Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A less known book by a great author

The Arcadians by Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander has recently made a significant contribution to a rather demanding genre which can be called the pseudo-historical novel. Otherwise he is best known for his five volumes of Prydain Chronicles, fascinating high fantasy novels that develop the best of J. R. R. Tolkien's legacy. My special favorite is The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, another fantasy with deep philosophical undertones. After these Alexander has mostly written adventure-like books in a variety of pseudo-historical settings, also creating two unforgettable female characters, the Beggar Queen in the so-called Westmark trilogy, and the brave and independent Vesper Holly. Together with princess Eilonwy in the Prydain novels, these strong women have been praised as Lloyd Alexander's great contribution to the gender balance in adventure novels, traditionally based on masculine myths.

There is also a stubborn and strong-willed girl in Alexander's The Arcadians, which is inspired by Ancient literature, primarily Ovid. However, Alexander has always used his sources creatively, making his stories highly relevant for contemporary readers. The novel deals with betrayal and friendship, with power, oppression and liberation, with war and peace, and with women's equality. The action takes place in an imaginary country passing from matriarchy to the power of men.

Even though the plot may seem familiar, and the protagonist, bean counter Lucianus, is reminiscent of the Assistant Pigkeeper Taran in the Prydain novels, the book does not feel repetitive on Alexander's part. Rather a new and exciting construction has been built from the well-known building blocks. The exotic setting and the various mythic elements and figures have been woven into the narrative in a natural way. And the art of keeping the reader in suspense is something that Alexander has mastered to perfection. We know of course that the hero will win, but how? Alexander knows exactly when to put in a cliffhanger. Will Fronto ever become human again? Will Lucianus and his beloved be united?

The large and colorful character gallery is brilliant. Alexander is always marvelously ironic in all his books, and he almost always has a self-portrait; in this novel, we meet Fronto the poet, turned into a donkey without losing his poetic talent. Generally it is the warm humor and the witty dialogue that makes Alexander's novel into something more than merely an adventure.

Opsis Kalopsis 1995:1

No comments: