This of course is Fflewddur Fflam, that outrageous bard
January 24, 2023 6:49 PM   Subscribe

Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) was an author of numerous beloved works of childrens' and young adult literature, most notably The Chronicles of Prydain, Westmark, and the Vesper Holly adventures. In 1994, his publishers produced a short film of a "visit" to his home in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, in which he speaks about imagination, writing, and his love of place.
posted by biogeo (33 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
I loved Lloyd Alexander's books as a child, and in this film he gives out serious Fred Rogers vibes. I found myself grinning the whole way through, and hope it touches some of you all as it did me!
posted by biogeo at 6:54 PM on January 24 [8 favorites]

I just recently reread Book of Three and it was lovely. A bit simplistic, it is a children's book afterall. But full of good adventure and some moral lessons and a nicely comprehensible, tidy world. Sort of a more approachable Tolkien if, like me, you find the Oxford History Don thing a bit much. It also reminded me a lot in tone and feeling of the Wizard of Earthsea, something I was not expecting.

The character Gurgi ("munchings and crunchings") holds up particularly well on a re-read. He's a strange sort of demi human in the first book, a little craven and a little admirable and altogether a bit strange.
posted by Nelson at 7:03 PM on January 24 [7 favorites]

I loved all of those books so much when I was young. I had no idea he had lived into this century -- somehow I had gotten the mistaken idea that he had passed away long ago.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:14 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Same with me Dip Flash. I still have the set of five soft cover books which I bought with my own money (while on a trip to England of all things) in 4th grade about 4 decades ago. They are simple, quite worn, and among my most treasured books. I reread the series every five years or so and it has always held up.
posted by meinvt at 7:26 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Funny you should mention Earthsea, Nelson; I've been on a bit of a kick rereading books from my youth, and just finished the Earthsea books immediately before starting in on Prydain. I think you're right. Le Guin has much more depth and complexity lurking under the surface than Alexander does, but both of them use the simplistic fantasy heroic journey as a hook and frame to say something rather subversive about the whole enterprise. I think Prydain iterates on the idea with increasing sophistication, focused mostly on learning to put aside boyhood fantasies in favor of the responsibilities of manhood (the lessons are general but the framing is definitely gendered, with Eilonwy being a female character who has some nontraditional and subversive attributes but is nevertheless mostly an object of Taran's thoughts and desires, though she's given a little more agency and subjectivity in The High King). Earthsea, meanwhile, moves in very different directions after A Wizard of Earthsea, using the format to interrogate the nature of social power using the prism of magical power, and especially the gendered nature of power.

I love both series of books, and while I think Le Guin is the deeper, more sophisticated, and more wise author, Alexander has an elegant directness, accessibility, and charm. It's interesting that both Prydain and the early Earthsea books were written around the same time (mid 60s-70s), and both authors found they could use the burgeoning fantasy genre to tell coming-of-age stories about morality, duty, and power that cut across the grain of the simple heroic-quest story. Not rejecting it, but adding complexity and empathy.

Rereading both series has been really fantastic for my mental health. I wish I'd done it years ago.
posted by biogeo at 7:35 PM on January 24 [18 favorites]

I just reread the Prydain books with my older kid, and I've come to think of it as a better Tolkien. The fourth book in particular goes places most young children's literature just doesn't.
posted by phooky at 7:44 PM on January 24 [12 favorites]

Thank you for this. the Prydain Chronicles were a huge part of my childhood and the sort of thing that still pops into my head every few days (and earlier today, in fact!)
posted by Navelgazer at 8:11 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Taran Wanderer is a remarkably unique book, and the rest of the series is delightful too, full of characters who should be annoying yet somehow aren't, and ultimately concerned with how to be a good person. It's also neat that the books never describe Taran in the slightest, so whoever you are, reader, he might look exactly like you.
posted by one for the books at 8:20 PM on January 24 [11 favorites]

"Rumor has it we have very similar personalities."

I always kind of hoped that was the case.
posted by Ickster at 8:44 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

I loved these books, which I first read in about 1980. My mom picked up a copy of The Book of Three and, instead of giving it to me directly, just sort of left it visible on a shelf, where I found it on my own.

That cover!

It arrived at the perfect time. Set me up perfectly for Tolkien.

Earthsea had to wait until the summer after I left grad school. After several years of medieval studies, it was exactly what I needed.

Thank you for sharing this.
posted by Caxton1476 at 8:51 PM on January 24 [8 favorites]

This of course is Fflewddur Fflam, that outrageous bard

Ah geez, just that headline gives me flashbacks
posted by Going To Maine at 9:30 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]

oh my god these were my favorite books. i have such fond memories of getting one or another of this series from the library and just having nothing to do on a sunday except READDDDDDDDDD. reading a chapter or two and flipping back to the map at the beginning and trying to really imagine the places. i feel like i'm always chasing that dragon
posted by capnsue at 9:44 PM on January 24 [6 favorites]

Earthsea, Prydain and Hed.
posted by clew at 10:09 PM on January 24 [6 favorites]

clew I came to the Riddle-Master books as an adult, love them, really wonder what I would have made of them as an as child. I can't imagine how they would be published as children's books nowadays! They're McKillip at about her most poetically oblique and elliptical; as I recall there are central pieces unwritten between the lines.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:54 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]

I loved his books! Probably more than anybody, he made me want to be an author.

