Lloyd Alexander and Moral Instruction

Lloyd Alexander died late last week at the age of 83.

His work, particularly his Prydain Chronicles, has been routinely recommended for kids who have enjoyed the Harry Potter series. The Prydain books were among my absolute favorites when I was young, and still are. There’s a fairly bad Disney film that mangles the first two books in the series, but if fantasy series continue to do well at the box office, I have hopes that someone may go back to the Prydain books and do a far better cinematic job with them someday.

About the only knock I could make against the Prydain books is that there is an untold story within them about the coming-of-age of the main female character, Eilonwy. We really only get things from the perspective of Taran, the male protagonist. Eilonwy is shuttled off stage at the most critical time of Taran’s maturation–but Alexander was sensitive enough to Eilonwy’s possibilities that I almost feel he could have written a sixth book that fell in between Taran Wanderer and The High King that offered an inside perspective on her character.

To me, the books were valuable not just as a story of swords and sorcery or even of the journey from childhood to adulthood, but also as an exploration of what it means to make moral choices. Perhaps I’m still thinking a bit about the question of requirements and strictures from last week’s discussion, but I think it is utterly counterproductive to teach morals by diktat and repetition. Any story for children that has a single or obvious moral teaching is a story begging to be ignored, subverted or rejected.

The Prydain books explored morality as it is lived, even for children, in difficult choices, in painfully-won wisdom, from the inside of consciousness rather than the outside infrastructure of social life. There isn’t much doubt about who the bad guys and the good guys are in any of the books, but the main characters are not noble by fiat, either, particularly Taran. One of the incidents that made the biggest impact on me as a boy was when Taran is compelled to accept the possibility that his lost father is not of noble birth, but a shepherd, and the shameful feelings he struggles with as a result. Characters die, characters suffer. When they come to a moral decision, you’re taken along with them inside the process of experience and reason that brings them to that moment.

I think you could probably go farther still along that road: I think small children are just as attuned as adults to the possibility of the no-win moral scenario, those moments in life that can’t be resolved cleanly in favor of a right and wrong choice. This is the kind of argument that gets lazily, casually dismissed by some as favoring moral relativism. Far from it. This is not about saying that everyone’s right, that all choices are ok. These are the kinds of fictions that take children (and adults) through the process of moral reasoning and make them relive ethical choices as painful, difficult and not blandly equanimous. You can’t teach someone to ride a bicycle by making them write “Push the pedals with your feet” on a blackboard one hundred times. You can’t teach kids how to live ethical lives by getting them to memorize a moral rulebook.

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16 Responses to Lloyd Alexander and Moral Instruction

  1. I couldn’t say it better myself. Alexander’s books really set a high standard for juvenalia, and he got more drama and humor into a page than Rowling gets in a chapter…..

    Taran Wanderer alone qualifies as a classic.

  2. tim in tampa says:

    I read the series and fell in love with the books in the fourth grade. I went back to them several times during elementary school, then sort of forgot about them, until a week ago (I don’t recall what sparked my newfound interest). That the author would die right as I rediscovered him is a bit freakish.

    I hope in some way children of today may discover what Prydain has to offer them.

  3. My older brother and I read Alexander’s Prydain books after we’d read Tolkien; to us, they were fantasy books, not juvenalia. Of course, in a very real sense we read the Hobbit and LOTR and Conan the Barbarian stories and Watership Down all the same way at that age: we were attentive to the fantastic, to hidden meanings and alternate worlds, to ways in which we could vivify our own fantasy worlds, and only secondarily to plot. I didn’t appreciated the instructive, ethical and moral aspects of his stories at that time (the same goes for Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia). Of course, maybe that is part of your point? That an instruction in ethics that is mature, that acknowledges hard choices and sacrifices and shades of grey, has to happen (if it happens it all) not through rules but through lived (or at least vicariously lived) experience, with the suffering that necessary entails? If so, then I fully agree. (Again, I think some of the same could be said about the religious messages in Narnia, which are taught mostly through the hard experiences of the characters. In fact, it makes we wonder how really different in tone those two series are, really. After all, Alexander’s world wasn’t entirely removed from Christian myth either; he too had a magical kingdom far across the sea, as well as a Noah-type figure living hidden away in the mountains.)

