This is the tale of the wizard Sparrowhawk, of the days long before he became the greatest of all archmages of the islands of Earthsea, and of how he faced a shadow from beyond the world and learned a great and valuable lesson.
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