Sunday, August 10, 2008

The High King - 1969

I vaguely remember reading this book and the four books preceding it in the Chronicles of Prydain series when I was a kid. This book, the 1969 winner, would have been published when I was 11, so I would have been about the right age (the reading level of the book is about grade 6). However, it may feel familiar due more to the similarities to the Lord of the Rings series, which I read when the first movie in that series came out in 2001. Both series are coming-of-age/quest/rite-of-passage stories; both have wizards/enchantresses, dwarves and giants, a death lord, dragon-like birds, and a special sword.

Author Lloyd Alexander stated in the author’s note of the first book of the series, The Book of Three, that The Chronicles of Prydain draw upon Welsh mythology, specifically the Mabinogion. During World War II, Alexander was stationed a while in Wales and was enchanted by its landscape, language, and legends.

The High King includes a journey and a number of battles, and some of the characters introduced earlier in the series die. At the end of the book, described by one reviewer as “perfectly heartbreaking and heartbreakingly perfect,” the main character, Taran, makes a difficult yet not totally surprising decision.

The lessons of the story are reflected in these two quotes, both from the last chapter:
“Evil conquered?" said Gwydion. "You have learned much, but learn this last and hardest of lessons. You have conquered only the enchantments of evil. That was the easiest of your tasks, only a beginning, not an ending. Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men's hearts whose flame can never be quenched.”

and
…[Taran] said. "Long ago I yearned to be a hero without knowing, in truth, what a hero was. Now, perhaps, I understand it a little better. A grower of turnips or a shaper of clay, a … farmer or a king — every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be (re-?) reading the others in the series. It’s not necessary to read the other books in the Chronicles before reading “The High King,” but I would recommend that a child do so as the story and its characters will be enhanced. I would suggest the books for both girls and (especially) boys in grades 3-6, although they could be done as read-alouds for younger children and will be appreciated by adults as well. I feel this book was well-deserving of the Newbery.

British-born actor James Langton did a fine job creating unique voices for the characters (although Princess Eilonwy sounded a bit strange), and he has narrated the audiobooks for all five of the Chronicles. Interesting trivia: The second book in the series, The Black Cauldron, was a Newbery Honor Book in 1966. Alexander wrote a prequel short story collection to the series called The Foundling and Other Tales from Prydain in 1973.

[Cross-posted at my book blog, Bookin' It.]

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