    I’ve long since gone back and reread them all, several times, and I’m happy that my oldest daughter has read and been entertained by them as well. And Jonathan is right–all of the books are good, but Taran Wanderer is a small masterpiece.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I had no idea, I think, that there was a moral education in the Prydain books. Which is indeed my point. But I think Alexander’s work grows better into adulthood in this respect than Lewis, whose moral perspective in Narnia sometimes now seems to me to be either rather twee or priggish. Lucy, Eustace and the characters of Horse and His Boy seem to me to be the only ones in the Narnia books who undergo harder “lived” moral instruction, and even with Lucy and Eustace it’s a rigged game (because Lucy is basically so good and Eustace starts as such an unlikeable jerk). Maybe Digory, also: certainly the lesson about the apple and his mother is hard-won and genuinely affecting. It just seems that Lewis is dictating what his characters will learn, while Alexander is creating a dramatic context in which it is plausible that his characters will not learn and that it is also plausible that what they learn is not entirely or exclusively the right or true choice. I mean, if we found out that Taran’s kingship went badly, and he accomplished very little of what he set out to do because it was too hard to do, maybe you would feel that he’d been a bit of a chump at the end of The High King. Gwydion and Fflewddur and Gurgi and even Glew !! got to live happily ever after in Eden, after all.

  5. I think Alexander’s work grows better into adulthood in this respect than Lewis, whose moral perspective in Narnia sometimes now seems to me to be either rather twee or priggish. Lucy, Eustace and the characters of Horse and His Boy seem to me to be the only ones in the Narnia books who undergo harder “lived” moral instruction, and even with Lucy and Eustace it’s a rigged game (because Lucy is basically so good and Eustace starts as such an unlikeable jerk).

    I disagree, but perhaps that’s inevitable given our somewhat different attitudes on the role of authority in a moral system. But I also think you’re ignoring a couple of good examples. For example, Edmund lived through the consequences of his false trust, selfishness, and betrayal, and thus became a capable friend to Eustace and Shasta when they similarly dealt with the consequences of or guilt over their own actions.

    That said, I can’t deny that as a whole the Alexander books work better in terms of moral education that Lewis’s books, if only because the Prydain chronicles follow the long, sometimes slow growth of all their characters, whereas the Narnia books are stuctured so that we just pop in and out. And that, of course, works against our own sympathies for these characters when Lewis feels a need to make a point; I find it highly unlikely that there would be nearly so much complaint about the “fate” of Susan if Lewis had given us a story about how she came to her decision(s) regarding Narnia, even if said story were unsatisfying. (Referencing your thoughts about Eilonwy–which I think are right on–we at least there have the Castle of Llyr, which doesn’t do much for her development but at least gives us something about her growing up, whereas with Susan we have a friend from the earlier books who shows up to take a bow in the final volume solely to make a point. A valid point, from the Christian perspective, but still kind of a rough one to swallow.)

  6. withywindle says:

    As it so happens, my own fantasy novel’s heroine is in some ways an Eilonwy, and consciously so; I was tipping my hat to Alexander’s writings in my own. But that is precisely why I was able to write a female character sufficiently engaging to get my book published—I had read Alexander. My own creativity was not based upon a naïve rendition of reality, or some sort of native artistry—it was based upon knowing how a female fantasy character has been written, and invention based upon Eilonwy. Nor had I just read Alexander—I had read in the young adult/fantasy tradition, so I could draw on (and sometimes react against) Anne of Green Gables, the Darkness Rising series, X-men comic books, the Railway Children, Edward Eager, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, etc., etc.—and not just random authors, but authors aware of one another in a constantly augmented tradition. Eager not only introduced me to Nesbit, but taught me how one could incorporate Nesbit into one’s own writing. Alexander led me to the Welsh mythos, with a similar lesson of incorporation—how their richness depended upon tradition, and how any hope of richness of my part would depended upon tradition. What I have been able to do as a writer indeed depended upon immersion in a coherent tradition—conscious on my part, conscious on the part of the authors whom I have read.

