Lloyd Alexander:
A Tribute to the High King of Children's Fantasy

A rambling by Jennifer Mo

Lloyd Alexander died at the age of 80 on May 17, 2007. During his lifetime, he wrote some 40 books, most of them fantasy novels for younger readers.

He was old even when I first discovered his books, a decade and a half ago. The black-and-white author photograph on the jacket of The Book of Three showed an angular man with a shock of white hair. The book itself was almost 30 years old when I read it, though its heroes, Taran, assistant pig-keeper, and Eilonwy, daughter of Angharad, remained as young as the day they had been published. They grew a little older in the ensuing four books of The Chronicles of Prydain, but I know they will still be there the next time I reread the series in search of wisdom and comfort. Book characters make patient and long-lived friends.

I read The Book of Three when I was 8. As my first taste of fantasy fiction, it really did change my life: I have been hooked ever since. Lloyd Alexander opened up a world of ancient Welsh mythology that, for all its magic and unpronounceable names, remained accessible and immediate. Within it, assistant pig-keepers and cabbage growers were as important as kings, and courage and good intentions, if mixed with folly, could still overcome evil. My preferences within the series changed over multiple rereadings throughout the years. The light, humorous first and third books were my earliest favorites. In my teens I suddenly began to appreciate the solemn fourth book, Taran Wanderer, with its themes of identity and isolation, which I had never really cared for before. A few years ago, the final book, The High King, started to make me cry. Not because it's tragic (though it can be), not because innocence is lost (though a little is exchanged for wisdom), but because it's a perfect ending: bittersweet, wise, humanistic and profoundly moving in the way that uncomplicated happy endings can never be. These are books I have grown up with -- and, as happens more rarely, have grown up with me. They still rank amongst my favorite books of all time.

But all good stories must come to an end. Lloyd Alexander leaves behind a treasure trove of inventive fantasies and a cast of sparkling characters: bean-counters, traveling magicians, unfortunate fiddlers, clever cats and daring adventuresses. Some of his books, like The Arkadians and The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, are steeped in ancient mythology; others, like the Vesper Holly series and The Gawgon & the Boy, are set in more familiar times and places. No magic necessary: I cried at The Gawgon & the Boy anyway.

Sixteen years after I read my first Lloyd Alexander book, I have one last book of his to look forward to: The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, to be published later this year. There's something about posthumously published material that gives it a certain melancholy sweetness. I don't have a clue what this final book is about, but I'm not concerned: I know it will be about life and love and truth, with a lot of adventure and magic, laughter and wonderment thrown in. I know it will be good.

I never met Lloyd Alexander. I never wrote to him because he didn't have an e-mail address and a real letter seemed like far too much work. In a sense, this is sort of the fan letter I never wrote to him. I expect no reply, of course.

Here's to a life well-lived and well-written, Mr. Alexander. Rest in peace.

review by
Jennifer Mo

4 August 2007

what's new