I don’t know if you want to read about how Lloyd Alexander constructed emotional transformation for his characters, but I wrote a paper fanboying about it last fall. I don’t want to fall out of the habit of posting something, even if I’m too busy to write a new post, so I’ll share that paper with you instead. I’m not sure how well the formatting has survived the transition. It looks legible from where I sit. Cross the vast gap of this break to enjoy it.
Learning from Emotional Journeys in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain
I cherished Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain as a child, with the first book read to me by my oldest brother and the rest read on my own as I grew older. Alexander’s characters, and especially the central character Taran, grow and learn over the course of the books; they often internalize some particular lesson by the end, which helps them to resolve their original quest and bring the tale to a close. But, because it is an area in which I feel I lack expertise, I’m particularly interested in seeing how the characters grow and change emotionally. This paper will explore those emotional journeys, as well as other ways in which I believe I can learn from Alexander’s work.
First of all, what do I mean by an emotional journey, and why might fiction have them? My definition of an emotional journey grows from the distinctions Dunne draws between story and plot. It’s worth noting that Dunne uses the term ‘story’ in a more specific fashion than I generally do, though I’ll try to use his definition to avoid confusion. Specifically, he argues that while plot “provides the action” to a piece, a story is “what [plot] does to the who it happens to” (10). As such, stories (unlike plots) are fundamentally about reaction and emotion. They are about characters uncovering unknown truths, and:
“As each of these epiphanies takes place, the hero becomes stronger for it. This is a new strength he uses to forge ahead, and eventually, to forge a victory. His victory is usually the climax to the plot. Afterwards, his understandings of the changes that took place within him creates the [piece’s] resolution” (11).
Thus Dunne argues that stories have emotional change and transformation in order to provide the central climax and resolution of their encompassing tale, by which I mean the overarching fiction composed of both plot and story combined. This facilitates the creation of a narrative progression, giving a sense of development and momentum to what might otherwise be a stagnant piece of fiction.
Thus, I define emotional journeys as the progressive emotional transformation of a character from the beginning to the end of a piece of fiction, literally the emotional trail blazed by a character over the course of a story. Emotional journeys allow readers to access emotional states, observe decisions, and see otherwise incomprehensible transformations without having to experience them themselves. Emotional journeys also give a sense of narrative progress to character changes, such that those changes do not necessarily seem unexpected and alienating. And, of course, these emotional journeys are the fuel of the story, providing emotional climaxes and resolutions as well as often offering moments of epiphany to the characters involved.
Having defined emotional journeys, the texts that I will be examining are The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, and Taran Wanderer, the first, second, and fourth books of The Chronicles of Prydain. I’ve skipped the third book The Castle of Llyr because of my limited time frame rather than due to any lack of merit. I start from the beginning of the series to show the greatest development of the characters, and chose to use Taran Wanderer instead of The Castle of Llyr because it explicitly focuses on Taran’s personal and emotional journey and as such demands inclusion in my analysis.
The Book of Three is built around a whole slew of changes that happen to Taran and Gurgi, as well as others who will not be examined here. Because this is the only book in which Gurgi undergoes significant change, I’ll look at his emotional journey first.
For Gurgi, The Book of Three begins with fear and ends with courage. Perhaps better put, at the beginning Gurgi doesn’t value himself highly; it is only through his time with Taran and the other adventurers that he comes to see himself as someone who might contribute to the cause, or even take part in battle. The first things we see Gurgi do, after he fails to ambush Taran near the start of the book, are all extremely submissive. Case in point, the moment that Gwydion calls him out for having attacked Taran, Gurgi “set up a loud and piteous whining, rolled his eyes, and beat the ground with his palms.” After Gwydion describes Gurgi as “not half as ferocious as he looks, nor a quarter as fierce as he should like to be, and more a nuisance than anything else” Gurgi abases himself before Gwydion and Taran: “‘O mighty prince,’ the creature wailed, ‘Gurgi is sorry; and now he will be smacked on his poor, tender head by the strong hands of this great lord, with fearsome smackings. Yes, yes, that is always the way of it with poor Gurgi. But what honor to be smacked by the greatest of warriors’” (26-7)!