    Furthermore, I have drawn on more than just young-adult fantasy—on the wider tradition of Western history and literature, of which young-adult fantasy is just a very late offshoot. Now, Lord knows I’m patchily enough read—but it’s been an inestimable advantage, compared to all the other fan-boys and fan-girls trying their hand at writing, that I have read the Bible, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Austen, etc. It’s not just pretentious name-dropping—the insights into the world and human character of the mainroot of Western tradition are infinitely greater than in just the young-adult fantasy branch. My conscious invention on that tradition gives my writing more depth than if I just depended on Alexander and Eager. (Who, I fancy, had read more than the young-adult tradition themselves.) This doesn’t make me a Great Writer—it makes me a marginally publishable writer. But that’s what tradition is for: to give us enough of a leg up, in terms of insight and technique, to make something marginally worth reading. And what I write, I write in hopes that I will somehow lead my readers toward the tradition I’ve read—to be able to access that wealth.

    This process is behind the prescription of tradition in educational canons. You have the peculiar notion that it’s just the arbitrary choice of random books—that every twenty years somebody chooses a completely different set of Great Books, and bloviates with complete hypocrisy about timeless tradition. It’s nothing of the sort. These are the recommendations of generations of readers—thousands of years of them—of the richest resources for readers, the works that provide the greatest wealth for individual invention. Scholars, writers, artists, religious men, have found a wealth in Virgil and in Shakespeare—the prescription of these works is not arbitrary, but the collective recommendation of thousands of grateful men, over centuries. Furthermore, Virgil and Shakespeare are integral parts of the Western tradition—so influential, that you cannot properly understand what comes later without reference to them, and so embedded in that tradition, that you cannot understand them without a proper understanding of that tradition. Set people loose on world literature without grounding them in the tradition, and all you give them is a kaleidoscope—random pieces of colored glass. Instruct them in the tradition, and you give them the explaining pattern—and your kaleidoscope becomes a stained glass window. (Just to pursue the metaphor: look at a cathedral window without knowing the Bible, and you might as well be looking at a kaleidoscope—Purty Cullers, no meaning.) Not to provide a canon for students, not to provide the tradition, is sheer, impoverishing cruelty.

    Modern education, modern attitudes, of course reject this notion. (The battle has been going on at least since Swift.) The modern attitude takes the most recent to be the best, or at any rate sufficient, and devil take the tradition it came from. Read the Declaration of Independence; forget Aristotle. Read Thomas Pynchon; forget Shakespeare. Read Freud; forget Augustine. Or think of them as inessential—somehow think that the more recent is a sufficient basis upon which to invent—to the extent that the cult of Inner, Natural Genius allows for any sense of dependence on what came before. I am not sure the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns, any more than in Swift’s time, is amenable to easy persuasion. Either you see tradition as a great wealth, and the modern world as a thin and tiny portion of that wealth, or you see tradition as some sort of tiny, cramping imposition on the wealth of modernity. It’s like the attitude toward religion—it’s either infinitely greater than the secular world, or infinitely smaller. I don’t suppose you’re going to be convinced of the traditionalist attitude, but I do wish you would acknowledge that the impulse that drives the prescription of tradition is a generous one—to open the mind to the wealth of the past.

