Thursday, July 25, 2013

The High King by Lloyd Alexander (1968)

The last book in a series is never my favorite; it's usually not the critic's favorite either.    The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis is the grand high example of this - the worst ending to a beloved series in all series-dom.  Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper is also pretty stinky, at least compared to The Dark Is Rising and Greenwitch (my favorite).  I also am not a huge fan of The Return of the King by J..R.R.Tolkien; in fact, I can distnictly remember starting and stopping that particular book many, many times.  I have a vision of the paperback stuck open in the back seat window of my parent's 1970s Ford, yellowing in the sun. Harry Potter and the Whatever similarly had some end of series issues (it was the Deathly Hallows but I had to go look that up, that's how memorable it was).  Return of the Jedi was the weakest in the three initial Star Wars until JarJar Binks and Co. came along.  

The High King suffers from last-in-the-series-itis as well.  It's not a bad book by any means; Lloyd Alexander doesn't write bad books.  But it doesn't have the mix of dark and humor found in the delightful The Black Cauldron; it doesn't have the adventuresome quality of The Castle of Llyr.  It's moving, but not soul searching, like Taran Wanderer.  Even The Book of Three is a more interesting book (although compared to Taran Wanderer, The Book of Three seems very immature).  The High King spends much time wrapping up loose ends.  It's like Alexander wanted a cameo for each beloved side character - Medwyn, the gwythaint; and there were some loose ends that needed to be tied up from Castle and Taran (Magg, Dorath).  The entire plot, of all the books, seems to be the most derivative of The Lord of the Rings, although I still think the argument can be made that Tolkien and Alexander were drawing water from similar, if not the same, wells.  Arawn and Annuvin are much, much too similar to Sauron and Mordor, except Tolkien has thousands of pages and a gargantuan backstory that develops the character of Sauron and the Mordor setting.  Alexander's Annuvin doesn't feel anywhere as near developed and flushed out.  Arawn  never ripens into the rich evil of Sauron; the Cauldron Born and Huntsmen similarly are great ideas but never have any depth to them (although orcs and trolls don't have much more depth).  Alexander introduces at least one new character, Pryderi, who reminded me too much of at least two other Alexander bad guys from books past - the Horned King and Morgant).  That's another end-of-series problem; the plots are often re-workings of earlier plots, and never quite as successfully.

All good things must come to an end though, and The Chronicles of Prydain are no exception. Some people like neverending stories, but I'm not one of those people.  A series with five or six books is quite enough (Harry Potter is maybe the exception?).  Like The Lord of the Rings, Prydain  has some backstory published in another book (in this case, a book of short stories).  But that's enough.   The High King isn't great or award winning (oh snap - it did win a Newbery Honor; must have been a slowwww year), but it ties up some loose ends, and leaves much to the reader's imagination.  And that's good.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
All good things must come to end, and The Chronicles of Prydain is no exception.  The High King,if not great, is satisfying.  All the beloved characters are back for one last adventure, including some cameos; loose ends from previous books are tied up (some a little clumsily).  Funny how the last book in some series are usually at best ho-hum (and at worst, The Last Battle).  The High King is missing some of the quirky humor of previous books.  And this book in particular, of all the books in the series, seems highly derivative of The Lord of the Rings.  Although I would argue that Tolkien and Alexander are drawing water from the same well, it's still quite obvious that Arawn and Annuvin are Welsh stand-ins for Sauron and Mordor, and not as fully flushed out stand-ins at that.  All that said, some people like reading neverending series.  I'm not one of those people.  The High King isn't great or award winning, (oh snap - it did win a Newbery Honor!  Must have been a slowwwww year) but it ends nicely and exactly where it should, leaving the reader to daydream about the further (marriage?) adventures  of Taran and Eilonwy. And that's fine with me.  


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