He continues in this vein for some time, and firmly establishes himself as subordinate to nearly everyone else he meets by cowering before them and praising their strength. It quickly becomes clear that he’s terrified of physical confrontation and threats. As Gwydion sums up, “[H]e is not bad at heart… He would love to be wicked and terrifying, though he cannot quite manage it. He feels so sorry for himself that it is hard not to be angry with him. But there is no use in doing so” (29). Early on, when Gurgi is accosted by Taran for fleeing from battle, he replies, “What else can unhappy Gurgi do? He is sorry to see great warriors in distress, oh, tears of misery! But in battle, what would there be for poor Gurgi except hurtful guttings and cuttings of his throat” (81)? Gurgi is rewarded for his scouting, however, and tries to continue scouting and spying for the party as they travel.
This goes well until he suffers an accident and badly hurts his leg, at which point he is so frightened of his fate that he begs Taran to kill him rather than leaving him for the enemies that pursue them (100). When Taran refuses and instead saves him, he is profusely grateful; Gurgi even goes so far as to offer up his meager portion of food to Taran, when his obsession with food has been the only thing more constant than his cowardice up to this point (101). When he is soon thereafter told to flee another coming fight while others remain as a rearguard, he protests, preferring to stay with his companions who saved him even though he’s still injured (103). But it isn’t until the party is nearly drowned and assaulted by the Fair Folk that Gurgi begins to come into his own, as he not only rescues the party and fights off a number of dwarves, but finds the oracular pig they’ve been seeking all along (142). From there on out, Gurgi grows into his sense of self-worth and heroism, and is even eager to do battle alongside his friends (161).
By the end of the novel, Gurgi is indeed terrifying to his foes. He rejoices in this, saying, “What joy! What clashings and smashings! Ferocious Gurgi fills wicked warriors with awful terror and outcries.” He even describes himself as “valiant.” What’s more, his account is validated by the bard who is unable to tell lies without his harp giving him away: “It’s true … He was the bravest of us all” (174).
How, then, does Alexander bring about this change? He makes Gurgi’s emotional journey a very externalized process, with each step along the way shown through action and interaction rather than introspection. Scenes, or small sections of scenes, are dedicated to showcasing the emotional state of Gurgi, sometimes leaving it up to the audience to provide closure and reflect on the changes: for example, as when facing the dwarves his loyalty and desire to help triumph over his previous cowardice. Since the narration never gives Gurgi’s perspective, all of his emotional states, and thus all of the changes to his emotional states, have to be shown more explicitly through his words and actions.
Taran’s emotional journeys, on the other hand, are a mixture of external and internal processes. Unlike Gurgi, Taran is a focal character, and as such the reader is privy to more detail about his personal thoughts and reactions, creating the possibility of seeing internal processes for Taran where such was impossible with Gurgi. Also, as a focal character, Taran is often set a more explicit lesson than any other character is, with the book providing the tale of his progression towards learning that lesson. Yet despite the mix of internal and external, Alexander’s style remains much the same; Taran’s changes still come about through action and interaction, even though we are given a slightly more information about his internal state due to his position as a focal character. In fact, it seems that the only difference between the process of Taran’s emotional journey and that of Gurgi’s is the reader’s access to Taran’s thoughts and epiphanies. And even there, those thoughts and epiphanies are almost always realized through externalization. Taran’s recognition of his fallibility at the end of The Book of Three is an excellent example of this, and the pattern repeats in both of the other novels examined.
At the beginning of The Book of Three Taran is quintessentially immature; he is profoundly inexperienced, yet eager to take part in what he sees as great undertakings and adult activity. Perhaps more importantly, he often refuses to acknowledge or is unwilling to admit his own lack of experience, and he resents being held back by his domestic life (8). He rapidly gets himself into mortal danger (15), misjudges others (16), and misjudges his own capabilities (19-20). His travel companion Gwydion goes so far as to comment on this, saying when Taran shares an idea, “that has been, so far, your only sensible suggestion” (30). When he is castigated for not sharing that he couldn’t swim before he and Gwydion forded a river, he defends himself: “‘I was sure I could learn,’ Taran protested, ‘as soon as I came to do it.’” Gwydion’s reply is succinct, and forms the crux of Taran’s lesson for the book: “You must learn to answer for your own folly,” (32).