Some of this was simply due to the fact that I knew he was alive and writing when I was a child, which in my logic meant that writing books was something one could do, and not just something people had done in the past.
posted by gauche at 3:36 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]

He came to my elementary school to talk and I remember nothing about it except being completely amazed that real living normal people right here wrote books.
posted by sepviva at 4:03 AM on January 25 [8 favorites]

That was utterly charming! He seemed so genuinely in love with his craft, and the connection he had with readers. The Fflewddur Fflam figure was gorgeous, but the perfectly wonky recreation of Eilonwy's tapestry of Hen Wen must have magically projected dust through my screen because it certainly wouldn't make me get all teary, no sir!

The Chronicles of Prydain have a very special place in my heart - shared, of course, with The Hobbit, Earthsea , The Phantom Tollbooth, The Sword in the Stone, Discworld, and The Compleat Enchanter. The Chronicles are for young readers, true, but something about the world and the characters feels expansive, rich, and alive - they have the deep familiarity of myth. They have something of myth's ambiguity, too - we are asked to find sympathy for the Cauldron-Born, for Achren, even for Arawn. In the wonderful and strange Taran Wanderer there's a tremendous compassion and wisdom.

Thank you for this, biogeo.
posted by prismatic7 at 5:38 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]

I remember thinking Prydain was the best series I would ever read when I was little. My big brother promised me I'd find something better, and I discovered Narnia. Same deal...I swore it was the best I'd ever read, and he said no. I had to admit he was right again when I read Tolkien.

But Prydain never really left my imagination.

My first children were three mice - lab escapees - named Flute (she was silver), Velvet (after the Eddings character), and Eilonwy. Mice do not live long, but I loved them very much in that short time. They were sweet and wonderful, and Eilonwy was beautiful and brave.
posted by Flight Hardware, do not touch at 5:47 AM on January 25 [7 favorites]

I missed Prydain as a kid, just read it recently. It was a lot of fun, but I found Gurgi just barely tolerable. Not as bad as Jar Jar but something is deeply off-putting about clearly sub-human (nb, not simply non-human) characters.

Also I think the world of children/YA fantasy is so huge and varied that someone has indeed covered some of the more mature and complex topics encountered later in the series. Alexander was working in a nearly empty room, but there's whole shelves full of this stuff now. The Thief series in particular stands out to me as every bit as complex but also it's maybe aimed a bit older.

While we're chatting about children/YA fantasy I'd also like to give a shout out to The Ranger's Apprentice. It's cheesy and schlocky as hell, also not terribly original. But it's also just super fun, simple and efficient; it romps along like a well-oiled machine.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:13 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]

I was thinking more about why I liked his books so much when I was young -- I read and reread them countless times. A lot of it is that his kindness came through clearly. (The humor was never mean, for example.) And seeing this video, he comes off that way in person, too. The books were appropriately complex rather than simplistic and I don't recall them relying on simple moral lessons -- I felt like I was being talked to as an equal, not being talked down to. The characters felt real to me, and there are scenes that I can still recall vividly (like when they had to hide next to the road while the bad guy stormtrooper-esque troops marched by in their hobnailed boots).

I've wondered if they would stand up to a reread but haven't tried it, mostly because my memories are all so positive and it would be heartbreaking to reread them now and discover things that aren't so great. I am heartened by the people here saying they have reread them as adults and found them to be ok.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:21 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]

Yeah, the Prydain books absolutely hold up. What I noticed during my most recent re-read is that the novels grow in sophistication as they go on. The fundamental kindness of the author is never lost, but there's an increasing and increasingly specific focus on the inevitability of sorrow in a human life, even if you succeed at living up to your own highest standards. There's lots of humor in the books, but it's fundamentally a pretty melancholy piece of work.
posted by Ipsifendus at 6:41 AM on January 25 [6 favorites]

Watching the video this morning I'm struck by how deeply the lives of authors have changed in the past thirty years. When I was growing up dreaming of being a writer, this was the life I imagined; a quiet, peaceful place to work, surrounded by reminders of the fictions I'd created.

The contemporary authors I read seem miserable. They spend their time promoting their books on Twitter and Instagram, they run around the country doing book tours, they're constantly assailed by the opinions of random strangers, resented for the meager success their hard work brings them, paraded in front of readers at book signings and conventions, and never, ever left alone to think.

Part of what I loved about Lloyd Alexander's books was the reverence he had for the quiet, peaceful life. His characters were forced to leave the places where they were content, and to venture out into the world, but the good ones always knew that that peace was what they were struggling to preserve.