    (Incidentally, Newman said the purpose of liberal education was to provide a sense of proportion. If your attitude, like mine, is that the present is always too full of itself, then one also wants to teach tradition so as to provide a sense of proportion to the present-minded—to introduce them to the novel concept of their relative unimportance. Tradition, properly taught, is a great promulgator of humility, a prerequisite, perhaps, both to proportion and to a willingness to learn.)

    Now, tradition is not closed. It is open to the new. In a pinch, after the lapse of several centuries, we can acknowledge the worth of vernacular literature, and say that it ought to be added to the canon of rich tradition.—but, of course, simultaneously realizing that it has been a cuckoo’s egg, which has displaced the older, and richer, tradition of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The “English tradition” of Chaucer and Shakespeare, however superior it may be to a diet of literature that begins with Ernest Hemingway, is itself impoverished in comparison to the wider culture of the West; the shift it has promoted toward monolingual specialization in English a great pauperization. Every addition to the tradition has a great potential to metastasize beyond its true value—to be puffed up for convenience’s sake (it’s easier to read Shakespeare than Virgil; easier to read Hemingway than Shakespeare.) Therefore, tradition ought to be wary about adding works too quickly to the canon. It’s not just that it takes several centuries before one can have a sense of enduring value and influence, but also that the new, once canonized, can too easily displace the old. If letting Shakespeare into the educational canon led inevitably to the disappearance of all literature from before 1900 from the tradition, then one would be quite justified in saying that Shakespeare should not have been let in—at least not for another few centuries!

    (Note, incidentally, that you claim there has been a constantly shifting tradition, but that the education of the English public school and the German gymnasium remained classical up until 1914, with remnants through the post-World War II era. The shift to modern languages had barely begun by 1900—as I recollect, Tolkien’s concenctration in modern languages (Anglo-Saxon!) was still unusual as of 1916. You are correct that the English canon is of dubious antiquity—but that is simply because it is essentially a product of the twentieth-century dissolution of tradition. The real tradition, of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, with the vernacular as a minor adjunct, held steady for two millennia. To attack the English canon does not, to my mind, affect the arguments of enduring tradition, since it is only a product of that tradition’s dissolution.)

    But tradition is not simply a question of “education,” pure and simple. Or rather, education has quite broad ramifications. Education is also moral education; education makes us members of communities; we become moral individuals, citizens, and Americans (Canadians, Chinese, Zimbabweans) by our immersion in traditions. Our moral behavior is also an imitation upon tradition—the imitatio Christi, the reflection upon the examples of a Socrates or a Luther, to guide us and inspire us. It is also, of course, our community’s education of its young into their values—the choice of whether to provide a Lincoln or a Hitler as the object of praise and emulation—or of indifference. (The indifference is as much a moral lesson as the explicit precept.) This applies with equal force to politics—and the intersection of politics and morality—whereby we teach the traditions and aspirations of the polity, the duties of the citizen, all with an eye to what has been done and what should be praised—the American tradition, of Washington and King, and its roots back, yes, to the Greek citizens defeating the despotism of Persia. And we teach the tradition of American culture, to provide some minimal unity of temperament to inspire mutual affection among 300 million human beings—the pride in Ringling Brothers hucksterism, the enduring disdain for European moral complaisance, the sheer, unabashed enjoyment of demotic culture. (To name some aspects I particularly prize.) We provide the wealth of tradition to support our young as they try to become moral American citizens—out of self-interest in preserving an ethical polity that is recognizably ours, and because it is infinitely more difficult to learn to be moral, civic, and American, as it is infinitely more difficult to learn anything, without tradition. The polity retains an overriding interest in shaping education to form moral, civic, Americans.

