In the second half of The Book of Three, things are still escalating quickly – but Taran finds time to learn a thing! (With a little help from his friends.)
So guys, I think I’m onto something really good here. Like, really good.
Not perfect, mind you. For all that I’m enjoying the heck out of these characters, their interactions and personalities, I felt by the end of the book as though we’d only gotten half as much story as we could have. POV being what it was meant we missed out on a lot, thanks to Gwydion basically being off-stage for most of the book when he’s one of the characters I wanted to see (ahem) more of. The same goes for Achren, the wicked queen with the shady pals who keeps him captive for a lot of that off-stage time. We eventually get Gwydion back, new and improved, Gandalf-style, but the rather extreme level of “here’s what you missed” exposition left me frustrated.
Give me a story that puts him and Achren front and centre. I would happily read all about what happened there.
And don’t think that my Gandalf reference was a throwaway remark, oh no. There’s inspiration from The Lord of the Rings etched in this book’s bones, so cheerfully evident that I can’t help just enjoying it all. What helps is that, while there’s clearly a lot of love for the granddaddy of fantasy stories here, Alexander takes what works and uses it to propel his own story, his own characters and his own narrative forward. Taran is a young man of humble origins who ends up going on a fantastically heroic quest … and spends pretty much all of his time putting his foot in his mouth, irritating his companions, and making nearly disastrous mistakes. Hobbit much?
Clearly, he is a young man with a lot to learn (and when are young men not in that position?) but his saving grace is that, by the end of this story, he has learned a lot – about himself, and about what makes a true hero.
… Perhaps not quite as much about young women, but hey, nobody gets it right all the time. He’s got a long way to go, and in this instance, I suspect the author’s taking the opportunity to get some pointed little social commentary jabs in. Regarding Eilonwy, after yet another “confusing” conversation is ended with her storming off:
“I can’t make sense out of that girl,” he said to the bard. “Can you?”
“Never mind,” Fflewddur said. “We aren’t really expected to.”
This is interesting because it could be interpreted a couple of different ways. Given what we know of Eilonwy and her views regarding the male of the species in general, it could simply mean that Fflewddur thinks she doesn’t expect Taran to understand her. And indeed, even right up to the final page, he’s proving her right, in a way.
On the other hand, it could be a remark aimed at men in general. Bearing in mind that this book was written/published in the 1960s, it’s entirely possible that Alexander was commenting on the fact that the needs and desires of women were … given underwhelming consideration by society as a whole. To put it mildly.
I mean, I don’t know. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe it was a gaffe of the casually sexist variety, and Fflewddur was just being dismissive of Taran’s concern. But if we’re going with what I’d really like to think it is, then I like to think it was a jab. Because of course I do.
This is quite possibly backed up by the way Alexander writes Eilonwy, herself. She’s lovely to look at and undoubtedly intriguing in a ‘magical princess’ sort of way, and it would have been so easy to let her fall into all the traps that that sort of character pigeonhole can present, especially for the time in which this book was written. But nobody puts Eilonwy in a corner (or, indeed, even in a sack without her consent). TEAM EILONWY, is what I’m saying here. She’s fierce, she’s clever, and she takes no nonsense from clueless young men. She certainly doesn’t hang around waiting for them to find said clues. She might also be a bit quick to judge and defensive to the point of prickliness, but if she was note-perfect I’d get bored with her in a hurry, let’s be honest. As it is, I love everything about her.
Also. ALSO. The sly little subversion of the Fair Folk that Alexander includes deserves a mention here. No tall, regal, awe-inspiring elves for this fantasy world, oh no. What we have is a race of beings whose king is self-absorbed, manipulative and generally frustrated with the greed and destructiveness of the human race, to the point that he’s all but given up on expecting better from them. (Though one could argue that therein, also, lies a certain Elvish influence…)
And here’s where I began to fall in love with Eiddileg:
“If any of you thick-skulled oafs come on one of the Fair Folk above ground, what happens? You seize him! You grab him with your great hammy hands and try to make him lead you to buried treasure. Or you squeeze him until you get three wishes out of him – not satisfied with one, oh, no, but three! … No more! Absolutely not! I’m surprised you didn’t ruin us long ago!”
… I mean, Eiddileg could solve the immediate problem of having unwanted human guests in his house by just, you know, letting them go again. But then, he wouldn’t have this opportunity to rant at them, would he? I love it, and I love him – more so for the fact that underneath the crusty curmudgeon stewing in righteous indignation is a big old soft-hearted sap who enjoys nothing more than honest affection and appreciation. The last glimpse we get of him, turned to a soppy puddle of joy after a simple kiss on the head and a thank-you from Eilonwy (TEAM EILONWY), just makes me want to give the crabby old king a big cuddle and a cup of tea. And a biscuit, for good measure.
Argh, I’m rambling. Long story short (heh), this is a tiny book with BIG IDEAS, and even if there were aspects of the story that I wish had been given more focus, I was nonetheless left very impressed with how much Alexander does manage to achieve with a page count this small. The Book of Three may be flawed, but I loved it, and I can’t wait to see what comes next, after Alexander has presumably sharpened his knife a bit more…