As I mentioned a week or so ago, John Hobbins has organized a group of us to comment on children’s books that were influential on or immensely enjoyed by us. It is hard for me to decide. It might surprise some that although I knew the Chronicles of Narnia quite well I don’t remember reading them as a child. I recently read them to my daughter but I cannot capture what they were like for me as a child. Later I read his science fiction trilogy (and I am nearly done rereading them) and they also remain with me in a much deeper way than Narnia.
I read Tolkien’s novels many times, but more as an older child (junior high school, high school, college, and so on). While they continue to captivate me they do so mostly as stories rather than as substance. The substance is there, to be sure, but not really for me.
I remember vividly reading The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald and my daughter loved them when she was 6-8; we read all 6 of them through 3 times in a row. I also fondly remember Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. But I now have the stories for John’s challenge. I finally got my daughter into reading The Book of Three, the first in the five-book Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. She was hesitant (this is a 10-year old girl who has read all of the Harry Potter books at least three times each) but once she was in, she was hooked and I was reminded of why I liked the stories so much.
In particular the fourth book, Taran Wanderer, and its tale has stayed with me. Now this is a bit of a pre-review because although my daughter is done with the series and I have read parts of it to her, I have not reread TW yet. And I want to share with the impression it has left on me before I read it and find out that it was (perhaps) something very different.
The series covers Taran’s growth from a boy to a man in a span of a few years driven, of course (it is a fantasy tale of swords and sorcerers) by the need to confront and thwart evil. The tales are very similar to Welsh myth, although Alexander, I was surprised to learn last night, is from Philadelphia. In this book, the fourth, Taran seeks to determine his heritage and lineage, something that not even Dallben the sorcerer in whose custody he grows up can tell him. And so he travels throughout Prydain.
What I remember most is that spends his time going from village to village and in each learns something of each of the trades. These “Commots” as they are are called, each have a particular trade, smithing, weaving, and potting, and he seeks to learn their skills and arts. In the final book Taran becomes the new “High King” and of course what we find is that the skills he has learned are not simply something of this and that (a jack of all trades and master of none) but of friendship and leadership. By submitting himself to those masters he learned some of their art and much of their wisdom and humility. He is then a much more able leader and king as a result.
This is my recollection anyway. In some ways I think these books did indeed encourage me, along with family and friends who relished in learning new things no matter how old they were, to relish a life of “liberal arts.” One of the greatest things about my job today is that I may live vicariously through students who are far better scientists, artists, and engineers than I could ever be, but they have taught me enough that I may listen and appreciate their success and the excitement of what they are doing.
Chronicles of Prydain. Well worth the summer read. I am taking all five to the beach with us on Thursday and will report back if I find it much different than I remembered.