Sighings and cryings. Sighings and cryings. Lloyd Alexander is dead.
Lloyd Alexander, who died May 17 at age 83, was a prolific author most famous for his novels for young adolescents. The most acclaimed of them were the five-novel Chronicles of Prydain, the first two books of which (The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron) were combined into the 1985 Disney animated movie The Black Cauldron.
With Alexander’s passing, the world of children’s literature loses another key link to the tradition of rich children’s fantasy in which the characters are engaged in epic struggles between good and evil. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series is probably the most famous of these. Others who have added immeasurably to the genre are Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising series) and Madeleine L’Engle (numerous fantasies for young adolescents beginning with A Wrinkle in Time).
All of these exemplary literary efforts combined a deep moral sensibility with a recognition that evil does indeed stalk the world, and a conviction that individuals of good will — even flawed as all humans are with pettiness, vanity, or other faults — can find heroism within themselves and inspire it in others, in order to stand up to evil and, in the long run, to vanquish it.
The recent phenomenon of the Harry Potter novels (as richly creative as the earlier efforts, although perhaps not as skillfully written), with their frightening arch-nemesis Lord Voldemort representing the evil forces of the wizard world, demonstrated anew the power and popularity of children’s books with such stark themes and of such sweeping scopes.
BUT HARRY POTTER AND ITS FORBEARS stand in contrast to the larger new trend in literature for older children and young adolescents, a trend marked by almost anodyne plotlines in which the only adversary is some trendy exemplar of politically incorrect behavior. (The three most recent Newbery Award winners include [according to the official Newbery site] a story of a girl who eavesdrops on 12-Steps meetings; another described as “postmodern” about intersecting lives and featuring haiku and “deliberate randomness”; and another in which “personal challenges and family tragedy are set against the oppressive social climate of the South during the 1950s and early 1960s.”)
Lloyd Alexander, to his credit, understood that growing children deserve something more and better, something mythic in the good sense, the sense that involves big themes in which things both sacred and sacramental are at risk and are worth fighting for. Indeed, the Chronicles of Prydain are loosely based on the Mabinogion of Welsh mythology, itself epic in scope and full of valor and heroism.
In The Book of Three (1964), Alexander’s protagonist, Taran, begins as a lowly assistant pig-keeper who, we are told in the very first sentence, “wanted to make a sword.” The master of his farm, Dallben, is 379 years old. Think of the originally callow Luke Skywalker and of a domesticated Obi-Wan Kenobi, and you get the idea. But Taran, very much like the young Arthur who would one day become the legendary king of Camelot, was destined for far greater things. Yet destiny would not come without danger, represented by the death-lord Arawn, who was the land of Prydain’s equivalent of Darth Vader.
You see where this is going. The archetypes are familiar, yet somehow never tired or impotent. They remain powerful as ever because their central truths are as, yes, true as ever — “true” meaning relevant, applicable, legitimate, essential, on-target, and ideal. The tales based on the archetypes are the sort worthy of being passed down from age to age, acquiring more power but also more mystery as they are told and retold, until what finally matters is not “fact” but truth — truth in that higher, more lasting and more meaningful sense.
What C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander understood so well was that imagination rightly channeled becomes moral imagination, and that moral imagination combined with courage moves the world. It was moral imagination combined with courage that marked the character of Winston Churchill — a man whose outlook, his fears and hopes alike, were for decades adjudged too grandiose and even daft until the reality of Hitler proved how appropriate and true Churchill’s imagination really was.
For different ends, moral imagination combined with courage marked the characters of Ronald Reagan, and of Pope John Paul II, and of Gandhi, and of the eminently practical and well-grounded Abigail Adams, too. Heroism of their sort doesn’t just happen. It is forged in character — character informed by right reason, and right reason inculcated both through experience and through good habits of mind. Those habits of mind are nurtured and developed and emboldened by stories (of both fact and fiction) that teach and inspire somebody towards sacrifice for causes greater than self.
CAUSES GREATER THAN SELF can inspire even the lowliest among us. Throughout Taran’s adventures in Prydain, the young man is joined by a furry creature, something of a cross between man and animal, named Gurgi. Not only is Gurgi a rather piteous sight — hair “so matted and covered with leaves that it looked like an owl’s nest in need of a housecleaning,” scent with “the distressing odor of a wet wolfhound” — but he is also a creature with a simple mind, prone to talking in silly rhymes such as “crunchings and munchings” for food and “seekings and peekings” for reconnaissance. Not only that, but Gurgi is first described by the great and good Lord Gwydion as “not half as ferocious as he looks, not a quarter as fierce as he should like to be, and more a nuisance than anything else.”
Yet by falling in with Taran’s and Gwydion’s noble little band, by being inspired by their courage and goodness, even poor Gurgi becomes a hero as well. It is Gurgi who in the end of the series finds the leather pouch containing parchments explaining the long-lost “secrets of forging and tempering metals, of shaping and firing pottery, of planting and cultivating… knowledge [that] is itself a priceless treasure… [whose] use needs skill and strength of hand and mind.” Those skills stand in stark contrast, Gwydion explained, to some other lost items whose loss was a good thing rather than bad: “enchanted tools that labored of themselves and would have given carefree idleness.”
Such are the lessons, innately conservative, taught by Lloyd Alexander, who also has Gwydion explain that evil cannot be “quickly overcome,” and can only be defeated by “that portion of good in all men’s hearts whose flame can never be quenched.”
Or as it was put by another man of great moral imagination, George Washington, “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
Our children need always to be surrounded by tales of heroes of fact, such as Washington, and of fiction that is still true at its inmost heart, such as the heroes created by Lloyd Alexander.
Lloyd Alexander may have died last week, but the truths of heroism that suffused his writings will and ought to be valued as long as we keep childhood the realm of imaginative yearnings and learnings of the right and moral kind.