The Book of Three


Lloyd Alexander


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

September 25, 2022

first read The Book of Three almost fifty years ago. My recollection was that it was an impressive adventure story, full of danger and heroic deeds. I wondered how the book would seem to me now, from a perspective of half a century later. I have one of the ancient hardcover first editions (published in 1964) that must have previously been a library book, because it has a Cuyahoga County Public Library stamp ("Cancelled - Sale Authorized") inside.

I am pleased to say that The Book of Three is just as enjoyable for a senior citizen as it is for a child. It is indeed an adventure story, but it moves much faster than I remember (of course, I read much faster now). It is just 216 pages, but Alexander is concise in his story telling - the plot really moves along. There is indeed the heroic derring-do that I remembered, but it is also funnier than I recalled (or perhaps I didn't notice the humor as a kid). I found the conversations between Taran and Eilonwy amusing, as were the strings that snap on Fflewddur's harp whenever he "stretches the truth", or gruff Doli trying to turn invisible by holding his breath.

The Book of Three tells the story of Taran, an orphaned teenager who lives in a small homestead called Caer Dallben with a bald man named Coll and a three hundred and seventy-nine year old man named Dallben. Both men are more than Taran realizes - Coll once was a mighty warrior, and Dallben is a powerful wizard. At the homestead is an ocular pig named Hen-Wen who can predict the future. Taran longs to do something heroic, and chafes at the life of weeding, gardening and tending the animals. Coll bestows upon him the lofty title of Assistant Pig-Keeper, but Taran is not mollified.

One day, something terrorizes the livestock at Caer Dallben (Alexander called his fantasy world Prydain, but admits it is based upon the myths of Wales, which is why so many of the names have Welsh-seeming names) and Hen-Wen dashes off into the forest in a panicked frenzy. Taran gives chase, trying to track her, but Hen-Wen disappears into the undergrowth and Taran finds himself lost in a vast wilderness. He soon is enduring the adventures that he wished to experience, and finds himself longing for the simpler, safer time when he merely had to weed the garden or feed Hen-Wen her dinner. Taran encounters friends and villains, and despite the perils he faces, he does not abandon his quest - Hen-Wen must be found and returned to safety.

There is a material in this book that is darker than you might expect for a kid's book. The scary Cauldron-Born are deathless warriors - the evil sorcerer Arawn puts the dead bodies of soldiers into his magic pot, and they come to life again, mindless and obedient, following Arawn's every command. The crimes of the Horned Kings are horrific (he burns prisoners in wooden cages as part of some kind of evil mystic rite). Arawn has giant flying gwythaints - vicious creatures with sharp beaks and sharper talons that spy on his enemies, and attack the unwary.

Taran and Eilonwy seem younger to me than I remembered. They are venturing into a violent, dangerous world where they are tested by peril. Taran shows a lot of character growth in this book, Alexander shows Taran making mistakes a-plenty, and then ruefully regretting his choices. But Taran's heart is in the right place, he strives to do the right thing even if his plans often go awry. I already know how the Chronicles of Prydain end, since this is a reread, but I still look forward to the next volume in the series: The Black Cauldron.