As of the publication of this post, we’re about an hour and a half away from the next episode of Rings of Power, so I’ve still got Lord of the Rings on the brain. And while I’ve still got a couple directly Tolkien-related things to recommend, I’m going to go a little lateral with this one.
The Chronicles of Prydain is very Tolkienesque, to the point of feeling sort of like a cheap knock-off. FYI, it’s not. Prydain did get published after The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in the mid-60s. However, this was before Tolkien got hugely popular, so I doubt there’s really that much direct influence.
The obvious answer is that Tolkien and Prydain author Lloyd Alexander were both influenced by the history and mythology of Britain — specifically England (though not exclusively) for Tolkien and Wales for Alexander, to the point that reading something like the Mabinogion will help you appreciate Prydain on a much deeper level.
It’s also worth noting that Prydain is a lot more YA-oriented than Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit and is much more consciously a Bildungsroman — cool word, huh? Benefits of a classical education. It’s basically German/Academic for “coming of age story.”
And, anyway, here’s the full recommendation:
— a princess fond of strange metaphors, a woebegone forest creature, a wandering prince moonlighting as a bard fond of egregious self-promotion, with support from a fairly archetypal old, wise sorcerer type and Prydain’s answer to Aragorn, The Chronicles or Prydain could be glibly and uncharitably, though not entirely inaccurately, described as “Welsh Lord of the Rings.”
Granted, that description does Prydain a disservice, especially considering that was written before Lord of the Rings really exploded in popularity — the first Prydain book was published in 1964 to Lord of the Rings‘ 1954. Lord of the Rings didn’t really take off until the mid-60s (being hugely popular with Hippies for reasons that I don’t quite understand) and didn’t get its biggest popularity boost until the movies in the early 2000s.
So, while Lloyd Alexander was clearly writing a book with a lot of stylistic and thematic similarities to Lord of the Rings, it seems more like he was writing with a lot of the same influences and sources as Tolkien, rather than directly borrowing from Tolkien, like so many later Fantasy authors have since. And even if he had been, he’s still clearly a very good author.
Granted, it’s hard to appreciate that Prydain is more interesting than it looks 60 years after the fact. Most of what happens in Prydain will seem familiar and played-out if you’re reading it in 2022.
Notably, the over-arching quest of the first two books in the series revolves around a powerful evil artifact sought by the bad guys (like in Lord of the Rings), specifically, the heroes’ mission to destroy that artifact (like in Lord of the Rings). Though, again, I don’t think there’s necessarily a direct influence from Tolkien there; I think Tolkien and Alexander both just happened to figure out a way to play around with the whole “quest for an magic artifact” angle.
And, yeah, the plot of Prydain does feel played-out, though really only with 60 years of hindsight, and because the people who came after and we’ve read since are the ones who played them out. A lot of what Alexander was doing with Prydain when the books were first published was a lot more novel and impressive back then, before the Fantasy genre got overwhelmed by authors trying to be Tolkien, but just ending up Tolkien, but less interesting and less good.
And, of course, Alexander is drawing on mythological sources, so the stories that are his ultimate inspirations have been old and familiar pretty much forever.
Basically, the biggest flaw with Prydain isn’t even the series’ own fault. The Fantasy genre and all its conventions and themes have gotten a lot more codified and played-out in the intervening 60 years. So, really, it’s your fault for not being born 60 years sooner.
(That was a joke)
Prydain is sort of a midpoint between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, both in terms of reading level and thematic intensity in terms things like of violence and subject matter. Overall, it’s probably not quite as scary as The Hobbit is — very little in Prydain is as immediately scary as the goblins, or the spiders, or Smaug in The Hobbit, but there’s probably more sombre, serious subject matter, and powerful philosophical insight into growing up in Prydain.
It might be a little much for younger kids to handle, both in terms of comprehension and subject matter (some of the bad guys are pretty scary; major characters die, especially towards the end), but any kid (or adult, as the case may be) that can make it through The Hobbit without being traumatised will be fine with Prydain.
Prydain has a clear influence from Welsh mythology. Compared to the ubiquitous “Generic, Poorly-Thought-Out, Researched-From-a-High-School-Textbook, Quasi-High-Mediaeval-English Fantasy World”, it’s not something I’ve seen much in other Fantasy series. That means, even though most of the plot beats are pretty familiar, the world in which that plot is beating is fairly unique.
For one thing, the Welsh mythological era feels a lot more ancient and archaic than the typical High Mediaeval Fantasy world and the land is divided into small-scale petty kingdoms and clans (like actual Early Mediaeval Wales) rather than being ruled by a singular, centralised king delegating to his vassals (like actual High Mediaeval England, which, incidentally, conquered Wales)
Also working in Prydain’s favour is Lloyd Alexander’s writing style. His dialogue and character interactions are fantastic. The above-mentioned Eilonwy’s mannerisms and speech patterns lead to several hilariously bizarre turns of phrase give her one of my favourite personalities of any fictional ever — for example, an uncomfortable situation will be declared to be worse than being crawled on by hedgehogs.
The Chronicles of Prydain is also notable for being the source material (albeit very loosely) of Disney’s infamous 1985 flop, The Black Cauldron (named for the second book in the series, and playing fast and loose with the plot of the first two books). It’s on Disney Plus, if you’re curious, but it’s pretty mediocre both as an adaptation and as a movie on its own merits.
It’s not hard to see why Disney likes to pretend it never happened, though apparently Disney has recently reacquired the rights to the novels and wants to do something with them. Honestly, I don’t blame them, I’d probably want a second chance to get it right, too.
The Black Cauldron is sort of an interesting watch as a historical artifact and can also be an interesting glance into Disney’s mid-80s style and business model if the period is before your time. But, again, it’s not a particularly good movie.
Maybe a way to kill a couple hours if you’ve got nothing else to do, but I’d stick with the books.
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman.
Adapted from a post originally written 2021.
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