Unschooling in Children’s Literature – The Chronicles of Prydain

I read a lot of books with my kids, and sometimes I’m struck by how the ideas in a given piece of literature coincide with our Unschooling philosophy. Today I’m going to start a new series about children’s books that seem particularly relevant for Unschoolers. Starting with Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain.

If you’re not familiar with the series, here’s a quick rundown. The Chronicles of Prydain consists of five novels published between 1964 and 1968 by Lloyd Alexander, followed by a book of short stories a few years later. Set in a fantastic land inspired loosely by Welsh mythology, the series follows the adventurers of Taran, an assistant pig-keeper who dreams of becoming a hero as he is drawn into an age-old battle between good and evil. Along with a colorful assortment of companions, Taran is thrust into dangerous adventures even as he strives to learn who he really is and what it means to be a man.

At one level it’s merely a standard coming of age tale in a generic fantasy setting, but as it progresses it deals with weighty issues in serious ways. Despite the occasional silliness of the books, their mediations on the nature of death, loss, betrayal, sacrifice and self-doubt earned the second volume in the series, The Black Cauldron a Newberry Honor award, and the final book in the series, The High King received the Newberry Award in 1969.

The Black CauldronBeyond the fact that the Chronicles is a compelling and finely told story, it is particularly interesting from an Unschooling perspective as the narrative turns toward Taran’s frequent self doubts as he tries to find his place in the world. Rather than merely accepting his place and learning the skills that others have laid out for him, he longs to become something different and is constantly pushing boundaries to try and take charge of his own life. In the process he gradually learns more about himself and the world around him than he every would have done otherwise. Early in the first volume, The Book of Three, Taran is filled with impatience at his seemingly pointless life and asks his mentor Dallben why he cannot become a great hero. Dallben answers him with wisdom that makes perfect sense to an Unschooler:

“Why?” Dallben interrupted. “In some cases,” he said “we learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. This is one of those cases. I could tell you why, but at the moment it would only be more confusing. If you grow up with any kind of sense–which you sometimes make me doubt–you will very likely reach your own conclusions.

“They will probably be wrong,” he added. “However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”

As Dallben rightly states, it’s in the search for an answer that we genuinely grow and learn, not from being handed the information we seek. In large part this is the foundation of Unschooling, the idea that we need to learn things for ourselves for knowledge to have true meaning.

The Castle of LlyrThis sort of wisdom peppers the first three volumes, as Taran gradually becomes more self-confident and grows into manhood. But in the fourth book, Taran Wanderer, he goes in search of his parents and enters a new kind of adventure. As an orphan foundling he has no idea of his lineage, and hopes that he might be of noble blood, still clinging to some ideas of heroism and nobility that he had at the beginning of the series. As he embarks upon his quest and has a series of unexpected adventures, he begins to understand what others have tried to teach him: that hard, honest work is often far more valuable and honorable than bravery or skill in combat. Now, at last, he begins to learn that lesson for himself and it changes who he is as a man. He gradually relinquishes some of his childish ideas and begins searching for a profession and an honorable way to support himself and to fill his life with meaning. At one point, while apprenticed to the weaver woman Dwyvach, he’s given another dose of well-needed wisdom when his friend Gurgi complains that spinning wool is a woman’s job:

“Indeed!” snorted Dwyvach. “Then sit you down and learn otherwise. I’ve heard men complain of doing woman’s work, and women complain of doing man’s work,” she added, fastening her bony thumb and forefinger on Gurgi’s ear and marching him to a stool beside Taran, “but I’ve never heard the work complain of who did it, so long as it got done!”

Taran WandererAgain, here is a lesson that Taran has heard but not understood until he begins to experience it for himself. Working hard is how Taran, like many people, eventually finds self worth. It doesn’t particularly matter what the pursuit is, so long as they find value in it, and dedicate themselves to doing their task well and learning as much as they can. Unschoolers should smile at the idea. There is value in many different tasks, and much to be learned from each one. It doesn’t particularly matter if the world around you finds value in that particular pursuit. If there is value to you, then it is worth doing and doing well. Even, and perhaps especially, when others consider it frivolous and meaningless. Indeed, it is often those pursuits that seem frivolous that lead into careers and lifelong pursuits.

By the end of the series, The High King, Taran is reluctantly thrust into war long after he has left dreams of heroism behind. Yet as a responsible man he feels honor bound to take up his sword and help in the conflict. In the process he finds that people respect him and follow him for the honest hard-working man that he has become, rather than any once-dreamt of nobility. When he returns to the villages that he once traveled and worked in, looking for help in the war against Arawn Death-Lord, the people respond to him as they would to no other because they respect the man that he became while among them:

“The folk of the Free Commots honor King Math and the House of Don,” he said. “But they will answer only to one they know as a friend, and follow him not in obligation but in friendship. And so let Hevydd be the first to follow Taran Wanderer.”

“All follow! All!” cried the Commot men as with a single voice, and on the instant the once-peaceful Cenarth stirred like a gathering storm as each man hastened to arm himself.

The High KingAs I said before, The Chronicles of Prydain is a coming of age story, in which a boy grows into a man. As is often the case in such tales he doesn’t do so by following any traditional path, but by exploring the world around him, putting his hand to many different tasks, and finding where his true talents and worth lie. It’s a painful journey for him, as life usually is, and it involves loss and sacrifice and difficult choices, but those choices are always his. No one makes them for him, and that’s why he’s able to grow and learn and become a much more admirable man at the end of the story than he is at the beginning. The Chronicles of Prydain truly is a perfect series for Unschoolers, prizing the journey far more than the destination, and the true value of a person in what they choose to explore and who they choose to become.

Although Taran is the main character, he’s not the only one who forges his own path even against the expectations society has of them. One of his closest friends is a King by birth though he’d rather be a traveling bard and spends most of his time wandering around the land of Prydain. Eilonwy, an orphaned princess, is more interested in going on adventures and wielding a sword than she is in being trained to be a lady. Taran’s servant Gurgi, a creature somewhere in-between an animal and a man, gives up his wild ways to follow Taran and try to learn the wisdom of mankind. These characters, and others throughout the series, prize pursuing their passions and all of them grow in the process.

Like the best of literature, The Chronicles of Prydain doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it’s themes and ideas, so naturally are they woven into the story. For Unschoolers who prize the ideals of exploration, natural learning and finding non-traditional paths through childhood and into adulthood, The Chronicles of Prydain is a series that should definitely be on your reading list. And even if you’re not an Unschooler, it truly is a great classic of childrens literature that’s well worth the read. My kids love it, and I suspect yours will too.


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