Lloyd Alexander: American Bard
"In other worlds I used the imaginary kingdom not as a sentimentalized fairyland, but as an opening wedge to express what I hoped would be some very hard truths. I never saw fairy tales as an escape or a cop out....On the contrary, speaking for myself, it is the way to understand reality."*
Lloyd Alexander wrote many adventure stories for young people, including the wonderful Chronicles of Prydain which follow the adventures of brave, young Taran, who proudly holds the title of assistant pig-keeper, the fiery, quick-witted Eilonwy, shambling man-beast Gurgi, and Fflewddur Fflam, a teller of tales, mostly tall ones. In The Book of Three, these unlikely heroes are on the run from dread forces that have more personality and are therefore more terrifying than Tolkien’s Sauron.
While drawing on ancient Welsh tales for some of the material, Lloyd Alexander’s very American viewpoint makes the Prydain books hugely different from the traditional stories. There is a lot of humor in between the brushes with death, and the female characters are far more than simple foils for the male heroes or villains. Bravery, loyalty, and, yes, wisdom are all important qualities for Taran and his friends, who are clearly outmatched by their powerful foes.
It all started with a cat….
The Chronicles of Prydain were not Lloyd Alexander’s first books for children. He started with a book called, Time Cat. Subtitled “The Remarkable Journeys of Jason and Gareth,” the book was inspired by his cat Solomon:
“I began to have a private joke, playing a game as it were, pretending that he could somehow appear and disappear whenever he wanted to. ... If a cat has nine lives, maybe he's gone off to visit one of his nine lives. At that moment, it suddenly occurred to me - this sounds like an idea for a whole book. Each chapter would be one of his nine lives. I didn't give him a credit in the book. But I should have, even though he didn't do any work.”
Jason discovers his cat Gareth can speak and is willing to take his human friend back in time to visit his other lives. First, they are in ancient Rome, taken in by “the Old Cats of Caesar,” one of Roman legions. From there, the pair go to other times and places, but there’s much more to the story than a simple travelogue. Time Cat got Lloyd Alexander a firm foothold in children’s literature, which he found to be much more freeing than writing adult books as they gave him a wider, brighter canvas to talk about important things such as how the world might be made a better place and the importance of kindness.
Something of a reader
So, how did an American become famous for retelling British legends? Part of that was his childhood, but his was quite a bit different from many children’s authors. According to the Twayne’s Author Series,** Lloyd Alexander’s family, although fairly well off, were not readers. His father, a stockbroker, bought a slew of books, not so much for reading as to fill their home’s magnificent bookshelves. No one read to Lloyd so he taught himself to read between the ages of three or four. His father thought this interesting and would have him perform his curious skill for adult company, something the boy did not like very much.
Getting an education
Lloyd kept reading and learning and ultimately skipped several grades of elementary school. His father had a perfect plan for him after high school---he could be an office boy at a bank and work his way up! That did not last very long and was later recounted humorously in his first novel for adults, Let the Credit Go. However, he saved his earnings to make a start at a local college where he tested out of yet another year’s worth of study.
But he then found that the classes were excruciatingly dull so he joined the Army to see the world, this being during World War II. Eventually, his fluency in French landed him a job with Army Combat Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence. It was while training in the Welsh hills, that he became familiar with their old legends which he would later tap for the Prydain Chronicles.
While stationed in Paris, he made friends with Gertrude Stein, who encouraged the young man in his writing though she stressed the difficulties. While in the City of Lights, he also met and married his wife Janine who encouraged him in his writing throughout their lives. He also found work as a translator, including for some of the French literati. The Alexanders eventually returned to Pennsylvania where Lloyd detailed his wife’s sometimes amusing encounters with American ways in Janine Is French.
A gentle man
Lloyd Alexander’s many years of writing for young people have given us a tremendous body of imaginative stories. Something of his success surely had to do with his work habits. Early--very early, at 3 or 4 a.m.--he would start in at his manual typewriter and keep going for hours, seven days a week, his work day being closed by a fine, full meal from Janine.
For all his fame and talent, Lloyd Alexander never developed a huge ego. According to Ann Durrell, Lloyd’s editor for more than three decades, he was not pompous. He made and served his wife breakfast in bed every morning. He answered every bit of fan mail the day it arrived and knew the names of everybody he saw on a regular basis--the supermarket checker, the service station attendant, the yard man, and gave autographed copies of his books to their children.
Lloyd Alexander was still writing into his final years. He had a joyful life, full of kindness, but he also was motivated as a writer by concern for his fellows. As he said in his acceptance speech for the Newbery Medal, which he received for the last book in Prydain series:
“In whatever guise--our own daily nightmares of war, intolerance, inhumanity; or the struggles of an Assistant Pig-Keeper against the Lord of Death--the problems are agonizingly familiar. And an openness to compassion, love, and mercy is as essential to us here and now as it is to any inhabitant of an imaginary kingdom.”
Born: January 30, 1924, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Education: no university degrees although he briefly studied at West Chester State College and Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was mainly an autodidact (self-taught) in literature, music, and cartooning.
Military service: served in the U.S. Army Combat Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence corps, 1942-46.
Career: Since 1946, he worked as a writer and translator
Family: wife, Janine, and daughter, Madeleine
Selected awards: Newbery Honor for The Black Cauldron (1965) and the Newbery Medal for The High King (1968); National Book Awards for The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian (1970) and Westmark (1981); two Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man (1973) and The Fortune-Tellers (1992); and Sweden’s “Golden Cat” Award, which recognizes lifetime achievement in writing for young readers.
Died: May 17, 2007, in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania
The Central Rappahannock Regional Library owns many books by this beloved author. Check some out today.
Learn More about This Author Online
“Author Alexander Made Hits Out of Myths,” Weekend All Things Considered, May 19, 2007.
Children’s author Jon Scieszka weighs in on Alexander after his death. Biography in Context.
“The Book That Changed My Life”
“An Interview with Lloyd Alexander”
*“Lloyd (Chudley) Alexander.” Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2002. Accessed through Biography in Context.
**Lloyd Alexander. May, Jill P. Twayne’s United States Authors Series. Children’s Literature. Ruth K. MacDonald, editor. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
“Lloyd (Chudley) Alexander.” St. James Guide to Children’s Writers, 1999. Accessed through Biography in Context.
"Lloyd Alexander, Author of Fantasy Novels, Is Dead at 83"
“The Remarkable Journey of Lloyd Alexander: The Late Master of Children’s Fantasy Distinguished Himself by the Way He Wrote and Lived,” Tunnell, Michael O. and Jacobs, James S. School Library Journal. July 2007. Available through Biography in Context.
Scholastic Interview with Lloyd Alexander
“A Visit with Lloyd Alexander” (Three parts)