Thunder in human guise

Horned figure with animals from the Gundestrup cauldron

Lloyd Alexander:
The Book of Three
Square Fish / Henry Holt and Company 2014 (1964)

I had a hardback copy of this in the late sixties or early seventies and then — foolishly — gave it away; so I was pleased to come across this 50th anniversary edition and to revisit the land of Taran, his friends and adversaries after decades of absence. And though the author specifically says the Land of Prydain “is not Wales — not entirely, at least” my now long term residence in the principality made me even more eager to return to this world.

But first, the story. Young Taran is made an Assistant Pig-Keeper to Coll, his charge being the sow Hen Wen. She is a special creature being as how she’s oracular, but unfortunately she suddenly ups and disappears. Thus Taran sets off without warning in a quest to retrieve Hen Wen, but the task proves increasingly difficult as he stumbles across dastardly plans by dark forces to overcome all that is good in Prydain.

Can Taran forge alliances to combat the coming evil? And if he does will they be up to the struggle? Of course — this being a children’s fantasy — the answers are likely to be yes, but it won’t be easy and things will frequently hang in the balance.

Sorcerer, Les Trois-Frères cave painting tracing by Henri Breuil (1920)

Taran is a headstrong youngster, impetuous in action but equally quick to acknowledge mistakes and apologise. He finds a good foil in the voluble yet perspicacious Princess Eilonwy, and encounters stout companions in the magician-warrior Gwydion, the comic bard Flewddur Fflam, the hairy Gurgi who smells like a wet wolfhound, and the gruff guide Doli, more dwarf than fairy. As the story progresses Taran not only starts to act like a good leader but also to learn concomitant qualities like honesty, pity and the ability to take advice. All of which will prove necessary against the terrifying Horned King and his hosts, Achren the Enchantress in her Spiral Castle, and — in the background — Arawn in his stronghold Annuvin.

I enjoyed this second read very much. Though it’s possible to detect faint Tolkienian echoes here Alexander’s vision and finished work is very different in tone. There is humour and there is peril, and cruelty and magic, but the one generation age difference between the two writers is telling: here there is none of the avuncularism that slightly marred The Hobbit for me, and the conversations in The Book of Three feel much more naturalistic and accessible, more modern without being at all anachronistic within Alexander’s mythical medieval world.

The author’s love of Wales and Welsh traditions comes through strongly, which I approve — not just in the names (which are largely authentic) but in the handling of literary material. Gurgi, for example, for all his comedic rhyming proclivities (and distant resonances with Gollum) is based on Gwrgi in Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion, whose name is a compound of ‘man’ and ‘hound’ and therefore a kind of werewolf (as also may Gurgi be, confirmed by his wolfhound smell and insatiable hunger).

And of course the name of the novel is influenced by the collection known as the Welsh Triads, though Alexander’s approach must also have been influenced by Robert Graves’ speculative study The White Goddess (1948), which had a great deal to say about native British mythology. Alexander declared that as a child “I loved all the world’s mythologies; King Arthur was one of my heroes,” and that love comes across in the journey towards maturity which Taran has to embark on.

Deep down, however, Alexander’s ideas on tyranny and the origins of conflict would have been confirmed by his army training in wartime Wales, when he turned 20, observing the European theatre of war as an American outsider. In 1969, in his Newbery acceptance speech he said “In whatever guise — our own daily nightmares of war, intolerance, inhumanity; or the struggles of an Assistant Pig-Keeper against the Lord of Death — the problems are agonizingly familiar.” And the qualities Taran has to cultivate are the very same Alexander advocated: “an openness to compassion, love and mercy is as essential to us here and now as it is to any inhabitant of an imaginary kingdom.”

I have The Black Cauldon ready, the next stage in Taran’s story. As taran means ‘thunder’ in Welsh I know what sort of adventure to expect.


Though not strictly a work by or about writers from Wales I’ve interpreted the tag for Dewithon liberally, especially as Paula allows “anything written in English or Welsh with links to the nation of Wales”. Alexander did army combat intelligence training in Wales during World War II, from 1943 to the end of the conflict two years later and subsequently researched its names and traditions in preparation for the Chronicles of Prydain.