I keep wondering if there are authors out there writing today who nobody will ever hear of because they're just not good at the self-promotion grind. And how many writers will never finish a book because a writing career looks so dismal these days that it's just not worth it. There doesn't seem to be a place for the quiet, reclusive, contemplative writer anymore, and I think that means that our culture has lost something inestimably precious.
posted by MrVisible at 6:44 AM on January 25 [15 favorites]

Okay FINE. My wife’s copies of the books have been on our shelves for 20 years, staring at me. I’ll finally read them.
posted by heyitsgogi at 6:45 AM on January 25 [9 favorites]

I read these books in third grade. They were so, so good. I had the same covers as Caxton1476.
posted by which_chick at 7:07 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

I love these books so, do much. Taran Wanderer especially, at least in part because it handled issues of identity for an adopted child in a way that resonated like nothing else did.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:12 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]

These were my favourite books when I was young. I got a set of the Prydain books sometime in the late '70s, and read and re-read them until they literally fell apart. I always found the ending of the High King so wistfully sad. I still re-read this series every so often.
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:25 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

Alexander decided to enlist in the army in 1943,

That caught my eye. He turned eighteen in January of 1942, so what gives? Why not drafted? Low lottery number?

Turns out that the draft age, twenty one since 1940, was lowered to eighteen in November of 1942. Who knew?
posted by BWA at 8:03 AM on January 25

I loved these books so much as an 80s kid. One thing I loved at the time was that there were strong, important female characters, not just boys and men.

But I was an 80s boy when I had that impression. As a 2010s dad, I went back and reread the first few books. Still so much to love, there. But the representation of girls and women was just a sliver of what I'd built it up to be in my memory.

Honestly, I think the books were ahead of their time, in that regard. But, I'm sorry, best of the mid-20th century: you're not good enough for my daughter. Not when we do so much better, now.

(I didn't withhold those treasures from my daughter, but I did talk with her about how old-timey books didn't used to have as many female characters, and she ended up rejecting them for that reason)
posted by gurple at 8:27 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]

When I was a kid, I ordered one of the Pyrdain books from the school's monthly book order thing* because I thought it was a book about Tarzan, not Taran. Imagine my disappointment when, instead of a dude doing adventures and swinging on vines and hanging with the apes, I got an assistant pig-keeper and his bratty spoiled princess doing adventures and hanging with Gurgi.

Now imagine how much I enjoyed it anyway, and devoured all of those books, and pushed them on my own kids when they were old enough.

*still one of the best things I experienced in school
posted by nushustu at 8:46 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]

gurple, I totally agree. While I think the Prydain books still hold up really well in a lot of ways, their perspective on and portrayal of gender is not one of them. Not that Eilonwy is a bad character: she's great, and boundary-pushing for the time, but the books are still very much targeted to boys, with girls and women being put on a pedestal (and it's mostly just Eilonwy). I don't think it makes them bad books, or bad for young people (of any gender) to read today, but they're definitely a product of a male author of that era, and I wouldn't hold it against anyone being less interested in them because of it. On the other hand, I think a slightly more mature young reader could learn a lot from reading them and critically engaging with that aspect of the books. Never too early to start learning those skills! I would feel comfortable giving them to a young reader today, but I'd want to discuss that aspect of the books with them during and after reading.

That said, I'm wondering how the Vesper Holly books hold up on that front, and sadly don't have copies with me to reread. Alexander wrote those later, during the 80s and 90s, very explicitly to create a female adventurer protagonist that children of any gender could identify with. If anyone remembers those books well I'd like to hear opinions on how they fare on that front to a modern reader.
posted by biogeo at 11:04 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]

I really loved these when I was young in the 80s (previously). The covers, in particular, were so evocative to my overheated imagination. Of all of them Taran Wanderer was the one, as others have mentioned, that stayed with me so strongly to this day. As much as I liked Tolkien, I so adored the Prydain stories. They were so precious to me in a way few book series could match. I recall my disappointment with the animated film from Disney at the time - I purposely refused to accept that they were based on the same material.

I've been tempted to reread them but, as I am not a rereader or a rewatcher, I kind of would hate to taint my memory of them with adult eyes. Maybe someday.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:33 PM on January 25 [4 favorites]

In a more just world, the rights to the Chronicles of Prydain would have been wrested away from Disney and given to Cartoon Saloon to make an epic 15-part animated mini-series. I mean, just look at Wolfwalkers. It would air for free in the U.S. as part of a collaboration with PBS. Or give it to Genndy Tartakovsky, Brad Bird or Bruce Timm. Or anyone who cares about storytelling in animation.

It's really astounding that Disney has almost completely buried anything to do with these works, even in the face of so many Disney remakes, the popularity of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies.

I did donate a boxed set of these books to the Family Giving Tree this past holiday season. If nothing else, the series themes and messages might help a young reader facing adversity.
posted by JDC8 at 1:04 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]

It's really astounding that Disney has almost completely buried anything to do with these works, even in the face of so many Disney remakes, the popularity of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies.

It was a debacle when it was released which is likely why they don't have a lot of desire to return to the material.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:04 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

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