Saturday, August 7, 2010

1969 - The High King

I like trilogies. And to some degree a trilogy plus one or two. When the story is good, the telling is fine, and the adventure seems real, then I can read the first books with a luxurious feeling, knowing that the pleasure will stretch on. Sometimes it just feels right for a story to span out over three or more books. But it’s an awkward situation, when you have just one of the set to win an award, the Newbery Award.

The High King is the last of the series, begun with The Black Cauldron and followed by The Book of Three, The Castle of Llyr, and Taran Wanderer. I had read all of them some years ago, though most of the details have slipped my mind. The introduction states: “Like the previous tales, this adventure can be read independently of the others.” I decided to take that statement at its word, and for this review, re-read The High King only.

I had problems with taking this book independently as an award-winning book and finding much pleasure in it. Many named characters appear in the first few chapters. Obviously, Taran and the rest of the gang are familiar to each other, so not much time is set aside to introduce them to the rest of us. It isn’t easy to figure out who is important enough to pay attention to and fix them in my mind so as to recognize them later. I resorted to keeping up the pace of the reading and then going back to search the pages for clues on a character once I saw that he would be important to the story. “Coll” is an example. Well into the book, I realized that he was quite close to “Taran,” the hero of the story. I backtracked all the way to the beginning, where he appears almost casually, along with many other folks. I never found any other information about him except that he is a gardener. To me, that made his character very flat, at least, in this book.

What makes it very difficult to keep track of the people and the place names is that they are all Welsh. Eilonwy, Dallben, Collfrewr, Gwydian, Gwystyl, Dyrnwyn, Lluagor, Llassar, and Llyr, Caer Dathyl, Prydain, Caer Cadarn, Cenarth, Annuvin. I can’t pronounce them in my head, which makes it harder to differentiate them.

In this tale, Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper, who has apparently been traveling in the previous books, proving himself to be more than just a pig keeper, has entered into the battle to finish off the evil dark lord who has reached out his arm to try to conquer the known world. His armies are hordes of undead, and of rulers who have made alliance with the evil lord, Arawn of Annuvin, believing it is to their advantage to cast their lot in with him. Taran’s companions and allies are men, the “Fair Folk,” an indeterminate furry being, and various intelligent animals who travel through mines, mountain passes and secret routes. If you are feeling a hint of “Lord of the Rings,” you’re not the only one. I remember the previous four books well enough to know that this is not a knock-off series, and it could be that there are just not that many ways to wind up an epic like this one besides a “Return of the King” style.

I feel that the award was probably given to this, the last book, as a nod to the entire series. A boy raised in a low station makes something wonderful out of himself. The princess is a strong female character, who rescues at least as much as she is rescued. Friendships are strong, and at times, sacrificial. Interesting characters come forth who are hard to forget; the annoying but intensely loyal Gurgi, the fortune-telling pig Hen Wen. But if that is the case, that the series is the real winner, I wish it would be spelled out in the award, because this book, taken on its own, is not as unique and significant as I would have liked.

Like the rest of the books in this series, I found The High King at the thrift store.


Loreleigh said...

I didn't really like Taran much, he whined and whined and whined. The previous books showed some of his growing up process and had some memorable characters but he grew up so sloooooow and and really interesting characters got resolved before the torturous last book

Carolyn said...

I just couldn't make myself care about any of the characters. I don't know how I'd feel if I'd come to this book at the end of the series.