    It is worth emphasizing here that the great Western tradition (as the great Chinese tradition, and so on, although with different values as the result of their separate meditations) is centrally concerned with these moral and political questions. The canonical texts of the West are also the canonical texts for invention on the themes of virtue, republicanism, and liberty, and their tense relation with one another. America was founded as the end result of nearly two millennia of self-aware meditation on this tradition, and self-conscious invention on these topics. Indeed, republican liberty (Arendtian, active freedom; not passive liberty) requires the continuous invention of free action and thought; the continuous sustenance of liberty requires the continuous support of the tradition of liberty—Greek, Roman, Renaissance, English, Western. Perhaps American freedom can be sustained without constant reference to that taproot, but it is likely to be a thin, impoverished version of liberty, and, one fears, a fatally sick version of it. But the support of the canon is inextricably intertwined with a passionate desire to preserve American freedom.

    Now, I think your particular pronouncements on education conflate a number of topics. The liberal aspect of the Western tradition emphasizes individual volition on a number of topics as the best means of achieving virtue—part of the problem of modernism, and characteristic of the trouble with not attending to tradition, is that it remembers “individual volition” and forgets “on a number of topics as the best means of achieving virtue.” Save for the libertarian fringe (“yes, private TV stations should be allowed to broadcast hardcore anime on Saturday morning for the kiddies”), the overwhelming majority of the Western (liberal) tradition advocates some mixture of standards, moral guidelines, and free choice, and quarrels about where to draw the line. I sincerely doubt that you are alien to this compromising tradition. But one can maintain, centrally within this tradition, that at eighteen you have the right to vote, the right to bear arms, and the right to marry, but that when you enter an educational institution, the collective wisdom, not only of your fifty-year old professors, but also of two thousand years, matters more than what impulses have floated into your head on course registration day. One might even think that two thousand years of professors have some idea about what will attract and interest students, and lend some credence to their curricular precepts. The constitution guarantees a number of essential liberties; the right to choose your college courses isn’t one of them.

    But some of your objection rests, pragmatically, upon the disinterest that rises from compulsion. Fundamentally, we are as a species disinterested in toilet-training and anger-management; nevertheless, we compel our two year olds into a minimal approach to manners and morality. We provide a sliding scale based upon age as to how much compulsion is appropriate. Now, I am dubious that eighteen-year olds are really mature, whatever the credit our laws give them—but your objections to imposition of a core curriculum miss the point: the basic acquaintance with tradition ought to come in elementary and high school, not in college. Western education was built upon inculcating the Bible, Aristotle, Cicero, etc. to the malleable and easily compellable young—they were supposed to be grounded in that by the time they hit their late teens and early twenties!—and therefore free to begin the voluntary specializations that you favor. Therefore, when I favor a traditional canon, it should be for eighth graders, not college freshmen. The debate about compelling the education of eighteen years olds follows from the horrifying double-failure of modern times—that the elites are educated haphazardly and without tradition before college, and that the masses are barely educated to literacy, much less able to act as active citizens. What should one favor for college education given this horrendous double failure? One has a choice of insufficiencies. “The maximum practical amount of the Western tradition” has to be the answer—yes, with an eye to the unpleasant fact that eighteen-year olds don’t like to be forced to study a particular subject, and that, therefore, they may already be doomed to lifelong ignorance of the tradition; but without preemptive surrender to their mulish independence. What history to teach? The sketchy history of the West and of America should have priority over China, India, Latin America, Africa, and the Muslim world—some sort of meditation on the birth of Western liberty is the most important thing to learn from a history class. There will have to be unpleasant compromises one way or the other, but get as much of the core in as possible; better a fraction of the wealth of tradition than none at all. Try harder for the elite institutions—our leaders and opinion makers can do great good, benefited by tradition, and may do great harm without it.

    I think the question of standards and compulsion in education is informed—as in a previous discussion—by varying professional standards. Most professions compel very large amounts of education in their programs, without apology—the law, engineering, medicine, the military—and so, as a matter of course, do most trades—plumbing, carpentery, etc. None of these assume the loss of essential freedom by a rather tight core of instruction. Modern academia, however, is far more loose-jointed, and the profession far more individualistic in its mores. A basic instruction of core competence may indeed be less suited to it. But this, I think, leads you to read back the individualist assumptions of graduate academia into undergraduate education, when there is no reason to think that academia provides a better model than the law or engineering or plumbing for undergraduate education. And if the basic purpose of undergraduate education is to prepare you for the profession of moral citizenry, perhaps these models are superior—for the basic habits of moral citizenry are simple enough, and the complexity of application should be learned in life, not in college.

