Lloyd Alexander, Newbery-award-winning author of children's fantasy, died on May 17th, 2007, only two weeks after the death of his wife Janine, to whom he had been married for sixty-one years. The day he died, my profession lost a colossus, and I lost my hero.
I can't even begin to tell you what Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books meant to me. I can honestly say that I wouldn't have become the person I am without them. In second grade, I lost someone very close to me, and the next two years were a dull ache. To give you some idea of the pain of those years, the only book I'd bonded with before I came to Prydain was The Little Princess, and that was because I could relate so well to Sara's misery. Like her, I tried to suffer with dignity.
During the summer after my fourth-grade year, my cousin, Susan, told me about an amazing book the librarian had read to her class. It was the first book in the Prydain series, The Book of Three. I had never even imagined that such a book could exist. During the two weeks of our vacation together, I begged her every night to tell me Taran's story again. We stayed up for hours, whispering together, making our way beside Taran through the winding tunnels beneath Spiral Castle and trekking through the forests with vivacious, hot-tempered Princess Eilonwy and bumbling Fflewder Fflam, the bard whose harp snapped a string every time he bragged about the glorious deeds he hadn't done.
On the first day of fifth grade, I marched into the library after school and asked for The Book of Three. I read it that night and came back the next day for The Black Cauldron. On Wednesday, I was ready to read The Castle of Llyr. On Thursday, I demanded Taran Wanderer. And I had the whole weekend to gasp and sob my way through The High King, the great battle for the soul of Prydain itself, in which so many old friends whom I had known since Wednesday—or even as far back as Monday—sacrificed their lives for the sake of the land and the people they held dear.
The five days I spent reading the five books of the Prydain series were the start of many positive developments in my life: an acquaintance with libraries and librarians, for example, and a fascination with languages and folklore, both important elements of my future career. But the most critical thing of all was that I had something to live for again, something to be excited about. With that enthusiasm came a newfound boldness in making friends because now I had something to share with them: Lloyd Alexander's miraculous mythical kingdom, which enchanted my classmates as surely as it had enchanted me.
Everything I have become has followed straight from those five books in the first week of fifth grade. They brought me to the attention of the school librarian, who became a powerful influence on me and gave me a home in her library—and if you've ever found a home in a library, you know that from then on, every library becomes your home. I researched Welsh folklore and began to peck away at nonfiction books that were too hard for me, a thrilling experience akin to the hardship and triumph of exploring untouched jungle. For my birthday, my mother gave me a textbook of beginning Welsh, and after that, I took every language class I could, so that at this point in my life, I've studied varying amounts of Spanish, Welsh, German, French, Chinese, Russian, Latin, and Greek. With each new language have come new customs, new literature, and new worlds to conquer. Lloyd Alexander set my feet on a path that is still taking me toward unknown horizons.
What else did those books teach me? They taught me about honor. They taught me the difference between dignity and pride. They taught me that friends fail us, and we forgive them, and the forgiveness that we give them is actually a gift to ourselves. They taught me to love the magic that is in fantasy, but they also taught me to value the simple goodness that lies in people of every country, whether here or beyond the stars. They taught me that some things are worth dying to save.
It's not too much to say that the Prydain books raised me. As I read and reread those stories, Taran and I struggled and failed and grew up together.
Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books will live on as long as a reader shivers at the booming call of the Horned King and the tramp of the undead Cauldron Born:
in which Taran rebels at the thought of spending his life as an assistant pig keeper and quickly finds out that he may not have a life much longer;
in which Taran joins a quest to destroy the magical cauldron of the evil king of Annuvin and bargains with the three hideous hags who control the fate of every living thing, Ordu, Orwen, and Orgoch;
in which Taran's close friend, Eilonwy, must leave their home to learn to behave like a princess, and Taran must fight to save her from the dangerous silver-haired queen, Achren;
in which Taran goes about the land of Prydain, hoping to discover his heritage in order to be worthy of the hand of a princess; and
in which Prydain falls under the sway of Arawn, the evil king of Annuvin, and everyone, from the oracular pig Hen Wen and the ranks of the lake-dwelling Fair Folk to the Princess Eilonwy and Taran himself must fight with all the gifts in their power to keep the tide of death and destruction from sweeping away everything they love.
Of course, I wrote to the god of my character friends, and Lloyd Alexander, God love him, wrote me back. He praised my childish initiative and encouraged me to think about writing as a career. I didn't have the confidence then to take his comments seriously, but I was on top of the world because of the attention.
In his letters to me, Lloyd Alexander was the model of what a children's author should be. He understood that when we write books for children, we send each one of them on a separate journey, and we, in turn, must respect that journey and the dedication they put into following their path. A book is not a propaganda slogan to be crammed down a child's throat. It is an open door.
Rest in peace, gentle storyteller. Thank you for the books you gave us.