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Top 100 Children’s Novels #18: The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

#18 The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (1964)
83 points

The best children’s fantasy series I know, and still very much underrated. – Lee Behlman

The assistant pig-keeper’s world is the standard by which Fantasy worlds should conduct themselves. Where three mystical women weave destinies and discuss the digestibility of toads. This is a vote for the series. Although Taran Wanderer is my personal favorite, and The High King is the perfect culmination to this rollicking adventure, the whole is greater than its parts and should be consumed as such. – DaNae Leu

One of the few books in my life I would say was “Important.” It had great influence in shaping me… mentally, emotionally, creatively. I lived in the Prydain books. They had a huge effect on my lifelong tastes and tendencies, and they shaped my writing style as well. – Aaron Zenz

To the uninitiated, Alexander’s best-known series looks like a rough copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s.  It would be an unfair characterization.  For one thing, Alexander had a sense of humor.  For another, one of the things I always loved about this series was the hero’s capacity to learn and grow.  Cause when you first meet dorky Taran in this book, you have a pretty hard time believing he’s going to turn into the man in The High King later on down the road.

Laura Ingram describes the plot this way: “The first novel of the series, The Book of Three (1964), is named after a legendary magical book which contains between its covers the wisdom of all time. It is the story of the orphan Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, who is bored with his peaceful life under the care of the farmer Coll and the old magician Dallben. He longs for adventure and the chance to perform heroic deeds and finds them sooner than he expects when the search for the runaway oracular pig, Hen Wen, draws him into a battle between good and evil.”

In Lloyd Alexander’s entry in American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction, it is said that, “Alexander’s most important work has been the Prydain cycle, a series of five novels inspired by the Welsh Mabinogion. As originally planned, the novels were to be simple adaptations of these legends, a special interest for Alexander since he encountered them in his research for Time Cat. When he began to dig more deeply into the roots of Welsh mythology, however, the project ‘grew into something much more ambitious.’ He had ‘discovered that place which was, for him, the spiritual expression of something hidden.’ So, Prydain grew into something much more than a thinly disguised ancient Wales; undeniably, it was similar to that land, but reshaped by the addition of contemporary realism, modern values, and a generous dose of humor, as well as the special depth and insight provided by characters who not only act, but think, feel, and struggle with the same kinds of problems that confuse and trouble people in the twentieth century. In addition to human characters, the novels contain magical creatures both good and evil, including members of an ancient line of enchanters, the Sons of Don, who share the Earth with the human race.”

It’s funny to note that it wasn’t universally loved from the start, though.  A reviewer for the Junior Bookshelf said that “this sample fails to come up to expectations” and that the people in it were so “trivial… that the menace is rendered ineffectual by their reactions.” Harsh!

  • You can read some of the book here.

The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books said of it, “A very funny adventure tale set in an imaginary kingdom… The writing is sophisticated.”

The covers are out there.  A pity I couldn’t find any from other countries (aside from Britain).  In general artists have a hard time resisting the magic combination of skull, horns, and cape.




Again, another by my favorite cover artist when I was a kid, Jody Lee.  You were awesome, Jody!

This is probably the only one where The Horned King isn’t wearing a shirt, of course.

Some may remember movie The Black Cauldron by Disney, considered widely to be the worst Disney animated film in the history of the genre.  The movie was a combination of The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, and . . . junk.  As you can see, it’s very 1985.  Fun Fact: The voice of Fflewddur Fflam was done by Nigel Hawthorne.

And technically this video was for The Black Cauldron (the second book in the series) but . . . aw, I can’t resist including it.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Yippee, I was concerned this might be my one that didn’t make it!

  2. Tolkien had a sense of humor! Sure, there were long stretches of the books that were very serious without any welcome breaks whereas Fflewddur Flam could almost always be counted on to provide some humor.

  3. Genevieve says

    Sam Gamgee is the best example of Tolkien’s sense of humor and of a character with the ability to change and grow. But yes, Alexander has more of both.

    Glad to see this here – I don’t enjoy it as much as an adult, but really loved the series as a child (especially any parts with Eilonwy or Gurgi).

  4. I’m so glad to see this at a prime spot on the poll! Even if I didn’t vote for it (sigh).

  5. “For one thing, Alexander had a sense of humor.”

    While Tolkien does have flashes of humor in his books, Alexander’s wry wit threads through every page of all his books, providing an underlying pattern that everything else builds on. And nobody in all the world but Alexander could have come up with Eilonwy of the red-gold hair and sharp tongue. And Gurgi! We use “crunchings and munchings” as slang for snacktime all the time around here.