A few months ago, my dad and I were talking about our favorite books. At one point he said, “I wish there was something between Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.” We talked a bit about that, about how dense J.R.R. Tolkien’s LotR is, and how brisk C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are; how Narnia is a great way to interest young minds in fantasy while Tolkien is for the seasoned veterans.
Both are favorites of ours and highly recommended, but they are the extreme ends of the fantasy spectrum. One series is made to be accessible for children in a series of shorter, easier reads, and the other is a hefty tome that amounts to an undertaking even for experienced adult readers.
I decided that the middle ground had to exist somewhere, and in the back of my mind I recalled reading–and enjoying–the first book in Lloyd Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles. That seemed like a good starting place, and I started with Prydain’s first book, The Book of Three.
Standing on its own, The Prydain Chronicles was a wonderful experience. But more striking to me is just how well it sits somewhere between Lewis and Tolkien’s fantasy epics.
On the surface, the middle ground is surprisingly literal. Narnia sports seven books, Prydain five, and The Lord of the Rings three (okay, LotR’s is debatable, but you get the point). The word counts show a similar connection: Narnia checks in at 238,080, Prydain at 351,540, and the LotR at 481,103, putting Prydain close to the middle.
That word count becomes apparent in the writing styles of the three series. Narnia is low on detail and accessible to all ages. Prydain delivers more grown-up writing that aims more for preteens and young teens. And LotR, of course, is a detailed volume that sits amongst fantasy’s heaviest hitters.
Going a little deeper, Prydain checks of all the “fantasy genre” marks just like the other two. Evil forces are threatening the world, and unexpected, naive heroes are called upon to be more than they ever thought. The usual tropes are there: fantastic beings, magic, ancient artifacts, demonic enemies bent on destruction.
Like LotR, Prydain follows more-or-less the same cast through its multiple volumes. But like Narnia, each Prydain book is its own self-contained adventure (with some references and connections to the others). Prydain, both in terms of cast and storyline, is a little more consistently-comical than LotR but takes more serious turns than Narnia typically does.
Analyzing all three sets of protagonists, it’s almost as if each author tackles the challenges belonging to the next stage of growing up. Lewis’s young heroes are curious and brave, wary and scared. Alexander’s protagonists are teenagers who dream of adventure, excitement, and glorious battles; of becoming respected, responsible adults. Tolkien’s are adults who understand just what responsibility means and the cost of glory, but still strive to do what must be done.
Of course, nothing is ever a perfect middle ground. Prydain doesn’t quite reach for that deeper spirituality of Lewis and Tolkien. To be fair, that was never Alexander’s intent: Prydain sprang from clearly-passionate love and desire to play within Welsh mythology.
Yet while Lewis’s aims with Narnia are clear, Tolkien did not set out to write a Christian work with The Lord of the Rings, nor did he claim an intended allegory: it sprang naturally from Tolkien’s own Catholic background. Similarly, Alexander acknowledges his own Christianity flowing necessarily into Prydain, both unconsciously and even consciously through some overt Biblical references. It’s no surprise then that the characters and the overarching morality are no less admirable than Lewis and Tolkien’s.
And if you’re a fan of Lewis or Tolkien and need any further push toward Prydain, Alexander openly acknowledged his debt to both authors:
“Like his fellow genius, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis has redefined the nature of fantasy, adding richness beauty, and dimension… In our times, every fantasy realm must be measured in comparison with Narnia.”
It’s through that understanding and acknowledgement that Prydain is manages bits and pieces of both Narnia and Middle Earth, yet is solidly its own, unique adventure. If you’re hoping for something between Lewis and Tolkien, or just looking for some classic fantasy, Prydain is an excellent choice.
Fantasy Adventures Volume 1: Five Short Stories of Humor, Love, and War is out now for 99¢!