The Foundling: and Other Tales of Prydain
by Lloyd Alexander
I wish I had had this book the last time I re-read the Book of Three series, the stories of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper. Like any good fantasy buff, I read the books first when I was young; I was excited and then disappointed when Disney made The Black Cauldron and got everything wrong about the main characters (Though as I recall, the side characters were great, Gurgi and the Horned King and the three witches in the swamp.); I named my very first Dungeons & Dragons character “Taran.” Stole the name from my friend and fellow fantasy buff. I regret nothing.(Another side note: I met a guy, works at my local grocery store, named Taran. It was an exciting moment for me, because I am also named from a fantasy series of about the same era. He was not as excited. I believe his response was, “Is there anything else I can get you?”)
Anyway, I loved these books when I was young, but when I re-read them, I discovered something: they are terribly sad. They are based on old Welsh myths, and perhaps that’s the source of the sadness; but the general arc of the books tells the life of a young man who wishes for adventure, finds it, and then wishes he had never left home in the first place. It’s not all sad, he ends up well in the end of the last book; but especially in the third and fourth books, when he is feeling lost and directionless, trying to find himself and his purpose, there is a real angst that, after the sweetness of the first book, made me sad. There’s also a tendency in the books to see the villainous characters as not really that villainous, simply as victims of their own greed or shortsighted ambition or fear; this makes it much less fun to hate them and wish them ill. Which I suppose is the point, but fantasy is supposed to have villains, dammit. Villains who cackle as they twist their mustachios, and who get soundly and at least semi-permanently defeated by the heroes. And Lloyd Alexander didn’t do that.
But this book, which serves as sort of a coda to the five books of Prydain, makes up for that sadness. Because this book is delightful. It allows you to go back and revisit the characters once more, and to see them in other circumstances than in the series, most of which is taken up with the war against Arawn, lord of the land of the dead. It gives the backstory on Dallben (He’s the Foundling, raised by the three witches of the swamp, who are also the Three Fates), and Colm, and Fflewddur Fflam, and all of them. The stories are short, they are not sad (Other than Dallben’s, which isn’t all that sad because it leads up to the Prydain books, where he’s like a great big ice cream cake of awesome, and this tells how he got to be like that), and they help fill in a lot of the little gaps in the stories from the Prydain books. Basically, this is what The Silmarillion should have been, and it was wonderful.
And if I haven’t made it clear, this book really needs to be read as part of the larger series. I think it would be fine to read it first, as it gives a good idea of Alexander’s wonderful telling-stories-by-the-fireside writing style and it’s very short and easy to read; but I think it’s best to read it as I did, after reading the longer series, so that you can get a final grace note and a happy ending. That way seems the most satisfying to me. So for those Prydain fans who haven’t read this one, go get it now. Enjoy.