The High King by Lloyd Alexander: Heroism personified
Fifth book in the Chronicles of Prydain
Overall rating: 9.5/10
Quality of writing: 9/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): small
Age level: 8 and up
The High King tells the story of the final conflict between the heroes, led by Taran and Gwydion, and the forces of evil under Arawn Death-Lord. The battle will rage across the land of Prydain in an epic conflict that underscores both the negatives of war and the selflessness required to achieve true victory against evil. Alexander brings the Chronicles of Prydain to a satisfying conclusion in a novel that repeats the positive qualities of his previous books: well-crafted characters, descriptive language, and an engaging plot. Reaching greater moral and emotional depths and heights than the rest of the series, The High King explores human evils such as greed and ambition, while contrasting it with the virtues of selflessness and humility. Overall, The High King is an excellently written work and I highly recommend it.
The plot of this book is driven by the protagonists’ need to defeat Arawn Death-Lord once and for all, fighting battles across Prydain and inventing clever plans to accomplish their goal. The plotline is easy to follow, based on this aim, and builds to a satisfying climax with the invasion of Arawn’s stronghold Annuvin, and the fulfillment of several side conflicts. A secondary plot revolves around Taran’s search for personal worth, which he discovers is not based on birth or lineage, but instead on personal virtue and humility. Overall, this book’s plot is straightforward and engaging. (9/10)
In The High King, Alexander dives deep into the same themes as in the rest of the series, most notably sacrifice, nobility, and friendship, by exposition through his characters. With the death of Coll, one of Taran’s mentors, as well as several other characters Alexander explores the nature of grief and the consequences of evil. Readers should note that Alexander does not shy away from depicting “evil” in his villains and their actions (although in my mind, he does this in an entirely age-appropriate way), but also that he shows this evil to be truly bad and destined for ultimate destruction.
Many previous characters appear in this book, and Alexander does a commendable job of displaying the protagonists’ deep friendship and care for each other. Overall, this book’s characters do an excellent job of displaying both the best and worst of human nature, and merit a 9.5/10 rating.
The High King is not technically difficult in terms of writing style, although the book conveys perhaps greater emotional depth than others in the series. The style is comparable to that of the rest of the series and incorporates the same kind of descriptive language (which is not excessive or flowery). Overall, this book is not particularly difficult in style but may require slightly more consideration than other books in the Chronicles of Prydain on grounds of thematic complexity. (3/10, see Concerning content for more)
Quality of writing
Similar to the other Chronicles of Prydain in style, The High King is a well-written book that incorporates excellent descriptive language and worldbuilding. Consider, for example, this description of a battle: “…neither daylight nor darkness. Huge billows of dense white smoke rose in the courtyard, blotting out the dawn sky. Like swaying, twisting waves, they shifted as the wind caught them lifted a moment to show a struggling knot of warriors, then flooded back in an impenetrable tide.” Quite well-crafted writing, to say the least.
Additionally, Alexander’s incorporation of complex and mature themes (death of loved ones, parting, friendship despite extreme hardship) in an age-appropriate way is commendable and possibly one of the best parts of the series. This is especially notable in The High King, which particularly explores the suffering caused by the conflict of good and evil, while demonstrating that the good will inevitably come out on top. (9/10)
While the rest of the Chronicles of Prydain contain almost no concerning content (and The High King continues somewhat in the same vein by including no questionable sexual content or language), The High King does have a significantly higher death count than other books in the series. Granted, the book does tell the story of a war, yet readers will still see many familiar characters die or be wounded. In my mind, the deaths in this book are in some senses necessary to clarify the truly evil nature of the antagonist, but readers who prefer to avoid the deaths of familiar characters should probably avoid it. However, this should not be an issue for most, as the emotional impact of these deaths is greater than the action/dramatic impact— Alexander depicts these scenes with minimal violence or gore, instead focusing on the remaining characters’ reactions.
This book also incorporates more profound “versions” of the themes found in the rest of the series through characters’ repeated acts of dramatic sacrifice for others (this is honestly a plus, rather than an issue to be concerned about). Overall, the concerning content in The High King is not terribly worrying, as long as readers can deal with a number of familiar character deaths.
While this book has more deaths and incorporates somewhat deeper themes than the rest of the Chronicles of Prydain, its similar level of stylistic difficulty and clear-cut plot make it a reasonably easy read, even for younger readers. The High King is recommended for ages 8 and up.