The High King




The High King

by Lloyd Alexander

Ages: 9+

Interests: fantasy, magic, war, violence, bravery, coming of age, ethical dilemmas, romance

Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York: 1968

285 pages

This is the 5th book in the Prydain Chronicles. The previous books are: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer.

There are also two picture books, which provide supplementary tales from Prydain: Coll and his White Pig, The Truthful Harp. These two stories are also included in the later anthology The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain.

In this book Taran and Eilonwy and their friends are put to the test in the final war against the forces of the dark lord Arawn. In a terrible battle Prince Gwydion’s castle, the pride of Prydain, is destroyed and his father the High King is killed. Taran leads a small group in a race against time back to the very threshold of Annuvin, the Land of the Dead, for a last, desperate assault. When victory is finally won, he is faced with the most difficult decision of his life. The lords of the Don are prophesied to leave Prydain after Arawn’s downfall. Taran has earned a berth on their ship, but will he leave his home? His betrothal to Eilonwy makes the decision even more difficult.

It took me a while to get to this review because, of course, I had to read all the books in the series first. Luckily, while they are reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, they are much shorter! In tone, these books are more Narnia than LOTR, and very accessible to younger readers thanks to the quirky characters and abundant humour. There’s also a fair amount of fighting and bloodshed, however, and by the last book the situation is deadly serious.

Read as a full series, these books are primarily about the coming of age of Taran, Assistant Pig Keeper of Caer Dallben. He begins as a foolish, rash youth yearning to prove his worth in battle, and ends the series as a more sober and sensible young man, the leader of an army who, despite his unknown parentage, is chosen as the next King of Prydain. Eilonwy too, starts off as a silly chatterbox of a girl and, while she steadfastly refuses to be a traditional princess, she still gains gravitas and wisdom from their adventures. (It is noteworthy that she always conspires to slip out of the safe constraints of her station and shows up in the middle of battles, sword in hand.) A recurring theme of the whole series has to do with making difficult decisions, and taking responsibility for one’s choices. Another important theme is that of loyalty vs. betrayal – many surprising twists come from allies unexpectedly switching sides, falling prey to greed and ambition.

I’m not sure The High King would be a great stand-alone read, as there are many, many characters to keep track of, and many references to past events. It would be much better to read the whole collection. The early titles are lighter and funnier, in general, and the volumes become progressively more solemn and heavy. In the fourth book, Taran Wanderer Taran seeks knowledge of his parents and gains wisdom from humble toil. The last book is centred around the great war against Arawn. In every one of the books, but especially the last two, Taran grieves for several close friends lost in battle.

Along with the familiar fantasy archetypes – wise old sorcerer, noble lords, virtuous villagers, malevolent enchantress – there are lots of wacky characters: a little hairy man who becomes Taran’s trusted sidekick, a housecat magicked up to monstrous size, a whinging former giant, an oracular pig… The main characters all have quirky personalities and unique speech patterns too, to keep the reader entertained. (My only complaint is that the author leans a little too heavily on catchphrases and personality tics for his characters; I found it all a little repetitive and predictable.)

This is definitely a pre-Lord of the Rings series, with a quicker pace and shorter books, but just as much warfare and bloodshed as Tolkien’s epic. The character-building lessons are best for readers nine or older, who will be able to fully appreciate the ethical dilemmas that Taran finds himself in. Readers younger than nine may be creeped out by the scarier bits, like the reanimated corpses in The Black Cauldron. There is romance, but it’s romance lite: consisting of bickering for three books, then the quiet yearning of separation, followed by a sudden proposal at the end of the last book. I don’t even think there’s a kiss…

All in all, these books are easily and quickly read, featuring great charm and humour underpinned with a coming-of-age, gaining-of-wisdom arc for both Taran and Eilonwy. Written fifty years ago, these books do not have the classic, ponderous style of most serious fantasy books, in fact they could have been written yesterday. Funny and quick-moving, but also profound and thoughtful, this is a good, unintimidating, pre-LOTR fantasy series for ages nine and up.

NB. The second volume, The Black Cauldron was made into a Disney animated feature in 1985. I haven’t seen it, but the reviews are rather dire, and it looks like an awful lot of the plot was changed from the book. Lloyd Alexander said that, while he enjoyed the movie, “there is no resemblance between the movie and the book”. (Wikipedia)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.