It takes some time for Taran to internalize this. He reacts violently when he first confronts the results of his own miscommunication, and has to be talked down before he finally recognizes his own mistake and apologizes (74-77). Even after this, he still hasn’t learned to pay attention to the others around him, remaining totally wrapped up in himself and unwilling to see things from others’ perspectives (79-81). It isn’t until he and his companions are straggling in flight from enemy forces and Gurgi is injured that he starts to show more forethought and compassion (100). But, after further reflection, he begins to internalize the lesson and assume responsibility for the problems that he’s created. As he says after leading them astray into the realm of the Fair Folk, “I’m sorry … I admit we are here through my fault. I should not have followed this path, but what’s done is done. I led us here, and I’ll find a way out” (134). In fact, if anything, Taran may learn his lesson too well. He becomes angry with himself for his own failings, agreeing with the comments of others: “I’ve done the wrong thing again, as usual, … Doli is right. There’s no difference between a fool and an Assistant Pig-Keeper” (159).
Taran’s emotional journey in The Book of Three is resolved as he acknowledges his fallibility to Dallben, his adoptive father. “I have no just cause for pride,” he says, listing the accomplishments that he and his companions achieved and giving the credit to everyone but himself. He finishes, “As for me, what I mostly did was make mistakes” (185). Following Dunne’s model, Taran has revealed a series of truths about himself, or come to a deeper understanding of himself, and has learned almost exactly what Gwydion told him to learn: he now recognizes his own folly.
The Black Cauldron and Taran Wanderer follow almost exactly the same pattern for Taran’s emotional journeys as was established in The Book of Three. His emotional journey is inextricably linked to his deeper learning: a lesson is established early on in the tale, and his emotional transformation revolves around him coming to recognize the truth of that lesson for himself. In both books this means being presented with the lesson multiple times in multiple forms until he finally internalizes the lesson and states what he has learned.
In The Black Cauldron the primary lesson deals with a headlong pursuit of honor, and with the problem of having a limited view of what honor or courage could be. There is a secondary lesson, about the nature of what the book terms “the world of men,” though that could just as easily be termed “the world of adults.” I’ll cover that second, in less detail.
The Black Cauldron opens with Taran still as “touchy and headstrong” as he had been in The Book of Three (TBoT 181). Many of the conversations of the book revolve around honor and courage, and Taran begins the story with a narrow, defensive, and prickly sense of what courage means (TBC 21) and a very vulnerable sense of his own honor (6, 35). He has a particularly hard time working alongside Ellidyr, an arrogant princeling with little more than rank to his name (20, 30), perhaps because Ellidyr has a similarly narrow view of courage and honor and is obsessed with protecting and improving his own reputation. It’s worth noting, however, that Taran’s emotional journey of The Book of Three has not been erased; he recognizes when he makes mistakes, though he still makes them (32).
Taran’s lesson in The Black Cauldron is delivered by multiple people; Gwydion implies that courage and honor can take other forms than the narrow view Taran holds, as he suggests when he finishes his description of their perilous quest by saying, “Should you choose to return to your cantrevs, I will not deem your courage less” (17). Adaon, the initial leader of Taran’s group of questors, says it even more plainly: “I have learned that there is greater honor in a field well plowed than in a field steeped in blood” (27). Taran, of course, takes some time to recognize these things. Even having heard these lessons, he still is easily piqued by Ellidyr’s sniping (66-7), and others call him out on it (71). It isn’t until he’s presented with Ellidyr’s unwarranted rage, and his accusation that Taran has tried to steal his honor (74), that Taran begins to understand. In fact, though he still hasn’t learned the lessons, he begins to empathize with Ellidyr and sees how Ellidyr’s drive for honor, glory, and renown hunts him like “a black beast” (82-3).
