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Rejecting the idea that “people are born heroes,” Sartre instead declares that “the existentialist says that the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero.” In other words, the idea of being born noble, as Taran realizes, is absurd.
While filtered through the genre conventions of fantasy, the novel emerges as an illustration of Sartre’s famous idea that “existence precedes essence.” Sartre argues against the notion that there is a fixed and given “human nature.” Rather, each individual defines his/her own nature through his/her actions: “Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. His birth simply does not matter—only his choices do.
We might take this more democratic, anti-aristocratic notion of heroism in Alexander’s work as not particularly existentialist, were it not for the fact that Sartre uses the same metaphor of heroism to describe his ideas.
At the same time, he was hesitating between two kinds of morality; on the one side the morality of sympathy, of personal devotion and, on the other side, a morality of wider scope but of more debatable validity. Taran can live eternally and devote himself to his love, or forsake that love, accept death, and choose the more ambiguous “morality of wider scope.” While the choice is eventually softened after his fiancé Eilonwy chooses to stay with him, his initial decision is quite surprising, setting the novel apart from most other works of epic fantasy.
But the passage quoted above is actually not written about the Prydain Chronicles.
It’s by Jean-Paul Sartre, from his lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Here Sartre is explaining the idea of existentialist choice through the anecdote of a man choosing between caring for his aged mother or fleeing France to try to join up with the Free French Army during World War II.
It only sounds like Sartre was talking about Alexander’s novel.The pattern indeed was mine.” Alexander’s tone throughout the series is so warm and gentle, unlike C. Lewis’s chidings, that these moments don’t come across as didactic or programmatic, but they fit, subtly yet unmistakably, with Sartre’s philosophy.While the Prydain Chronicles as a whole still invoke the language of destiny, at its conclusion Alexander insists on the primacy of human choice over any design or plan.Serving in Army intelligence during World War II, Alexander was stationed first in Wales and then in Paris, where he lived between 1945 and mid-1946.There he took classes at the Sorbonne, visited with Gertrude Stein, befriended and translated the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, and discovered the works of Sartre, only then coming to international prominence. Even fantasy series conceived in opposition to the norms of the genre, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, at most pull us up to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century texts of Milton and Blake and into a steampunk-inflected Victoriana. That connection—buried, forgotten, scarcely ever acknowledged by commentators—can make us reconsider not simply The Prydain Chronicles, but the whole genre of epic fantasy. Lloyd Alexander’s five-volume children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain, published between 19, at first seems like just the kind of old-fashioned fantasy series described above. Taran ultimately vanquishes the Death-Lord and becomes High King of Prydain. Yet Lloyd Alexander was deeply influenced by existentialism, and even played a part in shaping how we understand it. I don’t mean one set in contemporary America, but one not beholden to the past: free from the vague medievalism of George R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and untethered to folklore or ancient religious traditions, like the Anglo-Saxon myths of The Lord of the Rings, the Christianity of C. At the end of The High King, the final volume of Alexander’s series, Taran faces a stark choice. Could we imagine a fantasy epic based instead on contemporary philosophy? Maybe there is another model for fantasy, one that does not simply eschew the Christian framework established by Tolkien and Lewis that so defines the genre, but complicates it, turning the focus away from destiny and back to moral choice, to human agency.And prophecies are quite important to Alexander’s work as well.Yet the end of The High King, and Taran’s choice to remain in Prydain, serves to salvage the idea of free will within the deterministic framework of the genre.