1969: The High King (Pig-Keepers Make Great Kings)


Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

The High King, Lloyd Alexander’s 1969 Newbery Medal Winner, is the fifth and final book in the Pyrdain Chronicles. The series is a classic high fantasy tale which tracks Taran from childhood into the adult world. While Taran is technically titled Assistant Pig-Keeper, he has experience working at many trades. In the course of The High King, he primarily functions as warrior. Along with his companions, Taran seeks to prevent Arawn, the Dark Lord (ok, maybe not of that exactly title, but same difference), from taking over the world. About half the companions die along the way, generally in battle. They succeed in defeating Arawn, but learn that his defeat mean that those descended of Don must leave for another world? reality? Eilonwy, Taran’s beloved, is among those who must leave, until she uses her one wish to renounce any magical ability. Taran and Eilonwy live happily ever after, repairing all the shit that Arawn destroyed. The end. Or, in Alexander’s words, “Thus did an Assistant Pig-Keeper become High King of Pyrdain.”

Basically, just read Lord of the Rings instead. The similarities between the Pyrdain Chronicles and LOTR probably derive from the shared mythology on which they’re based, but LOTR storytelling is much more nuanced and less cliched. Alexander uses so many of the tropes of high fantasy that the whole thing very nearly reads as satire. Fair Folk/elves? Check. Magic wielders, both benevolent and baleful? Check. Lots of warriors who die in battle, some of who enact betrayals? Check. Woman depicted as unknowable to man? Check. It’s got it all!

In all fairness, this is a decent enough high fantasy series for the intended age range. I do remember enjoying the series when I was a wee one. Unlike many children/young adults, where everything works out happily, many of the characters developed across the series are offed swiftly and brutally in the final book. Death is senseless as often as heroic. Alexander does justice to the female characters; Eilonwy rides into battle with Taran and aids their quest as much as he. Taran faces a tough choices at the end: whether to give up Eilonwy to serve the kingdom or to abandon his oath and need to bring healing and life back to ravaged areas. Of course, it all works out in the end, but for a whole paragraph, the reader thinks Taran might not “win”.

While I have no plans to reread this, The High King is a respectable high fantasy novel. For those kids who’ve already chugged through the more modern fantasy series and are groping for something else to read, I’d recommend this, obviously starting with the first book.


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