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.
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.