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Naomi Novik

The High King

In one of the earlier books in this series, there's a shocking betrayal by one character, and a heartening---yet tragic----turnaround in the other direction by a different character. When Taran, the protagonist, demands to know how these two disparate people can be mourned equally, he is told, "I shall mourn (Character Number One) for what he once was, and (Character Number Two) for what he became." Imagine being ten or eleven years old, and used to a fictional diet of dresses and barbies and adventures, and reading *that.* Even as a kid I knew I had stumbled over a great series of books.

Taran Wanderer has wanted to be a hero, a warrior, his whole life-----till he became one. Through four books, Taran has chased glory but gradually become acquainted with the gritty, deadly, dirty business of fighting wars and battles, slowly realizing that glory is not what it seems and sometimes one can be a hero just for getting up every day, raising a family, growing crops, herding stock, and being a decent human being.

As a kid, he was given the title Assistant Pig Keeper, to make up for the unenviable job of being, well, a pig keeper. Of course, pigs are intelligent creatures, and Prydain's Hen Wen is even more so, being an "Oracular" pig, a pig who can foretell prophecies. Still, the job has been used as an insult repeatedly by bad characters, and Taran has chafed at the insults and the occasional drubbing he's gotten, when more than one high-born character  has deemed his position and station lower than theirs. Taran has also experienced more than one humiliation from such a character,  even though he has genuine affection for Hen Wen.  As the series has gone on, Taran has ridden into battle and seen his friends fall under his leadership, but the true change in his character shows in a simple exchange here, as he agonizes over a difficult decision as a war leader. "Are you a war leader or an Assistant Pig Keeper?" Another character asks him.

"Need you ask, old friend?" Taran responds. "I'm an Assistant Pig Keeper."

In embracing his true place in life, and all his flaws, Taran finally discovers that he can rise above his humble background, and be more than a pig keeper, because if you live more for others than yourself, you have tried something more heroic than many people ever even attempt. Many people truly don't know themselves. It takes some courage to view one's self realistically, not idealistically. Taran does so, and ironically, it's recognizing his own flaws and weaknesses that lessens those things' abilities to drag him down. 

"The High King" is a wrenching conclusion to the series, but it's kind of a cathartic wrench. Taran is impatient, leaps headlong into decisions----or once did---and sees, too clearly, the difficulties of the things he must attempt---even though he knows they have little chance of success. When he succeeds, it is often only with the assistance of others, or with luck. What makes him special is that he is fully aware of this. He is the sort of person who facilitates and makes it possible for others to achieve heroism or glory, but he doesn't begrudge them that. His apprecation for his friends comes from losing so many so tragically, losses that hit the reader here with great effect and realism, if underplayed for the sake of the younger readers. There is no gore or sex or bad language, though Eilonwy experiences an unmistakably ugly confrontation with a believably evil character. It was so real, in fact, that the magical escape was *almost* too magical. *Almost.* Alexander is a miracle worker in how delicately he balances all the threads here.

Even at the end, Gwydion still has a lesson or two for Taran, who is still quite a young man. Reading this series again after decades, I was struck by how elegant and simple Alexander's writing was, hinting enough to give the reader a push, yet making the reader do some of the heavy lifting. If you don't experience some sniveling at various points in this book, I don't think I want to know you.

In an era of Super Special Chosen Ones with mysterious special talents and supernatural skills, it's impossibly refreshing to read about a young man who moves forward not because he's special but because he's ordinary,  yet tries so hard he accomplishes much, who finds the one thing he loves doing, only to realize that he lacks the talent for it, and whose heroism is born, often, of desperation rather than ambition. Taran touches one's heart because he's so much like so many of us. Being ordinary is not what limits you. Never trying is.

 

"The High King" by Lloyd Alexander, no bad language, no real explicit violence, no sex, but reading of Elionwy's encounter with the robber as an adult was quite startling, given how clearly Alexander managed to write that out. You'll need at least one hankie.