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.