Welcome to the first of this blog’s reading recommendations! In keeping with the theme of the month, each 3rd Friday, I’ll bring you a book that really shows off a certain aspect of storytelling that writers can learn from. Is this just a thinly veiled excuse for me to ramble about my favorite books? Absolutely. But there is something to be said for learning from other authors, so today, I’ll be sharing experts from The Chronicles of Prydain to show how Lloyd Alexander uses voice to introduce his colorful cast of characters. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s a pentology of children’s high fantasy books that follow the life of a young man named Taran, an assistant-pig-keeper who stumbles into adventures where he helps protect his country from the evil forces of Arawn Death Lord.
Summary and excerpts will be included to give context to the characters being introduced, but I will do my best to keep these posts spoiler free as possible, so that way if you like them and want to go read the books for yourself without knowing the end, you can. In the first book of the series, The Book of Three, the reader is introduced to Taran with this scene:
Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long. Taran’s arms ached, soot blackened his face. At last he dropped the hammer and turned to Coll, who was watching him critically.
“Why?” Taran cried. “Why must it be horseshoes? As if we had any horses!”
Coll was stout and round and his great bald head glowed bright pink. “Lucky for the horses,” was all he said, glancing at Taran’s handiwork.
“I could do better at making a sword,” Taran protested. “I know I could.” And before Coll could answer, he snatched the tongs, flung a strip of red-hot iron to the anvil, and began hammering away as fast as he could.The Book of Three, Chapter 1, page 3
From the first lines, we learn a few important elements of Taran’s character: he romanticizes warriors and wants to make a sword so he can be a hero like them, he’s a simple farmboy who needs to learn how to labor, and he’s enthusiastic, if a bit reckless. His language is also simple and straightfoward – unlike some of the other more flowery or eloquent speaking characters who you meet later in the story – which makes him a grounded and relatable main character. Who hasn’t daydreamed while doing a boring difficult task?
Soon after we’re introduced to Taran and Coll, the reader meets the other residents of their little farm, Dallben, an ancient sorcerer, and the oracular pig, Henwen, who’s just escaped from her pigpen. Oops. Taran goes chasing her down, only to unluckily run across riders of the Horned King – one of the warlords of Arawn. When he comes to, he finds himself being cared for by a strange man who’s kneeling beside him, holding out a flask.
“Drink,” he said. “Your strength will return in a moment.”
The stranger had the shaggy, gray streaked hair of a wolf. His eyes were deep-set, flecked with green. Sun and wind had leathered his broad face, burnt it dark and grained it with fine lines. His cloak was course and travel-stained. A wide belt with an intricately wrought buckle circled his waist.
“Drink,” The stranger said again, while Taran took the flask dubiously. “You look as though I were trying to poison you.” He smiled. “It is not thus that Gwydion Son of Don deals with a wounded…”
“Gwydion!” Taran choked on the liquid and stumbled to his feet.The Book of Three, Chapter 2, page 16
And thus we meet the greatest warlord in all of Prydain, dressed in common traveling clothes and acting as babysitter and nurse. From the confidence, language (“it is not thus”), title drop, (and Taran’s helpful exposition in the next paragraphs), we learn that Gwydion is a distinguished prince and great leader. From his physical description, we learn that he’s also used to roughing it on his own, not demanding pomp because of his station. From his kindness to Taran and knowledge of medicine, he also learn that he’s compassionate and somewhat stern.
As Gwydion and Taran start traveling together, it doesn’t take long for our impulsively courageous young protagonist to encounter the next member of the party when he dives face first into a thorn bush after a weird sound. That sound turns out to be Gurgi, a creature that’s somewhere between man and beast, with twigs matted in his hair and smelling of wet wolfhound. When Gwydion scolds them both for being reckless, this is his response:
“O mighty prince,” the creature wailed, “Gurgi is sorry; and now he will be smacked on his poor, tender head by the strong hands of this great lord, with fearsome smackings and whackings…”
” I have no intention of smacking your poor tender head,” said Gwydion. “But I may change my mind if you do not leave off that whining and sniveling.”
“Yes, powerful lord!” Gurgi cried “See how he obeys rapidly and instantly!” He began crawling around on hands and knees with great agility. Had Gurgi owned a tail, Taran was sure he would have wagged it frantically.
