The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander, was published in 1964 by Henry Holt.
Taran is bored with his Assistant Pig-Keeper duties, even though his charge is none other than Hen Wen, Prydain’s only oracular pig. He’d rather be doing something more heroic, like making swords and learning to use them. When Hen Wen escapes and Taran goes after her, he finds himself farther from home than he’s ever been. Soon he begins to realize that heroism is no easy task. With the dreaded Horned King on the loose and King Arawn gathering the forces of evil, Taran must look past his own dreams to warn the population of Prydain—before it’s too late.
The Chronicles of Prydain is a book series I read when I was younger because my brothers read them, and I wanted to read what my brothers were reading. I don’t remember liking them terribly well, but I did read the first three several times, so the events of The Book of Three are pretty firmly established in my mind.
(Random side note: why is it called The Book of Three anyway? The book only appears at the beginning and the end.)
I like how Taran is a pretty unlikeable protagonist, especially in the beginning. He’s arrogant and foolish and rash and highly unbearable and it makes his change at the end more noticeable (although he’s not all together cured, as can be seen at the end of the book and in The Black Cauldron). He does have a strange way of speaking, but I’m chalking that up to the time period (1960s) and to the influence that J. R. R. Tolkien likely had on Alexander, and I do think there was an influence because this book is very Lord of the Rings-esque, and that can’t be chalked up just to the time period.
Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring was published about 10 years before this book, and the similarities between these two books are striking. We have Gwydion, the noble hero who travels the world as a “ranger” type who is strikingly similar to Aragon, right down to the special sword. We have Arawn, the Big Bad, who rules from a distant part of the world and plans to erase those who oppose him (Sauron, obviously). There’s also the similarity between the speech. Granted, Alexander based a lot of Prydain on Welsh mythology, which Tolkien also undoubtedly used, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of similarities.
I’m not sure I’m a fan of Eilonwy’s similes, but I like her if only that she is so different than most female heroines currently. She’s a bit bratty and a little annoying and while she can sort of handle herself, she also is helpless in other ways. And she and Taran have a very Ron-and-Hermione-type relationship, which is amusing.
The Book of Three is a good setup for the rest of the series. It gets across all the pertinent information and establishes character, all very important things for first books to do. However, I did find it a trifle inconsistent, especially with speech. Fflewddur and Eilonwy have a much more casual style of speech than does Taran, which can be jolting to read about, although I just realized that perhaps Taran is purposefully using that sort of speech because he thinks that’s what heroes sound like (or he is trying to imitate Gwydion). And that makes complete sense.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Some violence, war, death.
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“I am Taran of Caer Dallben,” Taran said, then wished he had not. This, he realized, coud be another trap.
“That’s lovely,” Eilonwy said gaily. “I’m very glad to meet you. I suppose you’re a lord, or a warrior, or a war-leader, or a bard, or a monster. Though we haven’t had any monsters for a long time.”
“I am none of those,” said Taran, feeling quite flattered that Eilonwy should have taken him for any one of them.
“What else is there?”
“I am an Assistant Pig-Keeper,” Taran said. He bit his lip as soon as the words were out; then, to excuse his loose tongue, told himself it could do no harm for the girl to know that much.
“How fascinating,” Eilonwy said. “You’re the first we’ve ever had—unless that poor fellow in the other dungeon is one, too.”