Old Friends - Taran, Eilonwy, Vesper, The Arkadians and The Beggar Queen
I spent Thursday evening at a local book store, filming students from our Orchestra performing at a fund-raising event. While I was there, I had a good coversation with a young author /artist friend and fellow tribal member. She enjoys writing, but is not so keen at performing (the other event going on was
a poetry slam of sorts). That's OK. Being creative is largely its own reward. Monetary rewards (except perhaps in Paolini's case) can sometimes take a while. Such was the case with Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007), who vowed, at age 15, that he was going to be a writer, and went on to become an award-winning American author. He certainly found his niche in life - a very important niche - explaining important things about life in ways that a child could understand (my apologies to Ron Nyswaner).
After military service in Europe at the end of World War II, Lloyd studied in Paris, married his wife Janine, and returned to the U.S. to write. And he wrote, and he wrote, and he wrote, and he submitted manuscripts to publishers and was rejected time and again. It was ten years before one of his books was published (obviously he did other things to make a living) and seventeen years before he found out that his true skill was in targeting a younger audience. His first success, as Anne Lamott or Stephen King would would predict, came when he began to 'write what you know' - he wrote about his job and his relationship with his wife. Alexander really found his voice, however when he shifted from writing about the here and now, to writing in fantasy worlds of his own creation, and when he began writing for a younger audience.
Alexander wrote his fantasy novels using simple but striking images and well developed characters to tell entertaining and captivating stories whose subtext included lessons on the value of loyalty, patience, diligence, bravery, curiosity, and tolerance. Alexander's adolescent novels often used simplified or re-interpreted versions of familiar story lines from history, mythology and folklore as the context for these lessons, and did so in ways that rang true to the original in a manner that present-day authors often seem unable to grasp. He was an awesome storyteller. If I remember correctly, in The Arkadians his Odysseus character re-tells the trojan war in perhaps three pages without seeming rushed.
His best-known books are a story that is very similar, in many respects, to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, but aimed at a younger audence. The Prydain Chronicles, which won two Newberry Awards, have many plot and character parallels with Middle Earth, but call heavily upon Welsh and Greek mythology. The three Fates play a significant role, for example, as does the Book of Three, in which the characters' lives and fates are, in a sense already written. The Welsh background, by the way, comes from the time Alexander spent in Wales during his military training.
As I mentioned, Alexander decided to become a writer at age 15 after reading Dickens and Shakespeare. Not an obvious choice for the son of a stockbroker whose parents did not like to read even though, according to an interview cited in his obituary in the Washington Post, "...they had lots of books. They bought them at the Salvation Army to fill up empty shelves."
Like his characters Taran and Eilonwy, he and Janine had a long and happy life together, living in suburban Philadelphia, and both passing away within a few weeks of each other in 2007. He received two National Book Awards and authored some 40 books, the last published after his death at 83.