Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
“Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.” Thus begins Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, the story of Taran, assistant pig-keeper to an oracular pig and ward of an ancient enchanter named Dallben. The setting of the story is Prydain, a land pulled from Alexander’s love for Wales and Welsh mythology. Peopling the story are a host of would-be heroes, from the enchanter Dallben, to Coll (a former warrior who works the land on Dallben’s estate), to Prince Gwydion (heir-apparent of the High King of Prydain), to Fflewddur Fflam (an errant king-who-would-be-bard), to Eilonwy (a fiery princess from an ancient magical line). But Alexander doesn’t choose any of these characters to be the hero in his classic children’s fantasy (first published in 1964)—instead he chooses the boy whose job it is to help take care of the pig.
I often tell people that reading The Chronicles of Prydain (of which The Book of Three is the first volume) is like reading The Lord of the Rings-lite. The narrative centers around the return of an evil lord in a dark realm who threatens everything good and noble in Prydain during a time of unrest, thus ushering in a new age of leadership, love and loss, and heroes. Everything in Prydain is on the cusp of change, but nothing more so, perhaps, than young Taran, the foundling who lives at Caer Dallben. In hobbit-esque fashion, Taran is an unlikely hero surrounded by characters much more impressive than he is. Also, much like a hobbit, Taran falls into his adventures by no real volition of his own. But unlike Bilbo or Frodo (or any other true hobbit, for that matter), Taran is eager to be a hero—eager, like most adolescent boys, to prove himself. And his drive to do heroic things and be a heroic person informs his decisions at almost every turn of The Book of Three.
But Taran doesn’t have any idea what heroism really is. When we first meet him—kicking against the goads of his tutor’s restrictions and longing not just to forge a sword, but for an adversary into whom to plunge it—we understand that his arc will be defined by a struggle not really against outside forces, but against himself. Taran, like so many of us, feels the acute need to have his self-worth validated by his deeds. Not only does he long to be heroic, but he cannot see his intrinsic worth or separate it from his desire for heroism. He thinks that if he distinguishes himself by great deeds, he will then be a hero. Sovereignty over self, and great prowess in battle—these are the two things Taran wants. To his mind, there is no honor in the small and ordinary, no heroism in tending pigs. He will be a hero if he fights bravely against some dastardly foe—a foe such as the Horned King, a fearful war champion of the evil land of Annuvin who arrives in the story only in whispers and glimpses that drive the animals on Dallben’s estate mad with fear. When Hen Wen, the oracular pig (and Taran’s charge), senses the Horned King and flees into the forest, Taran plunges headfirst after her to find her and bring her back to Caer Dallben.
Alexander doesn’t concern himself much with the Horned King. As villains go, he’s remarkably underdeveloped, existing solely as backdrop to Taran’s internal conflict and to spark Hen Wen’s—and thus Taran’s—flight into the forest. But The Book of Three is not about the villain; it is about Taran’s moral and spiritual development. The series, taken as a whole, is Bildungsroman, and The Book of Three only the beginning of Taran’s transformation. As such, his perspective and the changes he goes through can act like a mirror to us, especially now, as we rush headlong into another Marvel superhero extravaganza. The MCU, DCEU, and Star Wars universes promise to flood our culture with no end of stories of impossible heroes with extraordinary powers, which is why a story like The Book of Three is so important to our cultural moment. It reminds us that heroes more often lead quiet lives—that in actuality they are more ordinary than extraordinary, and that God uses the lowly things of this world to shame the strong.
And this is why it is so important that Taran is “only” an assistant pig-keeper. Taran has no great powers, no hidden strengths. He doesn’t discover that he’s the Chosen One, or even (at the risk of spoiling the entire book) dig deep into some well of previously untapped strength to rally for a strong finish. Taran is much like you and me: an ordinary, often weak, self-doubting person, bumbling through a life journey, who gets to the end, looks back, and wonders if he contributed anything of value at all.
In the closing pages of The Book of Three, after Taran has returned to Caer Dallben from his journey and misadventures, the old enchanter Dallben asks him: “I am interested to learn what you think of being a hero?” Taran laments all the things he didn’t do—all the errors he made on his journey, in comparison to his companions. He talks about how worthless he was to the overall adventure. “As for me,” he says, “what I mostly did was make mistakes.” To which Dallben replies, “Does it truly matter which of you did what, since all shared the same goal and the same danger? Nothing we do is ever done entirely alone.”
But Taran is still the hero of the story told in The Book of Three. Most of us will never relate to being an enchanter or a king or a bard or a princess, but many of us can relate to servile labor. Is there any job lowlier than serving a pig? In the context of the story, Taran is in the place of the lowliest of the low, and by making his hero a bumbling assistant pig-keeper, Alexander made him relatable to the least of us.
Heroic lives are usually, in reality, as unglamorous as assistant pig-keeping. Heroism is about faithfully doing the next hard right thing, often through pain and confusion and exhaustion and sorrow. We don’t need to be facing down dastardly foes to be heroic (although some of us are and some of us do)—life itself is challenging enough. Small acts of virtue by ordinary people spurring each other on to more virtue is often all the heroism any of us will ever contribute to our time on earth, but that is a perfectly righteous way to go through life. Heroism often isn’t defined by wielding a sword or harnessing great power, but by recognizing our need for each other and our obligation to do the next right thing. For these reasons, we should take care to cultivate the creation and enjoyment of stories like The Book of Three, which depict ordinary heroes leading quiet lives—heroes who don’t even know they are being heroic. There is hope in these stories for those of us who also kick against the goads of our ordinary lives. Heroism is found in the weak things of this world shaming the strong—in forging horseshoes rather than swords.
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