May 21, 2007


Lloyd Alexander: Author of 'The Chronicles of Prydain' (Independent, 22 May 2007)

Lloyd Chudley Alexander, writer: born Philadelphia 30 January 1924; married 1946 Janine Denni (died 2007; one daughter deceased); died Philadelphia 17 May 2007.

Lloyd Alexander was an author of outstanding distinction, his fantasy novels setting new standards in meticulous craftsmanship powered by an individual imagination. Frequently cited by more junior American writers as one of their main literary influences when young, he was often seen as J.R.R. Tolkien's overseas successor for younger readers, in all but the sky-high sales. [...]

In Time Cat (1963), he describes how a cat - always a favourite character in his fiction - helps a young boy named Jason to travel through time to nine different countries. While writing it, he came across Welsh mythology and in particularly the Mabinogion, an epic that has inspired many writers. Casting his mind back to war-time Wales, he wrote The Book of Three (1964), the first of a five-part work entitled The Chronicles of Prydain.

This series features an assistant pig-keeper named Taran living in an imaginary kingdom something like an enchanted Wales, although Prydain is in fact the Welsh name for Britain. Accompanied by Princess Elilonwy, very much a liberated female before her time, faithful half-man half-beast Gurgi and Fflewddur Fflam, a bardic harpist whose strings break if he is telling a lie, Taran slowly grows to maturity during his long duel with Arawn, Death-Lord of the underworld.

Part two, The Black Cauldron (1965), was made into an animated Disney film in 1985 and part five, The High King (1968), won the 1969 Newbery Medal for the outstanding children's novel of its year. Filled with exciting action mixed with quiet wisdom as well as humour and as much interested in character as in plot, this was fantasy writing at its best.

More than 40 other books followed, some of which were translated into up to 13 different languages. These included The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian (1970), about a 19th-century violinist who helps a princess escape a plot to marry her to a villainous aristocrat. This won the 1971 National Book Award.

Westmark (1981) was the first of three novels in a trilogy starring Theo, an orphan printer's apprentice dangerously involved in political intrigue around the time of the French Revolution. Set in an imaginary country, this too sees the eventual triumph of good over evil, with the lowly born hero finally defeating adversity in his quest for justice, freedom and democracy. Drawing on the author's first-hand experience of warfare, these books still come over as freshly imagined as well as beautifully written.

Another six-part series was named after his principal heroine Vesper Holly, starting with The Illyrian Adventure (1986). Lighter-hearted in tone, these stories describe how Vesper, a young orphan from turn-of-the-century Philadelphia, sets out with her guardian Brinnie to pursue scientific interests in different parts of the globe.

Now living a few blocks away from where he was born, Alexander continued writing, producing one of his most charming books at the age of 77. This was The Fantastical Adventures of the Invisible Boy (2001), an affectionate portrait of David, an 11-year-old growing up in depressed Philadelphia at the time Alexander had been a child himself. This story cleverly contrasts everyday reality with the increasingly surreal tales that David tells himself in order to make his life more interesting. Witty, elegiac and delightfully written, here was proof that Alexander still remained a captivating children's author.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 21, 2007 8:20 PM

I had completely forgotten about "The Black Cauldron," which I read at some point and loved. I don't think I was ever able to locate any of the other books, though, because none of the other titles are familiar at all.

Posted by: Twn at May 22, 2007 3:09 PM