Friday, May 18, 2007

R.I.P., Lloyd Alexander

I just read on The BEAT that another of my favorite writers has died.

Lloyd Alexander was the first writer I ever met. He’s a Philadelphian, which astounded me. I didn’t know where writers were supposed to be from, but “around the corner” was not anywhere near my range of guesses. (“England” and “California” were probably the top two.) For his Chronicles of Prydain series, he used and transformed Welsh mythology into an engaging – hell, why stop there? enveloping, enrapturing, empowering and exhilarating – series about how a boy who begins so lowly and so hungry for a title that he’s named “Assistant Pig-Keeper” becomes the lynchpin in a grand battle between good and evil. The books were meant for younger readers than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and for that they spoke to me much more clearly and profoundly than Tolkien ever did.

Sometime when I was in my tweens, in a decade before they were called “tweens”, Mr. Alexander made an appearance at Gene’s Books in Broomall. So, from a staging area about a mile or so up the road, my friend Tim and I rode our bikes—no, I take that back, we walked—to the bookstore to meet the man. I don’t remember if he did a reading, or if he made any sort of presentation. I just remember shaking his hand and telling him how much I liked his books, getting a couple of my paperbacks signed, and getting a mimeographed sheet of paper with pronunciation guides for all of the characters in the series. I can’t tell you how much it thrilled me – how much it thrills me even today – to find out for certain that I was pronouncing the main character’s name wrong. I’d been pronouncing Taran “ta-RAHN”, when the sheet told me to say it “TAH-ran.” I’ve stopped reading more than a handful of fantasy and science fiction books simply because there were too many names I couldn’t pronounce, so I appreciated this gesture maybe more than most.

The characters in the books always struck me as the perfect archetypes. Dallben, the wise old sage. Gwydion, the noble warrior, an impossible ideal. Taran, the bullheaded and perhaps a bit whiny kid, who honest-to-god grows up during the course of the series. Eilonwy, the somewhat full-of-herself princess who’s more friend than love interest. Gurgi, a clumsy, foolish, always-hungry animal-man. And Ffleuddur Fflam.

Ffleuddur Fflam was the bard of the series, a spinner of tall tales who was cursed so that his harp strings would always break whenever he told a lie. Anyone who’s ever played D&D with me can probably guess how much this character captured my imagination.

What especially impressed me about the books was that, as they progressed, the characters grew and changed. This was especially evident in Taran, but his friends all revealed new facets to their personalities as well. By the end of the final book, The High King, they feel like friends I’d known a long time—and had even missed, given their absence from a large part of the fourth book, Taran Wanderer.

I hadn’t meant to write so much about Lloyd Alexander and these books. But they thrilled me many times when I was younger, and I remember reading them again during a summer home from college, and being impressed as a near-adult with how wise they were, and in such simple terms. I think it’s probably time to revisit them, and see what I think now.

Rest in peace, Mr. Alexander. Thank you so much.


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