This is a (modified) post I originally wrote for a site I did about 3-4 years ago called Fantasy Book Banner.
The idea of the site was to have self-published Fantasy and Sci-fi authors come and promote their works on the site, form a community and gain some authority, thereby driving sales.
Well, it tanked. Hard.
So to hell with that bollocks, then. To the point, I thought of this article because I plan to write up my opinions and commentary regarding some of my favorite fantasy works, and I decided I had to go back and start at the beginning.
The very first fantasy story I ever read was Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron. You know, the one they made the Disney movie out of? It was a part of his series The Chronicles of Prydain
The Chronicles of Prydain
As a child, comic books are really what started me on my reading journey, but I remember seeing the covers to some of the books in the library. As you can imagine, many of the fantasy themed books had very colorful covers with action shots of knights and dragons and such.
All the kind of things to attract a young comic fan’s attention. After that, I was hooked into the whole Fantasy genre.
This is the first real solid Fantasy work that I can remember reading as a child. I believe it was first published in the 60’s, but I got my hands on it in the early 80’s.
The Book of Three (all Amazon links are my affiliate links) is the first title, and introduces you to the character of Taran, a young orphan boy who dreams of being a hero like his idol, Prince Gwydion.
The only problem is that he is stuck living at a farm in the very un-glamorous position of assistant pig-keeper. He doesn’t even rate full pig-keeper.
Oh yeah, even the PIG is more important than him, since she’s an oracular pig. Hen Wen (the pig) can divine the future, and her owner, Dallben, is a very wise old sort. Not exactly a wizard, but he knows his way around magic, and is consulted by the ruling powers of Prydain in times of trouble.
Eilonwy is Taran’s companion. She’s a princess, and yet she’s not. She seems very flighty and somewhat silly, but is quick to cut Taran down with a burst of wit when he starts getting too big for his britches. The two of them came to my mind years later when I was reading dialogue between Rand and Egwene in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.
Anyway, Eilonwy has a bit of power to her, a little magical mystery that is explained further along in the third book of the 5 book series , The Castle of Llyr.
Rounding out the immediate cast is Gurgi, some kind of furry creature. Honestly I can’t remember what the heck he is (hey, it’s been a long time since I read these). All I know is he’s constantly hungry and kind of annoying at first. Think of a smaller, less disgusting and non-dangerous version of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings.
Although I don’t remember all the specifics, I came to see that I read the books out of order first, reading the second one, The Black Cauldron, before I went back and read The Book of Three .
What I do remember is that I was able to see Taran grow from an immature punk kid into the kind of hero he always wanted to be. The Taran from the fifth book, The High King, is pretty much nothing like Taran from the first book.
Much of this change is realized in the fourth book, Taran Wanderer, in which the young boy separates himself from his supporting cast and attempts to find himself out in the land of Prydain. He rights wrongs and tries to find out the truth about his own parentage, hoping he’ll discover that he is of noble-enough blood to marry Eilonwy.
This is the book more than any other in which he grows into manhood. The moving speech that Taran makes at the end of The High King is a testament to just how much he has grown up since The Book of Three. This book had some really gripping stuff, and at my age I remember being really worried that Taran may not survive the book! It’s funny now, but to my young mind then the outcome was really in doubt.
This series was the one that made me go out and look for more Fantasy. I always consciously or sub-consciously compared any future stories to this series. I still have those books somewhere. It always annoyed me that I was never able to find the same publishing format of the books, my copy of Taran Wanderer is about an inch wider than the rest, and has a different style of artwork on the cover that I liked less than the others.
The Black Cauldron – The Video Game
I was so entranced by this series that I even tried my hand at making an adventure game based on it, using my Commodore 64, and a piece of software called The Adventure Construction Set. I don’t think I ever finished it, but I remember having a ton of fun making it, and believing that I really was continuing the adventures of Taran, Eilonwy and the whole bunch.
The Black Cauldron – The Movie
Disney made an animated movie, The Black Cauldron based on an amalgamation of the works, but it strayed a bit far from Lloyd’s work and was not really well received.
I think the plot of the Disney movie was actually more like the plot from the first book The Book of Three and not the second book that was actually titled The Black Cauldron.
I saw it like 3 times in the theater, and where I lived it didn’t last longer than two weeks. Now that I think of it, I might pick up the DVD just for old time’s sake.
Another interesting bit – in one of the Amazon reviews, someone mentioned that Gurgi was a main character in the Disney Gummi Bears series, and that Taran and Eilonwy showed up from time to time. I never watched it, so I wouldn’t know but it sounds pretty cool.
Fantasy for younger people
I enjoy the Fantasy genre a lot, but in these days of Game of Thrones and all, it seems like a lot of the stories are upping the ante to see how brutal and “realistic” they can be.
The Chronicles of Prydain was possibly the perfect entry for a young child like myself to be introduced to Fantasy worlds. It’s pretty safe, even though the times do get tough for our heroes towards the end of the series.
I remember being really sad when the final book ended, but at the same time feeling pretty good somehow (yeah, it was one of those endings).
Anyway, if you want a good light read where no one is horribly maimed or savaged sexually, and maybe a “starter” fantasy series for young kids, there’s nothing better than this.