34 thoughts on “Thunder in human guise

    1. Hope you don’t have to wait too long for your library to reopen, Ola, is that because of virus precautions? I was originally drawn to the tale when I lived in Bristol because in Alexander’s fictional world the adventure starts at a location at or very close to my home town. This time round in my reading it passes very close to my present Welsh abode!

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          1. Oh yes, one of the profits of being on the other hemisphere and having a rational government, thinking of common good instead of their own image (or not thinking at all, as the case may be!)

            I do hope GB will survive without these benefits… Our thoughts and best wishes are with you!

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            1. Thanks, Ola. Hard to know how I feel about divided bumbling Britain after the EU Ref: must be like the antipathy between Roundheads and Cavaliers was, or Catholics and Protestants — all antagonism out in the open, to the ultimate cost of the majority of people. I think the UK’s standing has been irreparably damaged, and will never recover, but too many people haven’t realised it yet.

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            2. I’m afraid you are 100% right, Chris, and I’m truly sorry! I still have hope that UK will realize its mistake with regards to EU, and that EU will come out of this crisis, or crises, stronger, but this hope is rather desperate at the moment. But if not now, then when?

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      1. Yes, Norway has shut down pretty much completely and I am getting some real experience with online teaching, but we are doing fine. I have always claimed that bunkering books was a sensible precaution in case of hard times and feel really vindicated now 🙂

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          1. Being in quarantine (I have a light cold so am completely avoiding anyone not in my family just in case) is so far not entirely unlike our mountain summers, especially in the beautiful spring weather we have now. Although I do prefer voluntary isolation and of course still need to work and not just read… How are you doing?

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  1. A perennial favourite – I remain delighted at how well this series stands up to a modern and adult reread. The core themes and the sparkling relationships remain so engaging, and I delight in the sense of humour: poor Coll, too bald to be imagined a hero!

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    1. As with you I found Alexander’s writing timeless and still accessible. One difference I note: once I would’ve identified with Taran’s bumbling attempts to be heroic; now, at an age when I shave my head to disguise my own balding, I’d probably identify with Coll!

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  2. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2020 – Book Jotter

    1. I’m glad my putative link to Dewithon passed muster, Paula! It’s a lovely read and worth a look-see. But beware, Alexander knew pronunciation would be be problem for non-Welsh speakers so some of the recommendations for saying names may make your toes curl: Eilonwy (‘eye-LAHN-wee’) and Llunet (‘LOO-net’) for example… 😁

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    1. Yay, thanks! I’m almost tempted to do a separate post on the mythic inspirations for this story but I’m sure, it’s been done elsewhere. Still, the story is the thing, even if the worldbiilding is fun!

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  3. There is a really revealing commentary on that Sorcerer image you used. Unfortunately it’s in storage and I can’t get to it. The book is The Ice Age and is an academic book of cave art. Suffice it to say the image is not all it seems, and perhaps a little more what the man who copied it from the wall wanted.

    You bring up so many books that I just have not read, and it’s driving me crazy because they all sound so good. I’d need at least 2 lives to do and read everything!

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    1. Thanks, Michael, I have indeed been taken to task many times for recommending too many tempting books! Sorry about that. 🙂

      Yes, I’ve been aware for some time that the details of the so-called shaman drawing may have been part of a wishful reconstruction, and that more recent photos have shown a more enigmatic figure; but, if Alexander was aware of the image (and I’m sure he would have been) then this is one that may have fed into his Horned King character. He wasn’t the only 20th century author who was fascinated by him and included him in their fiction — just a few that spring to mind are Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, Alan Garner’s The Moon of Gomrath and John Masefield’s The Box of Delights. There’s also the influence of Shakespeare’s reference to Herne the Hunter in ‘The Marry Wives of Windsor’, so a very rich meme then!

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  4. Oh, whatever you do do not curtail your books! We need this broadening of our landscapes; it is so essential.

    This is what so annoys me about online algorithms – no, the last thing I want is more of the similar, thank you.

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    1. No probs, Jean! https://www.visitwales.com/ is a good place to start, or https://www.wales.com/about and http://www.castlewales.com/ might appeal to the boys. https://www.britannica.com/place/Wales gives basic information, as you might expect.

      https://www.stayinwales.co.uk/wales_pictures.cfm has some touristy pictures, though it doesn’t get across the fact that the country, being relatively mountainous (or at least hilly), also has a reputation for being rather … wet.

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