Lloyd Alexander – Let’s take a honest look at the problem…

I’ve been putting off this post, but after finishing Carlo Chuchio I’ve just got to let this out. So here goes:

First of all, as you know, I am a huge fan of Lloyd Alexander and include Prydain and Prince Jen amongst my all-time Great Books of any genre or age range.

He’s a great writer and I’ll fight anybody who says he aint…

BUT….

With that said, it’s time to raise a serious question:

Why did Alexander write the same book over and over again?

Prince Jen, The Iron Ring, The Arkadians and his last novel Carlo Chuchio

are basically the same book set in respectively, the Orient, India, Ancient Greece and the Mideast.

Meanwhile, other books of his, including Westmark and the Prydain series also feature some of the same characters & situations. By the time you’ve read a lot of his books, it’s hard to tell Lukas Kasha from Gypsy Riska from Sebastian.

The basic Lloyd Alexander Story is this:

Noble-hearted young man  on a quest

Meets hotheaded, sharp-tongued extremely capable, streetsmart girl

And funny sidekick / problem creator

and wise sage. (and maybe a magical painter.)

And runs into Bandit King/Usurper.

(Some stories feature a unique mode of transportation, such as a Gypsy Wagon.)

They continue quest … however, the quest begins to seem less and less important.

Young man gives up on quest, but does manage to overthrow Bandit King/Usurper. (This is a key feature of a Lloyd Alexander story. I’ve written before about how Prydain and other books fit the Wizard of OZ pattern. But this part sets Alexander apart. Star Wars, for instance, is very similar to the above description, BUT it does not end with Luke giving up on his quest.)

If all that doesn’t seem like that big a similarity to you, read two of the first 4 books I mentioned back to back. By the second book, you’ll be able to see it all coming.

Someone who only reads Carlo Cuchio, for instance, would (hopefully) think it was a really amazing book. But for me, it was hard to get to excited when so much of it felt like familiar ground. And that was disappointing.

(Side note: Here was a piece of very familiar ground:

Arkadians: Hero uses trickery to win horseback sport played in open field ringed with tents.

Chuchio: Hero uses trickery to win horseback duel played in open field ringed with yurts.)

 Okay, so what do we make of this?

 Why did Alexander return to these same stock characters and plot devices over and over?

I would hate to say that he was lazy. That’s just an outrageous statement to make about the author of so many wonderful books.

Perhaps he felt that he had a great story (and it IS a great story) and he wanted to polish it, to perfect it, to try it out with different backdrops and cultures.
Perhaps he didn’t quite realize what was happening. Perhaps he started writing and the characters just always pushed him in that direction. He set a kid on a quest and partway through the book realized that the quest was lame compared to a bigger lesson he could offer.

I’d be really interested to hear what other Alexander readers think of all this.

Again, I’m not just trying to sling mud, but rather to seriously consider the body of work that one of the all-time great kidlit authors left us.

Perhaps this is a puzzle he wanted us to figure out…

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6 Responses

  1. I felt that a number of Alexander books in the later years read like really, really good rough drafts, but rough drafts nonetheless. I’m guessing that once he became GREAT, his editors stopped being as critical as they had in the earlier years.

  2. I always kind of thought it was interesting to read similar stories with slightly different twists. Yeah, I knew what was going to happen, but realistically I knew Aslan was going to win the battle at the end of the Narnia series too and I still liked it. I think for me a lot of it was watching the different themes play out in the same frame-work. Maybe Lloyd Alexander saw the same thing in his own work. Who knows?

    I mean, the idea of reality-unreality in Lukas-Kasha was a really interesting theme and gave it a different flavor from the dharma theme in The Iron Ring. Your focus was moved to different parts of the story (at least mine was) by whatever the overlying theme was. Prydain was definitely the best of the bunch, the most polished and well-rounded, but I think maybe he kept returning to that same basic outline because it worked to let him play with different elements. He toyed with a lot of themes that don’t show up that often in children’s literature because they are usually considered too heavy for it (especially for children’s fantasy).

    That’s not to say I don’t sometimes wish things weren’t as predictable, but I guess I kind of feel like it’s not the really important part of the book. The characters, at least the main ones, do have their own personalities. Prince Jen is very different from Taran. Getting to know them is a lot of fun, even if you know how things are going to go.

    I don’t know. I guess it just never bugged me. I thought each book’s story and themes stood pretty well on its own and I never really worried too much about the pattern. There is definitely something to it, though.

  3. Good thoughts, and a fair observation. I’ve just blogged in response to this over at Lingwë. Take a look and see what you think.

  4. […] I asked him to consider my post about Alexander using the same plot and characters over and over. Here’s his […]

  5. I tried to read Carlo a few weeks ago, and when I realized it was the same story, I lost interest. Maybe if I hadn’t know it was by L.A., I would have kept going, and judged it on its own merits.

    I think it must have been rather hard for him to have his first great works come earlier in his career rather than later. And the place and the mythology are so important to the Prydain books that he perhaps felt a bit lost in time and space without Wales, and so his quest for a new place might have seemed more important to him than finding new people for his quests….

  6. I think what you’re getting at here is known in other circles as the Perkins Cobb theory: that creative types have one great work in them and they spend their creative careers exploring that one element until they either get it right, get tired of it, or, if they started on top, trying to live up to it.

    There are great writers and artists who manage to make the entire body of work a part of a whole, near sameness of experience. They tend to be iconic either in their personality or in their work (or both) but are readily identifiable. It’s easier to see with artists because you know in a flash a Warhol or a Picasso, but that ability to have ones work so easily classified also makes it indistinct on an individual level.

    That said, here’s my defense of Alexander and this book in particular. My eldest daughter has tried but could not get into the Prydain books. Fair enough, I’ll let it go for now because I know pushing her toward them will only make her resist them and she may never come back to them on her own. But I mentioned to her this “new book” I read (and summarized the plot a bit) and she’s dying to read it. No mention of the author, no mention of the other books he’s written, and she’s willing to give it a shot.

    That said, the fact that he’s written the same story in different settings is a boon because now he gets his message out there according to the tastes of the readers. If, after a while, they realize on their own its the same plot, well, they didn’t complain when they weened themselves on the 40+ Magic Tree House books they read only a few short years earlier. Young readers find a certain comfort in the familiar, and while it may seem like authors like Alexander are coasting it doesn’t make the experience that book can provide any less valid to a reader.

    Just my 2 cents.

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