Thursday, May 24, 2007

Acclaimed Fantasy and Adventure Author Now Exploring the Undiscovered Country

May 17th, at his home in Drexel, PA, Lloyd Alexander died. And while the New York Times and The Washington Post provided serviceable obituaries, a part of my soul wishes that the news made the society a little more filled with sorrow than it seems to have done. To be honest, the Washington Post article seems a little labored and clumsily written, magnifying my desire for a larger communal acknowledgement of grief. One imagines how sad the children of England and America would be if J.K. Rowling were to die years from now. I imagine that there would be many who would write eloquently regarding how the adventures of Harry Potter were the first forays into a life of literary exploration. That is what Lloyd Alexander was for me.

Alexander was my first encounter with written Fantasy as a genre of fiction. My first reading obsession was the Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing series by Judy Blume (but that is another topic). My fourth grade teacher noticed that I was reading Edith Hamilton's Mythology and recommended that I read the "Chronicles of Prydain" series. I did. I loved them. They were rooted in a mythic system, heavily influenced by the Mabinogion and Sir James George Frazer, that I had yet to encounter. At the time, I was very familiar with Greek mythology and was already a firmly committed "Sword and Sandals" fan, but I knew little of Hern the Hunter. So the adventures of an assistant pig keeper named Taran were the perfect introduction to Fantasy and set a firm foundation which helped me to understand the "deeper" and more difficult prose of T.H. White. If not for Taran, I never would have gotten to know Wart. I would also never have ventured into Narnia. The Prydain books and the Narnia books shared the same publisher.

In 1985, at a mature 14, I went to the theater to watch a film adaptation which combined elements of the first two Prydain books. The Black Cauldron was a disappointment. I liked the representation of Gurgi, who is very Pooka-esque in the film, though it was very different from the representation in the books. In fact, there was a lot different between the two. To the point that the movie seemed to be afraid to deal with the "darker" aspect of the narrative. One would expect that a film featuring the art of Tim Burton and Mike Ploog might be a little on the dark side, but the film's (and the story's), darker moments are much brighter in the film. Even with the changes, I still enjoyed the film. I still do. I just wish they had let Burton and Ploog go a little wild and had kept the directors originally slated to direct the film, John Musker and Ron Clements. Instead, Musker and Clements went on to direct The Great Mouse Detective, one of my all time favorite Disney films (not to mention The Little Mermaid and Aladdin).

I can understand those who don't have the same warm place in their hearts for Prydain that I do. When one has read a larger amount of Fantasy, the stories can appear less inventive than they did to me at the time. On of the most famous, in Fantasy circles, of Alexander's critics is Michael Moorcock. Moorcock wrote in his seminal Wizardry and Wild Romance (As an aside, Moorcock also complains of the use of Hern the Hunter as an overused legacy from Frazer. I don't know about you, but I don't know many fourth graders who have an intimate knowledge of The Golden Bough, though you should have at least passing knowledge of it by the time you read the Pratt/de Camp stories.) :

Lloyd Alexander is another American writer who has had considerable success in his books set in an invented and decidedly Celtic fantasy world, but for my taste he never quite succeeds in matching the three I have mentioned [ed. note: Ursula K Le Guin, Gillian Bradshaw, and Susan Cooper]. He uses more clich├ęs and writes a trifle flaccidly:
The Horned King stood motionless, his arm upraised. Lightning played about his sword. The giant flamed like a burning tree. The stag horns turned to crimson streaks, the skull mask ran like molten iron. A roar of pain and rage rose from the Antlered King's throat.
With a cry, Taran flung an arm across his face. The ground rumbled and seemed to open beneath him. Then there was nothing.
The Book of Three 1964

I don't know about you, but that read pretty interestingly to me. Especially considering that this is an encounter that Taran has while searching for his lost pig. This is an epic encounter occurring on what, at first, appeared to be a very mundane task. That is what I liked about Alexander. His epic adventure begins with a seemingly mundane, and yes very stalwartly middle-class, activity. Moorcock doesn't like stories rooted in bourgeois morality, and that is his right, he finds such stories staid. But I found the prospect of a chore leading to great adventure, one where the struggle between good and evil is clear rather than shaded, great fun at my young age. I still find it fun. I think I'll curl up tonight and revisit the reason I have read so much.

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