    So, ACTA—I assume they have all these ideas, or something much like them, lurking behind their prescriptions. Certainly, as I said before, the Shakespeare requirement strikes me as a reasonable shorthand. I don’t suppose that, at every moment, they express themselves perfectly—but neither do I think that you express your educational philosophy perfectly at every moment—particularly when your irritation at ACTA leads you to a tone of uncharitable irascibility, which, to my mind, rather weaken than strengthen your arguments. Surely we should try to seek out the best of our opponents’ arguments?

    Then politics—where, in a perfect metaphor, you implied that the spinelessness of liberal inclinations in education implies a similar spinelessness in politics. (You used some contrary metaphor about rigidity, but I trust you will take this rendition as a reasonable invention on your original topic.) Now, I am torn about this thesis. On the one hand, I do rather think the deformations of minds shorn of tradition does lead to various suicidal political behaviors. On the other hand, the tie is inexact—and I am deeply allergic to claiming that any particular sort of education ought to lead to a particular political result. Indeed, the fact that modern liberalism emerged as one invention upon Western tradition indicates that liberalism, both educational and political, ought to be compatible with knowledge of the tradition. (And certainly tradition is poorer if it fails to meditate upon liberalism.) Indeed, I would proffer tradition to liberals as a way for them to improve their arguments, by offering them access to tradition’s rich storehouse of thought. Tradition, and the core curriculum, ought to be compatible with any political stance vis-? -vis the Iraq War. I take tradition to offer strong arguments in favor of a hawkish stance—and I am pleased that you think tradition and hawkishness go together—but I would not presume tradition to speak with one voice on every passing political issue. (And contrariwise, I trust that modern liberal education, if it has any claims to be more than political agitprop, does not claim to speak with one voice on the Iraq War either.)

    This, incidentally, is the true weakness of Victor Davis Hanson’s take on tradition, as a political journalist. He’s essentially correct, but he’s a Johnny One-Note—he draws only one lesson, again and again. He is impoverished drawing from the tradition; he provides an impoverishment of topics for further invention. His work on Greek warfare, to the contrary, was an extraordinarily rich meditation on a variety of sources, not least the textural tradition and political philosophy, and equally rich as a source for others. I understand the choice he has made, but he has sacrificed a great deal in the process.

    Getting back to Lloyd Alexander—you have the peculiar idea that Taran Wanderer somehow dismisses the memorization of “moral rulebooks.” Now, reader reception is everything, but I drew rather different lessons from that book. Taran is trained in a variety of different disciplines—potter, shepherd, etc., and in none of them does he simply choose how to be a craftsman. He is taught his craft skills, and, morally, he learns what to imitate and what to avoid from the character of his elders. Memorization—here as everywhere—is the essential beginning of education, not its end. (Cf. the memorization of names in A Wizard of Earthsea, the memorization of books in Fahrenheit 451, the memorization of lineage in “Enemy Mine”; and, not irrelevant to the question of tradition, the learning of Elvish language and literature in LOTR as the first and best sign of proper learning and character, the forcible imitatio of V by Evey, as a ground for the invention of her own character, in V for Vendetta; and the mystical incantation of names in the Wrinkle of Time series—the yelling out of the names of Good Men and Women to ward away evil, the recitation of St. Patrick’s Breastplate.) Taran invents his own ethical character upon the topics of traditional craft skill and the auctoritas of his elders—all this a highly traditional moral lesson, highly compatible (if we are to draw such lessons, as you seem to desire) with the establishment, or maintenance, of a core curriculum and tradition in American education.

