Sunday, May 15, 2011

On Lloyd Alexander

    Lloyd Alexander is my favorite author because his books, his language, his characters and the flow of his stories are all an inseparable part of me.
    I’ve been reading him for so long (starting at age 10), that rereading one of his books is like a return to childhood, but it’s not just nostalgia--I never stopped reading them. My first was The Iron Ring (I remember lying on my bed burning through the book while I was supposed to be practicing piano) and it remains my favorite, but after that first ‘gateway book’  I read every one of his novels that my library had on its shelves. From that first title to his lauded Prydain Chronicles and Westmark trilogy, to the somewhat-obscure The Town Cat and Other Stories and more recent works like The Rope Trick, his writing has accompanied me throughout much of my life.
    I use his language without even thinking about it anymore--his viewpoints and words he uses to convey that worldview have shaped the way I interact with the world. Ever since reading The Iron Ring, I’ve been using the word ‘dharma’ to refer to a rather involved and difficult-to-explain concept having to do with the way a certain person is supposed to act, a code of conduct, a set of morals and ethics and above all else, an intrinsic sense of the way one ought to act. The concept of dharma is based on the Indian idea of the same name, but Alexander probably puts his own spin on it rather than simply translating the idea, and it’s his version to which I refer. And in The Gawgon and the Boy, the titular boy privately thinks of his older sister’s group of girl friends as ‘the tulip garden’ because of their colorful hats, simple beauty and the way they seem to exist only in sets.
    Many of his supporting characters could easily star in his or her own stories. The Iron Ring’s Adi-Kavi was a lousy king’s crier who left his profession to live in an anthill, The Arkadians’ Joy-In-The-Dance was a nervous young soothsayer with a legendary but absent mother, and The Prydain Chronicles’ Fflewddur Fflam was a runaway king turned would-be bard whose magical harp always betrayed his self-aggrandizing lies.
    Alexander makes frequent use of literary archetypes: the hero, the sage, the noble warrior, the fool, the villain, the betrayer, and many others. Reading his books, you’ll run across many of these over and over. But each character is just that--a character, not a stereotype or merely a figure. These characters tend to be drawn with broad strokes, but nonetheless are real living breathing people with his or her own quirks, faults, virtues--and  personality traits that evoke entirely different archetypes. For example, The Arkadians’ Fronto the poet-turned-donkey is clearly the fool, yet at times he reminds me of Rajaswami, the wise teacher of The Iron Ring.
    His books can be serious and madcap, sometimes dealing mostly in one or the other but often balancing both. On one hand you have the nonstop wackiness of Gypsy Rizka with its town full of lovers and cheaters, family feuds and unexpected reunions, with crazy Rizka herself in the center of it all. On the other hand, you have the serious political uprising of Westmark, somewhat reminiscent of Les Miserables, with its band of freedom fighters, stories at the barricade, subtle psychological character nuances and hefty doses of tragedy. Examples of books that have a more even balance of both high spirits and serious thought include The Iron Ring, which has in its cast of characters some funny ones such as Hashkat the talking king of the monkeys, Garuda the hilariously-indignant and ever-bedraggled eagle, and Jamba-van, a wise hermit bear who likes to break crockery when he gets aggravated. The novel also has serious characters, such as hero king Tamar who chooses to honor a promise he made in a dream, Jaya the harsh foreign king to whom Tamar may or may not have sworn his life, the unnamed low-caste ‘untouchable’ man who teaches the young king about the nature of pride and compassion when Tamar is forced to work with him at the burning grounds of the dead, and the noble fugitive king Ashwara, who must fight the evil Nahusha to regain his rightful throne which his cousin has usurped, but swears to kill only Nahusha himself and not the man’s soldiers.
    Some of Lloyd Alexander’s best books have references to specific countries and cultural epics, without trying to be a work of historical fiction, or even retelling old myths. The Iron Ring is set in a land not unlike ancient India, and king Ashwara’s attempts to combine ethics with warfare evokes the actions of both warrior Arjuna and deity Krishna in the Indian epic ‘Mahabharata’. Certain aspects of the Prydain Chronicles may remind the reader of Welsh legends and the Mabinogian, while the culture in The Arkadians is reminiscent of  both ancient Greek and American Indian tales.
    Perhaps the best description of Lloyd Alexander’s writing philosophy is that by setting his stories in so many different countries and giving his characters so many different life paths, he desires to show us that no matter who we are, where we come from or how we live, we all have more to unite us than to pull us apart, we can celebrate our differences instead of squelching them in the name of unity, and love of all kinds, whether it be familial, romantic or platonic, has the power to bridge all divides. That kind of message stays with you for the rest of your life.

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