With a 60th anniversary in the offing, Lloyd Alexander’s 1964 The Book of Three is predictably familiar, having been published only ten years after The Lord of the Rings‘ inaugural volume, in an era before we as a society collectively ran archetypal, medieval-inspired, hero’s journey quest fantasy into the ground. I say this lovingly, for the sake of anyone on the hunt for something fresh, surprising, or staggering from their fantasy: this one ain’t it.
There is, however, a different kind of virtue in a story that knows precisely what works about the tried and true, and if that’s what you’re looking for, The Book of Three has it in spades: a restless and unready hero whose inexperience actually shows. A band of adventurers whose friendship develops in a subtle yet satisfying slow burn. Magic that, while relatively straightforward in this first installment, hints at depths yet to be explored.
When we meet Taran, a kid who works the pens and anvils at the castle of Caer Dallben, it’s practically inevitable that some mishap will send him careening into a quest in Prydain, the fantasy world where the book is set, with a dangerous mission and even more dangerous pursuers, but one of the joys of The Book of Three is that it never truly stops feeling accidental. Taran, as eager a hero as he might be, is never done making mistakes, having his sheltered assumptions challenged, and––this is possibly my favorite part––putting up with an earful from his traveling companions.
It takes a deft hand to craft a group dynamic that constantly trades flack without it feeling mean-spirited or angled at a particular member, but Lloyd Alexander manages it well, even considering the additions of two comedic relief characters, the Gollum-like (but not quite as antagonistic) Gurgi, and the flighty-king-turned-bard Fflewddur Fflam, whose harp breaks a string in protest every time he tells a flagrant lie. (This conceit sounds cheesy, but it’s actually quite funny in execution.)
Gurgi, especially, presents a danger, with his habitual groveling, of making our main characters look like bullies, but Alexander is careful to make Taran––the youngest, the antsiest, and the most naïve––the keeper of most of the impatience, lending the book a chance to use Taran’s interactions with Gurgi as a tool of character. It pays off in warm, fuzzy found-family feelings the same way some of the ribbing from the other characters does, when we get to the end and discover that the irritability of strangers forced to work together has become the good-natured teasing of friends right under our noses.
Gwydion, the ragged prince Taran meets on the road at the beginning, is an excellent choice as a mentor for this very reason. The wizened, all-powerful sorcerers and kings mostly occupy the margins in The Book of Three, leaving the role of the guide to a character who hasn’t yet come into his own as a ruler, and is thus a a wanderer in this world, same as Taran, seeking a place arm-in-arm with our untitled, everykid hero.
Not only does this nurture the closeness of the group dynamic; it also allows Gwydion to act as a protector on terms of equality, less a father figure than an older brother type, and every bit the begrudging guardian recent pop culture has made us so fond of.
This assessment is incomplete, however, without Eilonwy, the niece of a minor antagonist, who is truly the bitterly complaining glue that holds this ensemble together. About the same age as Taran, she’s whip-smart but not above hurling a few insults, the perfect bantery remedy for when things get a little too comfortable around here.
Eilowny works brilliantly as a foil to Taran––where he’d give almost anything to be of noble birth and poised to be a mover and shaker in this world, Eilonwy very thoroughly wants no part of it––but she’s also an excellent character in her own right, owing to the breadth of Alexander’s characterization. Like Fflewddur Fflam, she’s a study in feeling constrained by, and ultimately fleeing, one’s title. Once she does, she also functions as an effective young hero, capable of fending for herself but not then infallible, or instantly an expert in unfamiliar territory. She’s impulsive, hasty, uncertain, and, as is to be expected, rather new at this sort of thing.
Not every fantasy character needs to fumble the sword, of course, but it can be easier to root for a genuine novice because that experience honestly cuts closer to the heart than expertise. Though it isn’t necessarily a weakness where a story offers us over-competence, it certainly works to The Book of Three‘s advantage that even in the final battle, our intrepid pre-teen leads aren’t entirely equipped on their own, and they’re only a small part of the hand that deals the victory. (This plays into the very spoiler-y role of a certain sword, and the wonderfully resonant context of the first time it’s drawn.)
For a story that otherwise deals in the well-executed familiar, this one focused subversion, in writing a hero who is very visibly not a chosen one, becomes its greatest asset. Despite Taran’s uncertain and possibly noble parentage, he reads wholly like the unprepared, ordinary kid he is, and real, substantive, plot-affecting mistakes, something a great deal of recent fantasy lacks, absolutely litter his hero’s journey, making every small victory all the more satisfying––because the plot isn’t sworn to give it to him.
In tandem with this, Alexander’s restraint where it concerns scale sets the stage for a promising direction in the sequels. Arawn, our all-powerful villain, has yet to show face, and the goal in this volume is a far cry from the high stakes we’ll likely encounter later, but the foundational work seems poised to yield a believable expansion in scope, and that’s more than can be said for a work that deals in world-ending stakes right out of the gate, like Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid: from there, you have nowhere left to go.
Prydain, however, is still wide open. I can’t wait to see where it leads us.