It isn’t until Taran and his companions have acquired the Black Crochan and are waylaid by Ellidyr that the lesson is finally driven home. Ellidyr serves as a negative example from which Taran is able to learn, as he sees the ways in which Ellidyr’s obsession with honor ruins his life (147). As Ellidyr says, “You, pig-boy, dared reproach me for seeking glory, … Yet you yourself cling to it with your dirty hands” (148). At this point, Taran finally decides to put aside his pursuit of glory and willingly gives up any credit for his accomplishments thus far in exchange for Ellidyr’s aid in completing the quest. While reflecting on Ellidyr’s accusation, and his subsequent theft of the Crochan and the credit for completing their quest, Taran repeats Adaon’s lesson about honor and says, “I see now that what he said was true above all. I do not begrudge Ellidyr his prize. I, too, shall seek honor. But I shall seek it where I know it will be found” (154-6). As if that weren’t enough, the lesson that honor isn’t what Taran thought it was is hammered in one last time after the final climax of the piece, when Ellidyr has sacrificed himself to destroy the Crochan and the traitorous Morgant King of Madoc lies dead. Instead of defiling their memories, Taran’s old companion Gwydion instead raises barrows and honors both them. When Taran is confused by this, Gwydion answers him by saying, “I honor Morgant … for what he used to be, and Ellidyr Prince of Pen-Llarcau for what he became” (174).
That last part doesn’t show up in Taran’s externalized emotional journey as it pertains to honor and glory, but it is integral to the secondary emotional journey I mentioned earlier. Taran starts the story (in both Dunne’s and the common sense of the term) eager to take part in what he sees as the adult world, saying “I am old enough to sit in a council of men,” and claiming the right due to having learned much and having fought by Gwydion’s side (9). But he ends it speaking to Gwydion once more, saying, “It is strange, … I had longed to enter the world of men. Now I see it filled with sorrow, with cruelty and treachery, with those who would destroy all around them” (177). No longer is he eager. He’s learned a great deal more about the world than he wanted to, and most of it first hand.
Taran Wanderer deals with Taran’s desire to understand his origins, and more essentially, to know who he is (TW 5). This is a continued development of Taran’s relationship with prestige in the form of honor, glory, nobility and bravery; Taran begins his story still preoccupied with the idea that nobles and warriors are more commendable than common folk and are thus inherently better and somehow separate. This is shown in his hopes and beliefs early in the text; he hopes that he is nobly born so that he might be able to ask Princess Eilonwy to marry him, and believes that if he were a commoner that would be impossible (5-6); and he tries to reassure a grieving mother that her son slain in battle died as an honorable hero (28). His convictions are rebuffed on both fronts.
When Taran sets out to ask the frightening and knowledgeable enchantresses he dealt with in The Black Cauldron, Gurgi tries to set him straight: “But kindly master is noble! … Noble, generous, and good to humble Gurgi! No need to ask enchantresses” (10)! The enchantresses agree with Gurgi, addressing Taran as “a brave hero.” When he asks if they know of his parentage, they respond, “Parentage? … Nothing is easier. Choose any parents you please. Since none of you has ever know each other, what difference can it possibly make — to them or to you? Believe what you like. You’ll be surprised how comforting it is.” They also confuse him as they lay the groundwork for this book’s lesson, asking him, “Has the darling robin ever scratched for his own worms? That’s bravery of another sort” (13-14).
Next, his view of virtue as descending from combat is called into question by Alarca, wife of the farmer Aeddan, after he fails to comfort her: “My son is slain, … The raiders fought because they were starving; we, because we had scarcely more than they. And at the end all had less than when they began” (28). He’s similarly disabused of his notions of the value of nobility after run-ins with Lords Goryon and Gast. On riding away from their castles, he remarks to his companions, “Gast thinks himself openhanded, as Goryon thinks himself valorous; and as far as I can judge, neither one has the truth of it.” He even begins to articulate a form of the book’s lesson for himself, saying, “Yet, … they both seem pleased with themselves. Indeed, is a man truly what he sees himself to be” (44)?
