Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Lloyd Alexander (and other memories of childhood literature)

Children's author Lloyd Alexander died last month, Thursday, May 17th. He had cancer. His wife, who he met in France near the end of World War II, died May 2nd.

The Washington Post's obituary is here and The New York Times' is here. His Wiki entry lists all of his works, while his author site hosts invaluable material for fans. Alexander is best known for his Chronicles of Prydain, inspired by Welsh mythology, and for The Westmark Trilogy. He won many honors, including the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the Newberry Medal and the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Alexander's final book, The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, is due out this August. Alexander said that with Golden Dream…, "I have finished my life work." He had a good run.

Tolkien and Alexander were my favorite authors when I was twelve (they rounded out massive dollops of mythology, science and history). In addition to the great Prydain series, I always had a fondness for Alexander's The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha (1978). The other two great fantasy series I recall are The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

It's interesting to read the obituaries and biographies of Alexander, because his parents pushed him to be a banker. But he remarked, "Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain and so many others were my dearest friends and greatest teachers. I loved all the world's mythologies: King Arthur was one of my heroes." Jean Fritz, another superb children's author, is quoted in the NYT obit, where she wrote that the Prydain books were “fantasy in the great tradition" and that “Each of the books is a complete chronicle in its own right — exciting, highly imaginative and sometimes profound.” Adam Bernstein in the WP obit writes:

Mr. Alexander wrote more than 40 books and is regarded as one of the best-known writers of juvenile fiction of the past several decades. He won over adult reviewers with cliff-hanging plots, stylish prose and believable characters that make his fanciful, long-ago settings seem plausible and relevant.

Essayist Laura Ingram, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, said the books have "the special depth and insight provided by characters who not only act, but think, feel and struggle with the same kinds of problems that confuse and trouble people in the twentieth century."

Alexander himself wrote that "In books for young people, I was able to express my own deepest feelings far more than I could ever do in writing for adults."

Certain books or films just grab you as a kid. I read the third book in the Prydain series, The Castle of Lyr, in one day over the summer, partially because I was eager to get to what I heard was the better, fourth book, Taran Wanderer. (Actually, I finished The Castle of Lyr after hours under my nightlight, horrible for my eyes I'm sure, but that's the magic of literature.)

I came to the real Tolkien late, at the age of twelve, when my sixth grade teacher assigned The Fellowship of the Ring, which I wound up loving. I was a bit surprised, because I had actually never read The Hobbit (apart from the "Riddles in the Dark" chapter in class), for peculiar reasons. Growing up, my brothers and I had a pretty large library of children's records, and one of them was for the Rankin-Bass animated film of The Hobbit, which only my older brother was allowed to stay up and watch when it debuted on TV because my younger brother and I were deemed too young. The Rankin-Bass Hobbit is a pretty crude job at times — the Battle of Five Armies at times cuts to a god's eye view of dots fighting. The album had a book of great stills from the film, though, and some of the voice work was quite good (John Huston made a great Gandalf, and Brother Theodore was a fantastic Gollum). However, their Bilbo Baggins came off as an insufferable goody-two-shoes. When I discovered that Tolkien was in fact wonderful, and Bilbo was far more interesting than Rankin-Bass had made him, I started reading The Hobbit concurrent with Fellowship. Although I knew the basic story already, it was great fun.

My mother is a librarian, who not long ago earned a Master's in Children's Literature (when I was a kid she read me The Magician's Nephew before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as some children's lit folks advocate). The D.C. area where I grew up is fantastic for book clubs, book readings and signings. My mother and several of her friends (many of them also librarians) would often go to hear children's authors. This means we have quite a few signed children's books around, but also that as kids we got advance copies of many books. It made for cool bragging rights at school to get a copy of Superfudge a week or so before the other kids. The one drawback was that I remember having to sit through the teacher reading us Superfudge in class after I'd already read it (but honestly, that happened all the time throughout elementary school). In any case, when Lloyd Alexander was coming to town, my mother asked me if there was a book I wanted signed, and I supplied my well-loved, slightly battered copy of The Black Cauldron, since it was my favorite book in the Prydain cycle (I've still never seen the Disney film, since I saw in the ads they'd made Gurgi into a happy, talking puppy thing). I knew that some people look askance at offering non-pristine copies at signings, but even as a kid I figured Lloyd Alexander would appreciate the gesture all the more. Reading through the obituaries and his writings, I'm pretty sure I was right.

The best children's authors, and best storytellers, just get the magic of it all. The National Council of Teachers of English once wrote that story is the fundamental unit of mind, and they're absolutely right (as many psychologists would agree). We think in stories, we organize facts into stories, and try to make sense of the world and our lives through stories. There's obviously a wonderful bond, gift and experience in a parent reading to his or her kid (and kids often allow adults to read to them when it's unnecessary, more to humor the adults or for the bond). There's also something very special about a kid diving into a book on his or her own, getting lost in a world, and allowing his or her individual imagination to fly away. I haven't read Alexander's books since I was a kid, but I'm tempted to pick them up again (and dig up an old book on Welsh mythology) to see how I react to them now. Still, I know Lloyd Alexander understood the magic. Here's his own words, in a brief piece titled, "On Fantasy":

When asked how to develop intelligence in young people, Einstein answered: "Read fairy tales. Then read more fairy tales." I can only add: Yes, and the sooner the better. Fairy tales and fantasies nourish the imagination. And imagination supports our whole intellectual and psychological economy. Not only in literature, music, and painting spring from the seedbed of imagination; but, as well, all the sciences, mathematics, philosophies, cosmologies. Without imagination, how could we have invented the wheel or the computer? Or toothpaste? Or nuclear weapons? Or speculate "What if—?" Or have any compassionate sense what it's like to live in another person's skin?

For me, writing fantasy for young people has surely been the most creative and liberating experience of my life. As a literary form, fantasy has let me express my own deepest feelings and attitudes about the world we're all obliged to live in.

A paradox? Creating worlds that never existed as a way to gain some kind of insight into a world that is very real indeed? The paradox is easily resolved. Whatever its surface ornamentation, fantasy that strives to reach the level of durable art deals with the bedrock of human emotions, conflicts, dilemmas, relationships. That is to say: the realities of life.

As adults, we know that life is a tough piece of business. Sometimes the most heroic thing we can do is get out of bed in the morning. I think it's just as tough for young people. On an emotional level, a child's anguish and a child's joy are as intense as our own. Young people recognize their own inner lives while they journey through a world completely imaginary.

I don't mean to imply that works of realism haven't the same profound effect on young readers. Of course they do. More often than not, however, realism tends to deal with material of immediate, current interest; with, to use a word much overused, what is relevant. All well and good. But there's a difference between what is relevant and what is merely topical. The topical goes away after a while, to be replaced by the next fashionable subject; the newest literary disease of the month, as it were. The best fantasy it seems to me, is permanently relevant. Because it deals metaphorically with basic human situations, it always has something to say to us. Also, I think that fantasy offers a certain vividness and high spiritedness unique to itself. We shouldn't underestimate the value of sheer fun, delight, and excitement. In any art, boredom is not a virtue.

Dealing with the impossible, fantasy can show us what may be really possible. If there is grief, there is the possibility of consolation; if hurt, the possibility of healing; and above all, the curative power of hope. If fantasy speaks to us as we are, it also speaks to us as we might be.

(I must pass on one warning. Lloyd Alexander wrote a book of short stories in the Prydain world called The Foundling to accompany the actual series. The stories give some nice background on the world and key characters, but do not read the short story "The Sword" before completing the Chronicles of Prydain, unless you want a major plot point spoiled in the final book, The High King.)

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