  7. laurel says:

    Somebody call Aristotle!

  8. Brad says:

    Thanks for the tip. I read all the stories discussed here except for Alexander’s work. I just ordered it and told my fourth grader that he will have some good books to read on his annual summer pilgrimage to Finland (to visit his mother’s family). I’ll read them before he leaves. Because of the discussion here, I will be curious as to what he pulls out of them.

  9. Gavin Weaire says:

    One of the genuine strikes against Tolkien is the general awfulness of his high fantasy epigoni. The Prydain series is the only real counter-example to this argument.

    One nice effect of the authentic moral experience of reading the preceding stuff comes when the reader finally encounters the one “get out of jail free” card in the story. When Eilonwy’s ring means that she doesn’t have to leave Taran after all, it doesn’t feel fake and too easy, but rather, well, “magical,” a miraculous suspension of the narrative logic that has governed the rest of the story.

  10. withywindle says:

    I wrote a rather long response to this–it’s a comment currently awaiting moderation. I’ve posted it also at


    Tim, if you’d just as soon not accept the post in your comments, due to length, that’s OK.

  11. emschwar says:

    Like others, I hadn’t really thought of Alexander and Moral Instruction(tm), but I’m pleasantly surprised to discover, upon reflection, that it was really there all along. What a delightful discovery!

    Interesting that others brought in Narnia; I tend to group Alexander with Susan Cooper, by preference. Her Dark is Rising series doesn’t tend so much towards Moral Instruction, though The Grey King is full of it, and the conclusion of the series is essentially a discussion of what human freedoms mean to us.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    No, it’s fine. Sorry for the delay. I have no idea why WordPress holds stuff when it does (it often puts my own comments into moderation). I was just tied up with family business today.

  13. withywindle says:

    I should add (!): part of the reason I’m going at such length is because I, too, loved the Taran books; and Taran Wanderer matters a great deal to me too–a book I didn’t like when very young, but liked the most when a little bit older; a book by which I realized my own changing tastes, and more consciously realized that a grimmer, quieter book can be a better book. And since the Taran books did help make me what I am–including, as I saw, a writer–I am somewhat unhappy about having them drafted to make a political point with which I certainly don’t agree. I don’t insist that the proper reader of Alexander should share my politics–at a guess, Alexander didn’t–but I do object to claims that a proper reading of Alexander leads to different politics, different educational philosophies, etc. I like to think that whatever moral benefit we all acquired from reading the Taran books is individual, not crudely political.

    That said, the democratic temperament of the final two books has been an enduring influence on me. Again, it shouldn’t map onto any fleeting partisan political position. But much of what I believe–much of what I have argued here over the years–draws upon that temperament of Alexander.

    On a completely different note–who else had an image of the Cookie Monster in their head when they read about Gurgi?

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    I completely agree that the Taran books lend themselves to individual moral benefits. (This could be, in some sense, my point: that the books suggest that we come to our morals through hard-won experience.)

    I thought of Gurgi as a kind of ape-man with a sort of doggy/Cookie Monsterish face.

  15. Patrick Cooper says:

    Thanks very much for your posting. Being a good time removed from reading the books, I was looking for Prydain interpretations and found yours. I was surprised at how much what you said meshed with a series I’d read more recently (but not much more recently), the Ender stories from Orson Scott Card. The issues beyond swords and fantasy, the issues and their complicated scope fleshed out through a young setting, etc.

  16. Doug says:

    Hmm. The Ender books get more problematic as they go on. There’s a significant online discussion about the problems of the first book. The second is the one that had the strongest impact on me, though I’m sure it’s been at least 15 years since I read it. The fourth I remember as just all about obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    The later books might have been decent if he had swallowed his hatred of Clinton and written about reasonably real people, but he couldn’t and he didn’t and they aren’t. (It’s remotely possible that the last two Bean books got better, but the first two were so bad that I didn’t make the effort.)

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