Reading The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane has reminded me, by contrast, of how immensely great is Lloyd Alexanders’s Prydain series. The series is five books:
To repeat, the greatness of the books stands out to me all the more reading Robert E. Howard (author of “Conan” stories) about his “Puritan” hero, Solomon Kane. Kane is a phonetically aptly named rootless wanderer. He has integrity and he rescues those who need rescuing showing great courage. But he will defy the same odds for the sake of nothing but vengeance. And he has no family, no trade, no home as far as one can tell. He interprets his homelessness as some sort of calling of God on his life to be His vengeance. I don’t remember the narrator ever treating Conan (though I never read much in the original stories and that was decades ago) the way he treats Kane–by openly admitting that he is more or less insane. His unhesitating courage and questing is actually rooted in something other than piety and vocation.
When we are introduced to Taran in Lloyd Alexander’s books, we meet an imaginative youth who hates being an Assistant Pig Keeper. He wants instead to bear a sword and to go on high adventures with kings and warriors. (Warning a series spoilers follows, but I hopefully leave out enough that you will still want to read and enjoy reading the books.)
Taran is by no means the only character whom one cares about in the stories, but he is the one who is most central and whose development is most closely followed.
And there is plenty of development. Taran, in the course of the five books, learns the difference between reality and his daydreams, as well as the perversity of his would-be-warrior values. Partly, this comes from being punished by having his wishes granted. The life he longs for, when he tastes it, isn’t all he imagined. But he also begins to meet others who live by the sword (and die by the sword) and, though he meets genuine heroes, many of them are not good people. The world of Prydain is filled with small kingdoms and also small kings. Some are fine people. Other’s resemble motorcycle gang leaders. Except that they take immense pride in their breeding.
In the course of his life, Taran finally reaches the point that he actually desires to find his true calling, and is willing to come to peace with the fact that he is probably not called to be a warrior or anything else so heroic. (Part of his need for this quest is amplified by the fact that he is a foster child who doesn’t know where he came from.) He ends up meeting and being trained in various crafts among the peasants and townspeople in the various kingdoms.
An odd thing happens. Taran finds that what he likes doing and what he’s capable of doing do not match up. The one craft-master he wishes to stay with and learn from is the one who has to tell him he has no real talent. This is a source of great grief to him.
(I want to re-read all this and see if I can confirm what I remember. The more I write this appraisal the more amazing it sounds. Did Alexander really intend to show that Taran was equipped for his ultimate destiny by finding he was incompetent for anything normal and yet learning to hate that fact?)
Because Taran learns to love the people, when the evil forces of the story are vanquished, he refuses to leave when he is offered passage to a better country with the Fair Folk (it is a situation much like Tolkien’s grey havens, but Alexander was following some Welsh myths and came by it honestly). And in making this decision he discovers his true vocation to be High King of Prydain.
I’ve managed to summarize the point of the series without even mentioning the epic struggle between good and evil going on in the land of Prydain. It is great fun. But what I have written is what has stayed with me. Everything (and there is much else that dovetails) serves to focus on a young boy who is lured by the song of the sword but who learns wisdom so that, at the right time, he becomes a man who can wield the sword in the right way.
For more on the series and on the author’s other works, go here.