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Friday, March 27, 2009

The Westmark trilogy, by Lloyd Alexander

The late Lloyd Alexander was notable for a goodly number of books, with his first offering, the Prydain books, probably being the best known. I have read them several times. I had never read the three books of the Westmark trilogy. I have now read them. They are good, and like the Prydain books in a few ways. One of them is that a boy's friends are important. Another is that there is a princess. However, they are unlike the five Prydain books in some important ways. All of the characters seem morally ambiguous -- no one is just plain good. I guess that's more like real life than the Prydain books, and many other books. (There are some characters who seem just plain evil.) There is no magic, either. No pig telling fortunes from sticks, no black caldron.

Q: Why do you write fantasy? A: Because, paradoxically, fantasy is a good way to show the world as it is. Fantasy can show us the truth about human relationships and moral dilemmas because it works on our emotions on a deeper, symbolic level than realistic fiction. - Alexander, being interviewed by Leonard S. Marcus, in Marcus's The Wand in the Wind: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy. (Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2006) Interview is on pages 5-17. Quote is from page 13.

By the end of the first book, Westmark, Theo, the main character, has come to count Mickle, an apparent guttersnipe, as his best friend. They are taken to the palace, because Cabbarus, the chief minister, wants to deceive the king, having the ghost of the king's dead daughter tell the king to resign the throne and give it to him. (Cabbarus, in addition to deceiving the king, and trying to keep him powerless by maintaining him sickened and physically weakened, has had the court physician assassinated, and the printer who had taken Theo as an apprentice killed. The assassination didn't work, but that wasn't Cabbarus's fault.)

Mickle, when brought to Cabbarus's room for instruction, suddenly remembers that Cabbarus had tried to kill her, too, by throwing her down a chute into a river.

Theo knows all of this about the man, but he keeps him from falling to his death, and asks the king to exile him, rather than killing him. Perhaps Theo realizes that all of us have done, or could have done, some very bad things.

What bad things did Theo do? He came upon companions who cheerfully went about the country, selling dirty water as medicine, making people believe that they were seeing ghosts, and skipping out on debts. He actually encouraged them, and suggested ways to fool others for profit. Theo also took part in an uprising that saw several people killed on both sides. He considers himself to be morally ambiguous, and sees others in the same way.

Where is Westmark? It seems to be somewhere in Europe, perhaps during the late Middle Ages. There are kings, and dukes. No surprise there. But there are also printing presses and guns, even a cannon. I found no evidence of religion, or belief in a god or gods, by any of the characters.

The second and third books continue the themes, and make Alexander's case stronger -- war, and power, are terrible things. People, especially people in leadership, make some bad decisions, and compromise their own moral principles, to win victories of various kinds. Lest there be any doubt, Alexander was not writing veiled criticism of the Bush administration and the War on Terror -- the third of these books was published in 1984.

"Kestrel's dead," Theo flung back. "He died in the war, from the stink of too much blood. Yes, I was as much of a butcher as Justin. Worse. Because Justin never pretended he was anything else. I won't do it again. You want Marianstat. I'll help you take it, but not as a leader." "Do you want to see Cabbarus in power?" "No, of course not." Florian gave him a half-smile. "Then I don't see that you have any choice." (The Beggar Queen. New York: Dutton, 1984, p. 92) Theo was the Kestrel, a war leader, in The Kestrel (New York: Dutton, 1982) Florian was also a war leader, trying to overthrow any monarchies, on principle.

Alexander has done a good job with this book. It is written for young people -- they play the major roles in the book, being rulers, battle captains, propagandists, and other things. The adults are almost all incidental to them.

Thanks for reading.

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