But it isn’t until Taran has spent a winter working with Craddoc, a lame shepherd who claimed to be his father, that Taran takes this to heart: “I longed to be of noble birth, longed for it so much I believed it was true. A proud birthright was all that counted for me. Those who had none—even when I admired them, as I admired Aeddan, as I learned to admire Craddoc—I deemed them lesser because of it. Without knowing them, I judged them less than what they were. Now I see them as true men. Noble? They are far nobler than I.” This realization also brings him back to the words of the enchantresses, as Taran says, “I must make my own way, earn my own keep. Somehow, the robin must scratch for his own worms” (160-161). This emotional journey is finally resolved when Taran recognizes that his childhood dreams of “adventure, glory, of honor in feats of arms” are little more than “shadows” (209); he reaches this conclusion only after living amongst craftsmen and peasants, earning his own keep and confronting the villainous mercenary Dorath, who presents an inversion of Taran’s original assumptions about the nobility of warriors.
What, then, can I learn from the way Alexander structures his characters’ emotional journeys? First, Alexander is not afraid to make the beats of the emotional journey extremely clear. I might even say that he belabors the point with each transition, but he doesn’t spend enough time or words focused on them, or draw attention to them out of the context of the story, to make the transitions feel overwrought. As I mentioned above, Alexander externalizes as much of the process as he can; this is likely due to his narratorial choices, but even when he has the option of describing inner turmoil he prefers to use dialogue and character interactions to display characters’ emotional states. This helps maintain momentum. Second, Alexander leaves it to the audience to provide closure (used here in the same sense used by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics): while characters sometimes reflect on their own transitions, they almost always do so in the context of a conversation or interaction with another character rather than as an internal reflection. The story is laid out by Alexander but only completed, with all its transitions filled in, in the mind of the reader.
Alexander also inadvertently teaches me another lesson: his writing is spare and stripped down, a style that is easy to follow and not afraid of being unsubtle. It conveys all that he needs it to and more, and I can learn much from its clarity. Though this quality is present throughout, I especially noticed this in his descriptions of battles: he is able to gloss over many details and let the reader do more of the work without losing a clear sense of what has happened. I often try to describe everything perfectly, exactly as it happens in my head, and Alexander makes it clear that this isn’t necessary when telling a gripping scene. In fact, reading his battle scenes makes me think that by trying to tell too much I end up confusing the issue, instead of letting readers imagine what happened for themselves.
I’m most excited by the combination of Alexander’s sparse clarity and his highly structured and externalized emotional journeys. He only includes scenes that directly advance the plot and the story, and he is so direct with his use of emotional interactions that it feels clear why any given piece is included. Applying this to my Miska story, I can already see that I need to have a clearer description of her emotional journey. I want to use Alexander’s sparse approach to map out a beat-by-beat flow that encompasses her transformation, and pinpoint each step along the way as the foundation for a scene. Mapping the journey and moving from point to point is also useful in terms of giving me clear transformational goals for my characters in general. I imagine that this map may take several passes and rewrites to create, but it will give me a skeleton for my story and plot. And, if I’m sticking to Alexander’s model of sparse clarity, it might be all that I need.
The demand for externalization is also important here; if I consistently rewrite scenes from Miska’s emotional journey to externalize her experience, I’ll end up with more interesting interactions and avoid a quiet and inactive protagonist. This externalization is also useful in thinking about Barium Deep. Though the voice I’ve used so far has pushed for an internalized depiction of emotional progression, forcing Barium to interact with others will give me more opportunities to show the ways in which he learns and develops, without forcing him to articulate those developments internally in ways that might be unbelievable for a Middle Grade narrator. In fact, The Chronicles of Prydain is an excellent example of how to make an initially Middle Grade character’s emotional transformations seem believable without being so self-aware as to break the audience’s expectations.
I don’t know that I can stress my anticipation of experimenting with externalized emotional progression enough. I have, for a long time, written reflective characters with strong internal monologues. While I don’t want to lose that in my repertoire, I think leaving that rut to let characters show how they feel through external displays will be exciting, both for me and (I hope) for my readers. I know it will be a challenge for me to adequately convey characters’ emotions without resorting to internal monologue, but I believe it will be worth it, and Alexander’s novels are excellent examples for me to follow in my attempts.
Alexander, Lloyd. The Book of Three. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1964. Print.
Alexander, Lloyd. The Black Cauldron. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1965. Print.
Alexander, Lloyd. Taran Wanderer. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1967. Print.
Dunne, Peter. “Excerpt from Emotional Structure.” Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot: A Guide for Screenwriters. p. 10-16. Fresno: Linden Publishing, 2006. Online.