Books: The Book of Three

It’s not easy to find an audiobook that all four of us can enjoy on a road trip. But when I found Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three on CD at the library, I knew it would be a good choice. Both Jon and I enjoyed the series (The Chronicles of Prydain) when we were young. Our older son read the whole series years ago. I had gotten Al to try The Book of Three this summer, but he quickly lost interest.

When you’re stuck in a car for over seven hours, though, it’s a lot easier to stay interested. We arrived at our destination quite near the end of the book, and it was Al who reminded us, upon starting out early the next morning, to turn on the CD player and finish it. I hope now to get him to read more in the series (the library only had the one volume on CDs).

I’m not sure whether it was Alexander’s books that first got me interested in the mythology of the British Isles (specifically Welsh – he draws a great deal from the Mabinogion), but I think it probably was. I read Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series at about the same time, and I’d have trouble saying which was better. (When I was getting to know my husband, his love of both those series of books was one reason I decided he was the right guy for me.)

If you’ve seen Disney’s movie The Black Cauldron, you’re already somewhat familiar with the main characters in the series (especially as the movie is based – loosely – on at least three of the books, not just the one titled The Black Cauldron). But the movie necessarily leaves out so much, as well as conflating plotlines from different books in the series. It’s not bad for a children’s movie, but if you haven’t read the books because you didn’t think the movie was that good, give the books themselves a try.

As a parent, I particularly appreciate the way Taran learns from his mistakes (though he’s not exactly a fast learner). Perhaps it’s because we’re a family of perfectionists, but I find it hard to know how to teach this very necessary skill. In some children’s adventure books, the kids seem to be able to figure out whatever they need to without adult help. Either the adults aren’t there, or they are clueless, or they are themselves part of the problem.

Once Prince Gwydion is captured by Queen Achren, Taran does have to figure out a lot on his own. Would-be bard Fflewddur Flam has more enthusiasm than wisdom himself. Eilonwy, a girl a year or two younger than Taran, initially seems to Taran to be just a silly girl – perhaps because she talks so much and constantly jumps from one subject to another. She turns out to have a great deal of common sense, as well as courage and loyalty, but Taran is slow to realize this and keeps trying to send her to safety while being the hero himself.

In the end it is a grown warrior who saves the day, while Taran is knocked unconscious due to his own folly. But the fact that he recognizes how much he needed the help of all his companions, even those whose companionship he hadn’t initially wanted (nearly all of them), shows how he has grown. Not only that, but he has realized that it’s not only fighting battles that is important, but also weeding a garden and making horseshoes.

He returns to the farm where he had grown up, which now seems to him the most beautiful place on earth – yet also smaller than he remembered. That is because he has grown, and while he has learned he cannot be a hero so easily as he imagined, his destiny will lead him to many more adventures in the rest of the series.

One more note – one thing that makes this book fun to listen to, as an adult, is Alexander’s use of humor. I doubt I realized just how humorous the exchanges between Taran and Eilonwy were, when I first read these books.

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