Fifty years after its release, Noa Wheeler, Henry Holt and Co (BYR) editor, reflects on the lasting power of The Book of Three, the first installment of Lloyd Alexander's epic Chronicles of Prydain. A new 50th anniversary edition is now available.
As a kid in the 1990s, I read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain over and over again, beginning with The Book of Three. That book is fifty years old this year, and it’s worth stopping to wonder: What has made this series last so long? What keeps them holding up so well? I’m certainly not the only kid who was so fond of Prydain—though I suppose I’m the only kid who grew up to edit the 50th anniversary edition.
One of the many things Lloyd Alexander does so wonderfully in his books for kids is his incredible worldbuilding. He does this in several ways, easing us into this unfamiliar world in a way that makes it seem perfectly natural.
In The Book of Three, Alexander uses Taran’s impulsiveness and naïveté to great effect, to help paint the world around him. We know right away that this is a world unlike ours. The book begins with Taran wanting desperately to make a sword: “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.” It’s clear that this is a world in which it’s perfectly normal to make swords (as well as horseshoes), but that Taran isn’t quite there yet—here, as throughout the book, he wants to leap ahead of his abilities and do the difficult, complicated things before mastering the simple ones.
Shortly after we learn that this world is one with swords and battles, we also learn that it’s one with magic, when Taran goes in to talk to Dallben. Dallben discusses the Land of the Dead, and Taran burns himself by touching the magical Book of Three. When he goes to get lotion for his blistered hands, he and Coll discuss Hen Wen, the oracular pig who is Taran’s charge (and the impetus for the adventure to follow, when Taran goes looking for her after her escape). These magical things are presented when they fit into the story, and it is clear to the reader that these are the facts of this world.
The characters in The Book of Three do their bit to make this world fully realized, too. Many of them have their own bits of magic: Eilonwy with her magic bauble, Fflewdur Flam with his harp which snaps a string when he embellishes the truth, Gurgi—somewhere between animal and human—with his unquenchable desire for “crunchings and munchings.”
During the course of the book, Lloyd Alexander also deftly gives us information about the physical form of Prydain. Three different people (Gwydion, Fflewdur, and Medwyn) draw three different maps at various stages of the journey, helping us keep track of our heroes and the path they follow.
All these things seem a natural part of the story—Alexander builds this world slowly, so that we hardly know he’s creating it around us. And the result is a world unlike any other, built loosely on Welsh myth but very clearly its own entity, which has spoken to many generations of children and continues to do so today.
As a kid I was fascinated by Prydain; as an adult I am no less so. In celebration of its fifty years in print, the new anniversary edition of The Book of Three comes with a gorgeous cover (an homage to the original), and also has extra material in it, including a new introduction by Newbery Honor-winning author Shannon Hale and a short story from Prydain.
If you’re a fan of Prydain, join us in celebrating this year by rereading these wonderful books—and if you’ve never been to Prydain, this is a perfect time to open The Book of Three and visit.