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Enjoyable frosting, but the cake is missing...
on January 24, 2013
This is going to be a "typical internet review" in which the star rating is seemingly positive (or at least so-so), yet the review itself will dwell on the negative...
After over 20 years of sharing my life with Lloyd Alexander's Prydain chronicles, it has taken me up till now to realize why The Castle of Llyr feels the most underwhelming of the bunch, the least satisfying, the most unfinished. After all, it's not the quality of the writing, for it's as charming as ever. And the characterization of our beloved companions feels just as spot on as ever.
It's the plot. Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with a book that (presumably) focuses on the Princess Eilonwy. The problem with Llyr is that it wastes this opportunity. The premise seems tailor made for exploring the character of the irrepressible Daughter of Angharad Daughter of Regat--what makes her tick, her family history, maybe giving longtime Prydain readers a true demonstration of her mettle... And yet she's absent for almost the entirety of the book! She puts in a couple of cameo appearances (ala Gwydian) at the beginning and end, but otherwise, her character is merely referenced by the others.
In Llyr, there is some talk as to Eilonwy's potential to be one of the greatest enchantresses in Prydain (show us this!), there are mentions by the other characters of her irascible personality and how her abductor is surely going to regret kidnapping her (show us!), and mentions of her rich family history (show us!).
Eilonwy is a character who has a mysterious past, comes from a long line of enchantresses, is set to be wed into a royal family, is kidnapped and put in mortal danger, and becomes the focal point of an island-wide search... And throughout it all, she is A.W.O.L. The themes I mentioned above are merely teases for the reader, musings voiced by the other characters. This not only makes the adventures of Taran and company feel a bit like "same old, same old," but robs Llyr of having a strong identity of its own compared to the other 5 books. Llyr could have been the book in which Eilonwy (one usually reserved as a foil for Taran) came into her own. As such, it's more known as the book where we meet the giant cat. It's a book that doesn't seem to be about anything in particular except superficial adventures. (Indeed, the only part of the story that feels "important" is the end in which, not coincidentally, Eilonwy is finally on the page again.)
[Compounding the problem: Not only is the kidnap victim largely absent, but the villain is as well. This off-screen stuff works fine when the villain is Arawn who can symbolize elusive, universal evil for the reader. But when the story is smaller like Llyr's, when the villain is more of an individual with a specific characterization, and when the plot is not painting in the broad strokes of "ultimate good vs. ultimate evil"--having such central characters absent for the entirety of the story presents a real problem. By the time we get to the ending which is meant to be a bit heartrending---(through bewitchment, Eilonwy does not remember who her friends are)---it's a bit like, "Who is this again? Oh, it's the girl we saw at the beginning. And who is the bad guy? Oh, it's this complete stranger who this book has not given us any time with until now."]
Imagine if the movie Cast Away had just focused on the Helen Hunt character and her 4-year decision to marry her dentist, with brief cameos by Tom Hanks at the beginning and end, and you kind of have The Castle of Llyr. It's sad that the 10-page short story "The True Enchanter" (found in the Prydain companion piece "The Foundling") feels more illuminating to the Eilonwy character than the whole of The Castle of Llyr.
In the past I have read people (mildly) criticize Llyr for having a plot that feels insubstantial compared to the rest of the Prydain stories. Indeed, this is true. For unlike the other Prydain stories, one never gets the sense that a lot hangs in the balance. The companions aren't trying to save all of Prydain here, just one person. However, despite this, I feel this sense of "smallness" could have been offset had Llyr actually focused on exploring Eilonwy's character, the presumed subject of the book.
We're not even sure if she's in much danger at all until the end. It's like reading a Scooby Doo mystery where the only investment you have is waiting for them to pull the rubber mask off at the end and find out whodunnit. Both the kidnap victim and the bad guy are absent for the entire story, and we're essentially left to hang out, once again, with Shaggy, Velma and the gang, whose escapades and shtick we've already seen multiple times by now, as they explore the haunted amusement park.
I would guess that if any new readers chose Llyr as their first foray into Prydain, they'd be affected even more than a longtime fan. After all, why should someone care about the kidnapping of a character they never met before now, are never really given a reason to care about, and is mostly just alluded to by others.
Make no mistake, the adventures we *are* presented with concerning Taran, Gurgi, Fflewddur, etc. are entertaining enough as always (if not exactly profound). And that pleasantness is why I feel the book deserves the three stars. But after realizing all that is missing, it's hard to unsee that big hole in the middle. Llyr would have benefitted from having at least a hundred more pages to give it a center. We could have gotten both the frosting and the cake. Llyr as is, is just the frosting.