You want to introduce a friend of yours to fantasy. Where do you start? That seems like a no-brainer. Start with the best — Lewis and Tolkien. But then what? What if this particular friend of yours says, I love this fantasy stuff you’ve given me — The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Ring. Love, love, love them. What should I read next? What do you say?
One suggestion I’d make is Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain. That children’s series consists of five books: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King.
First, the books are well written. As testimony to that fact, the second in the series received the Newbery Honor, and the final book earned the Newbery Medal, the highest award given to children’s fiction.
Second, Alexander created a familiar story — good versus evil — without making it a Tolkien or Lewis knock-off. Welsh mythology influenced him, and yet he was not simply re-writing those tales. In other words, The Chronicles of Prydain expand the genre while still being part of it.
In that regard, the books are reflective of fantasy. They involve classic elements — swords and knights and quests and evil creatures to defeat. There is magic, too, both good and evil. Mostly, though, the stories are about true heroism and real royalty.
Which brings up the third reason these books are good ones to read as a gateway into further fantasy. They do what good fantasy always does — ennobles the reader. Because the central character, Taran, the Assistant Pig Keeper, learns and grows in believable ways, the reader gets a clear picture of what is best and highest, what is good and noble.
Taran is also a character readers can identify with. He wants action. He wants to accomplish great things. He doesn’t want to pay attention to lowly jobs or the simple assignments that are actually his. The combination makes him someone readers can admire but also someone to worry about because he’s prone to run ahead of where he should be.
The Chronicles of Prydain are also good books for someone relatively new to fantasy because they are fast reads. The pace is crisp, the length of each story is moderate. No one will feel bogged down in the details in Alexander’s story world.
The books also are laced with humor — especially appealing to a younger audience, but something any reader can appreciate. In that regard, some of Andrew Peterson’s work, particularly On the Dark Sea of Darkness and North! Or Be Eaten remind me of Alexander’s incorporation of humor with danger.
Here’s a short excerpt from The Book of Three. A company of friends is forming and they are getting to know each other.
Taran had been in a dungeon. A servant of the proprietor, Eilonwy, helped him to escape and also to free the other prisoner who Taran believed was the prince he’d been traveling with. Instead the man he freed turned out to be the bard Fflewddur Flam, carrying a special harp. He had just finished tying one of the harp strings that broke while he was in the midst of giving a false interpretation of an inscription on Eilonwy’s sword.
Eilonwy turned her irritation on Fflewddur. “That inscription was a very important one. It didn’t say anything about bewaring anyone’s wrath. You didn’t read it right at all. You’re a fine bard if you can’t make out the writing on an enchanted sword.”
“Well, you see, the truth of the matter,” said Fflewddur, clearing his throat and speaking with much hesitation, “is this way. I’m not officially a bard.”
“I didn’t know there were unofficial bards,” Eilonwy remarked.
“O, yes indeed,” said Fflewddur. “At least in my case. I’m also a king.”
“A king?” Taran said. “Sire . . .” He dropped to one knee.
“None of that, none of that,” said Fflewddur. “I don’t bother with it any more.”
“Where is your kingdom?” Eilonwy asked.
“Several days journey east of Caer Dathyl,” said Fflewddur. “It is a vast realm . . .”
At this, Taran heard another jangling.
“Drat the thing,” said the bard. “There go two more strings. As I was saying. Yes, well, it is actually a rather small kingdom in the north, very dull and dreary. So I gave it up. I’d always loved barding and wandering — and that’s what I decided to do.”
“I thought bards had to study a great deal,” Eilonwy said. “A person can’t just go and decide . . .”
“Yes, that was one of the problems,” said the former king. “I studied; I did quite well in the examinations . . .” A small string at the upper end of the harp broke with a high-pitched tinkle and curled up like an ivy tendril. “I did quite poorly: he went on, “and the Council of Bards wouldn’t admit me. Really, they want you to know so much these days. Volumes and volumes of poetry, and chants and music and calculating the seasons, and history; and all kinds of alphabets you spell out on your fingers, and secret signs — a man couldn’t hope to cram it all into his skull.
“The Council were very nice to me,” continued Fflewddur. “Taliesin, the Chief Bard himself, presented me this harp. He said it was exactly what I needed. I sometimes wonder if he was really doing me a favor. It’s a very nice harp, but I have such trouble with the strings. I’d throw it away and get another, but it has a beautiful tone; I should never find one as good. If only the beastly strings . . .”
“They do seem to break frequently,” Eilonwy began.
“Yes that’s so,” Fflewddur admitted, a little sheepishly. “I’ve noticed it usually happens when — well, I’m an emotional sort of fellow, and I do get carried away. I might, ah, readjust the facts slightly; purely for dramatic effect, you understand.”
Fflewddur’s frequently breaking harp strings, then, become a running joke throughout the series.
Humor, a quick pace, good writing, fresh elements within the fantasy tradition — these factors and more make me think The Chronicles of Prydain is an excellent gateway series to give someone fairly new to the genre. Of course, it isn’t the only one. What books or series would you recommend?