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Authors and After Words

For those who go for the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien and his Middle Earth sagas, it will be no surprise to hear that the quest theme is a major element of epic story telling, both ancient and modern. As such, it is the vehicle leading to the making of the hero. Over the years much has been written about the hero – his place in religion, in story telling, and in the development of the imagination.

As some critics would have it, the hero represents the descent of the gods into the realm of men. Once released, in some measure from his divinity, the hero will often face a series of tasks, which are designed to test his mettle in order to pave the way of return to the status of divinity. Hercules, for example, though fathered by the Great God Zeus, must redeem himself from a rash act through the most menial of labors to eventually become a god in his own right. Oedipus, at the end of his life, is rewarded for his suffering by being taken into the realm of the gods without having to pass through death. Things don’t come out so well, however, with Prometheus who appears in many mythologies under many disguises, but always as the one who gives fire to the human race and suffers for having done so.

The Odyssey is the great quest tale of Greek mythology in which Odysseus pays a price for every step of his way home from the Trojan War, and great hero quest stories are found all over the world, including Northern Europe where the young semi-divine youth Siegfried kills a dragon, bathes in its blood, learns the language of the birds, finds his aunt Brunhilde asleep in a ring of fire and falls in love with her. Suffice to say, neither they nor the Norse gods live happily ever after.

Over the years, the direct link of the hero to divine parentage becomes more and more tenuous so that by the time we get to our own times, the hero is likely to rise out of just plain folks, as with the Pevensie kids in the Narnia Chronicles or the hobbits of Middle Earth. Which is not to say that his or her parentage may not be a mystery as it is with Taran, the Assistant Pig Keeper and quest hero of Lloyd Alexander’s good, true and beautiful Chronicles of Prydain.

The great exploration of hero literature is The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. At the very least, this work clearly demonstrates how, at the level of imagination and archetype, we are all one family, one multitude, racial variations notwithstanding. Campbell, however is not the only one to describe the phenomenon of the hero. In October 1987, in School Library Journal 34, in an article, entitled "Fantasy and the Classic Hero," Natalie Babbett offers the following scheme.

1. The hero is called to adventure by a "herald."

2. The hero crosses the threshold into the "other world," which is no longer a place of security.

3. The hero must survive various trials in his new environment.

4. The hero is assisted by a protective figure who will aid him through his struggles.

5. The hero becomes a "whole person," finding himself, or, perhaps, becoming an adult. He does so by learning the lessons of life that come with surviving and overcoming his trials.

6. The hero returns to the "real world" or returns home.

Many readers will recognize this pattern. It certainly applies to many of the books we’ve been looking at these past few months. The pedagogical implications, as we noted in our recent lament concerning the removal of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood from PBS, are explicit in item number five, to be sure. Along with that, there is a second important element that occurs as a matter of the author’s worldview. That is the issue of resolution, i.e. the ultimate condition of the hero and heroism itself. As readers who have invested ourselves in the text, we are bound to share in that ultimate condition. If the hero emerges from his trials as a defeated person, we will experience that defeat. If the hero emerges from the quest as a more complete human being, the reader will share in that transformation; just so will the reader partake of the hero’s transcendence and redemption.

In the Prydain Chronicles, Lloyd Alexander has so authentically and truthfully written into our own imaginations the virtual lives of Taran and his princes, as well as their comrades and their world that we are bound to claim them as our own. The questions Taran has lived in his various quests have become our questions as well: Where did I come from? Who am I? Who am I becoming? How will I live in a world in which nothing is certain; a world in which nobility, adulthood, grace, wisdom…all of these things and more must be earned and learned every step of the way?

Over the five novels, Alexander succeeds in creating characters of serious imaginative and empathic integrity. As Taran struggles with his identity, his capacity to act and to learn from his mistakes, his challenges, his relationships – especially with the Eilonwy – bring him ever closer to his own authenticity. As he grows closer to himself, he is also more and more able to reach out meaningfully to others and to the reader as well. The elements of good magic in this magic country never trump the power of the human heart and soul; every gift along the way is earned. No victory comes without full payment, no joy without loss as well, and with each quest the price of risk and success is raised, even unto the very last choice Taran and Eilonwy must make.

The brilliance of Alexander’s achievement in The Prydain Chronicles is not to show how super men or mini-gods will save us from ourselves but rather to show how an ordinary Assistant Pig Keeper and an ordinary Princess can grow up to promise an extraordinary future through the mere magic of becoming the best that each of them alone and the two of them together can become.