This is more nostalgic for me than any other book I bought recently. I ordered the complete Prydain pentalogy for a re-read. I actually first read them when I was younger (like elementary school) and I swear they were my Harry Potter before Harry Potter became a thing. They're much shorter than the Potter series, and meant for younger readers mostly. It's a children's high fantasy that's inspired by Welsh mythology, especially the Mabinogion. It's listed for ages 8-12. I think its better than the Potter series but that's just me.
Even reading as an adult, I still loved them. I actually own a worn version of this book (the fourth, Taran Wanderer, was the only book I didn't own. The covers are different, with different art work and gilded Celtic motifs.
Title: The Book of Three
Author: Lloyd Alexander
Page Number: 190 pages (paperback)
Genre: fantasy, children, young adult, fiction
Publisher: Square Fish, part of MacMillian, an imprint of Holtzbrinck
Year: 2006 (originally published 1964)
Taran wanted to be a hero, and looking after a pig wasn't exactly heroic, even though Hen Wen was an oracular pig. But the day that Hen Wen vanished, Taran was led into an enchanting and perilous world. With his band of followers, he confronted the Horned King and his terrible Cauldron-Born. These were the forces of evil, and only Hen Wen knew the secret of keeping the kingdom of Prydain safe from them. But who would find her first?
The main character is named Taran. He's a ward of the wizard Dallben. As such, he lives at Caer Dallben with Coll, the blacksmith, and the mystical pig, Hen-Wen. When he complains to Coll about not having a place or title at Caer Dallben, Coll names him Assistant Pig-Keeper. Hen-Wen is an oracle and when Dallben asks Taran to bring Hen-Wen to him for a prophecy, Taran discovers Hen-Wen missing and goes out in search of the pig.
This book, as are the rest, are non-hero "Hero" stories. Taran is on a quest of sorts but it's not a quest that turns him into a hero as Taran is not pre-destined to be a noble hero. He eventually has to discover his identity/place in the world all while making hard decisions. There are moral lessons in the book but I don't think they're something Alexander clubs you over the head with...and they're much more obvious to me in re-reads as an adult.
Eventually Taran runs into his personal hero, Gwydion (the warrior Prince of Don) and the two of them observe The Horned King, lackey of the Death Lord, Arrawn. The Horned King is a warrior king who is on the warpath to the High King Math's keep, Caer Dathyl. At this point, the half man-half beast Gurgi is introduced.
Eventually Taran makes his way to Spiral Castle, where he meets Princess Eilonwy and the bard Fflewddur Fflam. These two characters, like Gurgi, are recurring and often join Taran on his missions. Spiral Castle is the keep of Queen Achren, another lackey of Arrawn.
Fflewddur Fflam is a walking lesson. He is navigating his place in the world, like Taran, trying to determine what he's good at while working to curb his boasting. Princess Eilonwy, the only recurring female in this group, is a strong, progressive character who is often smarter than Taran. Eilonwy is about Taran's age and she also matures through the series (like Taran) but since the series is through Taran's eyes she often matures off the pages.
Eventually, the quartet need a guide through the kingdom and the grumpy Dwarf, Doli, is introduced. There is a magic sword, enchanted powers, a battle scene where Taran and his group encounter The Horned Lord and Gwydion again.
Since this is a book for children, the writing is less ornate but Alexander manages to pull you in. The world that Taran lives in is built up over the series (many fantasy books now have complicated world building that happens right away). The characters of Prydain shine; they're often faced with tasks that don't have a simple answer yet they persevere. The whole series has held up for me and I don't understand why it isn't more popular. I've read other books by Lloyd Alexander and they're great as well, he was just a fantastic writer for children's books.