“Then,” Gurgi pleaded, “The two strengthful heroes will give Gurgi something to eat? Oh joyous crunchings and munchings!”The Book of Three, Chapter 3, pages 26-27
Gurgi has one of the most distinctive voices in the book and I love him for it. The third person, the couplet rhymes, the whining combined with well-intentioned action, and as we see later, the enthusiasm for doing what he can to help his friends, make him such a memorable and endearing character. He’s stuck between very simple motivations like food and comfort, and wanting the wisdom to be part of something bigger than he is and his language reflects that in an earnest childish sort of way.
After they meet Gurgi, the protagonists go through several misadventures and when we meet the next of the main cast, Taran is stuck in a dungeon. A small golden ball drops through the grating, followed by a girl with bright blue eyes.
“Please,” said a girl’s voice, light and musical, “my name is Eilonwy and if you don’t mind, would you throw my bauble to me? I don’t want you to think I’m a baby, playing with a silly bauble, because I’m not; but sometimes there’s absolutely nothing to do around here and it slipped out of my hands when I was tossing it…”
“Little girl,” Taran interrupted, “I don’t…”
“But I am not a little girl,” Eilonwy protested. “Haven’t I just finished telling you? Are you slow-witted? I’m so sorry for you. It’s terrible to be dull and stupid. What’s your name?” she went on. “It makes me feel funny not knowing someone’s name. Wrong footed, you know, as if I had three thumbs on one hand, if you see what I mean. It’s clumsy.”The Book of Three, Chapter Six, page 50-51
And as their conversation continues, later we get this proper introduction…
I am Eilonwy, Daughter of Anharad, Daughter of Regat, Daughter of – oh, it’s such a bother going through all that. My ancestors,” she said proudly, “are the Sea People. I am of the blood of Llyr Half-Speech, the Sea King.”The Book of Three, Chapter Six, page 55
Right away, we’re struck by her talkativeness and the long, somewhat rambly sentences. She’s a girl who says exactly what’s she’s thinking, and no less, which can lead to her being blunt with poor tied-up Taran, but she also starts by saying “please” and introducing herself politely, as if she’s been trained to do that before going off. We also find out later that she is, indeed, a princess, and was probably raised to be formal, even though she has a hard time controlling her tongue. She also has a penchant for speaking in simile, which is a really fun verbal mannerism that none of the other characters use and shows her cleverness for coming up with such analogies on the spot. She’s a friendly but awkward girl, and her contrast with Taran makes for some entertaining conversations and interactions throughout the series.
There’s dozens of other characters I could mention that come up throughout the books, but either because of spoilers or the fact that this article is already ridiculously long, I’m going to include an honorable mentions section instead to give you a taste of the variety of characters and voices Lloyd Alexander writes over the course of the series.
- Fflewddur Fflam – an “unofficial” bard and who consistently adds a little color to the truth, and each time he exaggerates, his harp strings snap. Catchphrases include “Great Belin!” and “A Fflam is [adjective], but this situation is ridiculous!” First appears in The Book of Three.
- Doli – a gruff dwarf who fits the “jerk with a heart of gold” trope. Catchphrase is”numbskulls and idiots!” as he bails his friends out of a sticky situation. First appears in The Book of Three.
- Gwystyl – another one of the Fair Folk, who tries to get out of confrontation by apologizing, excusing, and saying good bye dozens of times in a single conversation. First appears in The Black Cauldron.
- Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch – three enchantresses who are kindly threatening, calling the heroes “ducklings” and inviting them into their cottage at the same time implying they might eat them. First appears in The Black Cauldron.
- Prince Rhun – an optimistic and slightly inept noble who greets everyone with a friendly “Hullo! Hullo!” whether they be friend or foe. First appears in The Castle of Llyr.
- Queen Teleria – Rhun’s mother, tasked with the practical side of Eilonwy’s education, who interrupts herself to correct the younger girl on the finer points of being a lady before picking up right where her sentence left off to continue what she was saying. First appears in The Castle of Llyr.
Thanks for reading! I hope this case study could be helpful for you if you’re trying to develop your own skill in writing distinct character voices and clever introductions. Have you read the Chronicles of Prydain? If so, who’s your favorite character? If you haven’t, what’s another story with great character voice you love? Here’s your free excuse to ramble about your favorite books like I did 😉