"And, in time, only the bards knew the truth of it."
I read this sentence last night a little before 10 pm. It's the last sentence of The High King, the last book in Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain.
The sweet girl was up that late because how could we stop a chapter short of the very end? Especially with so much still at stake? We've been journeying as a family through Prydain since the beginning of March, with only a brief break for another book or two near the beginning of the series. Once we hit The Black Cauldron, the sweet girl didn't want us to turn to the left or the right. She wanted to go straight through Prydain without looking back.
Not that there weren't moments of struggle. A nine (newly turned 10) year old is still on the early age edge for these books. But she struggled in totally appropriate ways, was challenged by what should have challenged her, and is there anything one can say better about a beloved book?
And she loved them. She really loved them. I know how she feels. I didn't find these books till a few years ago, but I instantly knew, my first time through, that I would have loved them when I was ten. And I knew I wanted to share them with my family.
We hit brief snags in both The Black Cauldron and Taran Wanderer. In the Black Cauldron, her intensity levels were running high -- both in real life and in the way she was identifying with the story (and somehow that's always connected for most of us). As I shared with a friend back in May: "She was desperately worried about the characters and what would happen,
and was struggling because she wanted to see certain characters as "all
bad" when Alexander gives at least one baddie a real shot at redemption (bless him). We kept telling her to trust the storyteller. She
persevered, and BAM! those last chapters were just priceless. I felt
like writing a love letter to Lloyd Alexander to thank him -- he
anticipated everything she needed and he delivered."
Great story-tellers, I'm beginning to realize, are like that. They truly anticipate the questions that readers/listeners will ask, as though they are there in the room with you eavesdropping. And the narrative goes where it needs to go to answer those questions. The sweet girl could not believe that one of the characters, so sneering and mean, could ever do the right thing, the brave thing, the big thing, the one thing needed. His complexity startled her and wowed her. She knew a sacrifice was going to be required. She was terrified that it would be a character she loved. But she couldn't believe it was a character who had seemed so incapable of love. That's growth, I wanted to tell her, that's how it really works in life sometimes. But I didn't need to tell her. Alexander's story already had.
He's so very good at showing growth and change in characters. Nowhere is that more true than in the character of Taran himself. I marveled anew when we came to the end last night at just how far Taran had come: from a young boy who dreams of glory but doesn't understand it to a man who accepts a noble destiny -- deeply prepared and yet somewhat reluctant because he has learned not to scorn the beauties and blessedness of the daily, the ordinary. Taran himself is like the sword he forges in Taran Wanderer -- a little misshapen, thin, and bent, and yet true as steel, of powerfully strong mettle and worth, a worth that has been shaped at great cost and effort.
Taran Wanderer, the fourth book in the series, is so important to his inner growth and learning -- but I think that's what made it a particularly difficult book for a ten year old. It moved much more slowly, with much of the action taking place inside Taran. She also missed Eilonwy, who is absent for the entire narrative (except from Taran's thoughts). Since Eilonwy is the only major girl character (and the only sympathetic female character in the series) that felt like a big loss. I know I missed her too, especially her wit and sparkle!
These books feel important to me as an adult, perhaps because the lessons they teach so beautifully through story are lessons we all need to learn, re-learn, and remember no matter how old we grow. Lessons about love and courage and valor and faithfulness. This time through, reading them aloud as I worked on my own growing Four Princesses narrative, I also had a strange sense of being apprenticed to Lloyd Alexander. I think I've learned a lot from him about how to shape a narrative (especially relatively short chapters) for younger readers -- with exciting dialogue, plot, action that nevertheless never sacrifices the richness of symbol and theme.
I'll miss our Prydain summer.