RIP Lloyd Alexander, 1924-2007

Author Lloyd Alexander died at his home in Pennsylvania on May 17. The Washington Post offers a lovely obituary here.

When I was eight years old, Disney released The Black Cauldron. At the time, I liked it well enough, but a fairly recent viewing has revealed it to be, well, not very good. A year or so later, my brother received The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander for his birthday. The cover featured a character that was unmistakably the Horned King, the villain of the Disney film. I was curious, wondering if maybe this was something akin to the Star Wars and Disney "illustrated storybooks" with which I had learned to read, but didn't think much about it. As I learned later, Disney's Black Cauldron was a thoroughly botched adaptation of bits and pieces from several of Alexander's books.

A couple of years later, when I was in fifth grade, I was looking for something to read and borrowed The Book of Three. It was (and remains) one of the greatest reading experiences of my life. I'd read The Hobbit, had a go at The Lord of the Rings and found it far too dense for my ten-year-old brain. The Book of Three was perfect - full of adventure, magic, noble heroes and despicable villains, and everything else that makes a fantasy story great. After that, I voraciously read The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer and The High King, all of which came from the library. When I was done, I went right back and started at the beginning of The Book of Three again. Alexander's Prydain Chronicles were reliable standbys. I read the whole series through at least once a year. Taran, Eilonwy, Fflewdur Fflam, Prince Gwydion and Doli were good friends, and their adventures were the literary equivalent of comfort food. Eventually, my reading level caught up to The Lord of the Rings, and I loved Middle-Earth and Frodo and Aragorn with a great, nerdy fervor, but nothing ever displaced Prydain as my favorite fantasy world.

Alexander is often cited alongside Terry Brooks by fantasy readers on lists of early and blatant imitators of Tolkien. My memories of The Sword of Shanarra are dim, but I can't really defend Brooks. I will say that I find the accusation against Alexander to be unfair. First off, while Tolkien was writing for a more mature audience, Alexander was aiming squarely at children with his work. Secondly, it should be clear that it is not so much that Alexander was imitating (or "ripping off" if you're inclined to less kind terminology) the great Professor Tolkien as that both were dipping from the same well. Just as Tolkien was inspired by ancient Norse mythology in his work, so too did Alexander take inspiration from the Mabinogion and Welsh mythology. To say that Alexander was imitating Tolkien misses the point that both took inspiration from Beowulf.

When I first joined the Science Fiction Book Club in junior high, one of the "Six Books for $1" I chose was their very nice omnibus edition of The Prydain Chronicles. All five books, plus the short story collection The Foundling and Other Tales from Prydain, all in one handy package - can't beat that. Don't have to check them out from the library all the time, right? Neil Gaiman occasionally talks about the copies of Good Omens (another of my 6-for-$1 books) he sees at signings which are "held together with tape and dried soup." That's a good description of my copy of The Prydain Chronicles, too. It still sits on my bookshelf, and if I don't pull it down once every year to read it cover-to-cover anymore, it's only because I know it by heart.

So long, Lloyd. Thanks for the memories.