The Book of Three...Lloyd Alexander...Dell
The Black Cauldron...Lloyd Alexander...Dell
The Castle of Llyr...Lloyd Alexander...Dell
Taran Wanderer...Lloyd Alexander...Dell
The High King...Lloyd Alexander...Dell
A Wrinkle in Time...Madeleine L'Engle...Dell
A Wind in the Door...Madeleine L'Engle...Dell
A Swiftly Tilting Planet...Madeleine L'Engle...Dell
Many Waters...Madeleine L'Engle...Dell
An Acceptable Time...Madeleine L'Engle...Dell
We're dealing with two series of books today. Both were printed by Dell. Both have had volumes that won awards (The High King and A Wrinkle in Time got the Newberry Award). Both had their premiere volumes made into disappointing films (The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron were squeezed into the most forgotten Disney animated movie ever made, while Wrinkle got a made-for-TV adaptation).
Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles (as is the series over-all name) deals with the life and adventures of Taran, a foundling boy, who begins life as a pig-tender and ends up as King of Prydain. These are good books; I enjoyed reading them, and sought out any related stuff, like The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain. But if the series suffers from any drawbacks it is that it is too perfect, too architecturally complete. There is little wiggle room for the imagination, all mysteries are explained; all the characters, admirable in themselves, learn their due lessons and fulfill their destinies. In the end, magic goes away and the heroes must use the lessons they've learned in real life, yadda yadda yadda. The series ends, not with triumph or the sense of doors opening up to elsewhere, but with weariness, drabness, and the prospect of hard labors to come. Realistic, perhaps, but hardly satisfying.
Madeleine L'Engle's "cosmic" books, on the other hand, are not so much one long tale (except insomuch as all history is one long tale) as it is episodes in the lives of members of the Murray family, and they are as full of mysteries and open doors and wide vistas as anyone could ask for. In the end Meg Murray and her family have to use the stuff they've learned in "real life" as well, but we are left with the feeling that the "magic" hasn't gone away when they are done; it is rather where it has always been, close by, hidden, welling up and out and there if we need it.
In the end, I think the difference between these two sets of books comes down to belief. Alexander builds his world almost like a model train. It is cunning, and crafted, and fascinating, and runs around the tracks as it is designed to do. As such, it is an admirable work of fun, but I don't think Alexander ever actually believes in it. L'Engle grows her books like a garden, though, and they are full of fruits and flowers whose seeds were gathered from afar, in eclectic, uneven growth, but full of nourishment and pleasure. L'Engle believes in her garden; at least, she has faith in what she has sown. And these are qualities and differences I do not think I would ever have realized if it weren't for their chance proximity on my bookshelves.