Wednesday, September 28, 2011
September 28, 2011: Wandering, Marvelous, American (!) Misadventures
I knew when I created this blog that defining the focus in the way that I did meant I’d have to leave out some of the authors, artists, and works that have meant the most to me; and while I did find a way to include Alistair MacLean and Christopher Nolan in my Valentine’s Day special, and Midnight Oil in that recent transnational post, the fact remains that this is an AmericanStudies blog, and so I can’t start writing at length about Agatha Christie and Wilkie Collins, or C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (to cite four of the authors who most influenced my literary and imaginative tastes and ideas as they developed), without losing my raison d’etre (he said in heavily accented French). Up until a day or two ago I would have sadly consigned one of my very favorite young adult and fantasy novelists, Lloyd Alexander, to the same off-limits category—but then I found out that he was in fact born and raised (and lived most of his life) in Drexel Hill, just outside of Philadelphia, and that his often European-feeling (and specifically at times Welsh-mythologly-inspired) fantasy novels and worlds were the result of his World War II training and service overseas. So Alexander is not only an American writer, but a transnational and cross-cultural one at that, making him just about the perfect blog subject after all.
Alexander is best known for the Chronicles of Prydain, a five-book high fantasy epic that he originally published in the 1960s; the final book, The High King (1968), won the 1969 Newbery Medal, and the series only gained in prominence a couple decades later with the 1985 release of the Disney film based on the (Newbery-nominated) second book, The Black Cauldron (1965). Certainly all five works do a remarkable job balancing fantastic worlds and characters with deeply universal themes, and are laced with Alexander’s wry and engaging sense of humor despite the unquestionably evil and threatening adversaries. Yet the volume that most impacted this young AmericanStudier, the fourth book Taran Wanderer (1967), was also the least seemingly crucial to the series as a whole; two of the three main characters do not appear, neither (to my memory) does the chief villain or his henchmen, and the book focuses on the hero Taran’s personal quest to discover more about his heritage and the world around him. Maybe if I had been reading the series as the books were released I would have been frustrated with this detour from the main plotline—but without that issue, I could appreciate Wanderer for what it is, which is one of the most powerfully intimate and reflective works on identity, family, and young adulthood I’ve ever read. Taran can’t fight, and definitely can’t hope to win, the high-stakes battles until he follows that wandering journey through to its crucial endpoints—and who among us can?
I don’t know that Alexander wrote a better or more significant book than Wanderer, but I’ll freely and gladly admit that my personal favorite of his books (among many very worthwhile choices) is a stand-alone novel, The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian (1970). Sebastian won a National Book Award, so it’s not exactly right to call it underappreciated or –read, but at the same time I don’t know that it has maintained a significant place in our cultural consciousness. And man should it—not only because its tale of a wayward musician and a runaway princess and their flight away from a tyrannical ruler and into all sorts of, yes, marvelous misadventures is one of the funniest and most engaging reads any young (or old) adult could hope for; but also because it makes, in an entirely subtle and non-preachy and thoroughly convincing way, the best possible case for Alexander’s belief (as he put it in the 1969 Newbery acceptance speech) that “an openness to compassion, love, and mercy is as essential to us here and now as it is to any inhabitant of an imaginary kingdom.” The importance of that belief is not, of course, any more specific to America than is Sebastian’s imaginary homeland—but I have to think that Alexander’s specifically American identity and experiences, from his childhood in Philly to his World War II service to all that followed, informed his perspective and voice and the fantastic yet profoundly grounded novels they produced.
And yeah, I’m just excited to be able to claim Lloyd as a favorite American writer. What can I say, we AmerianStudiers like that kind of thing. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Alexander’s 2007 Times obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/19/arts/19alexander.html
2) A great (three-part) YouTube tribute to Alexander: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jln9VPoP3Tw
3) OPEN: Any hugely influential writers (American or not) you’d highlight from your own life?