At Home in Oneself: A Book Review of Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

In Taran Wanderer, fourth in The Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, Taran begins his quest to learn his parentage with a great deal of pride. His pride has always manifested itself in the series as quickness to judge others, accumulated shame regarding his own mistakes, and a high value on birth, nobility, and glory in feats of heroism—whence comes greater shame as regards himself, since he has an unknown birth, no noble rank, and his greatest feats of heroism in the series are of self-denial (and therefore lacking outward glory). In Taran Wanderer, he comes to learn true humility by a gradual journey from outward comparisons to an inward honesty and magnanimity. 

The Journey Inward

While his motive in setting out is in part so he can wed Eilonwy, his desire to find his parentage stems from the source of his inner turmoil, the question all must ask: Who am I? For the first portion, and perhaps most of the book he deals with the most external thing: Blood and family ties. At the end of the novel, Taran recounts how King Smoit, quite early in his journey, told him that “manhood is not given, but earned,” but Taran “did not heed him.” His first great step in searching for his identity and existential validation in a more interior way comes after seeing the flaws in his own judgement of others at Craddoc’s farm. He decides to give up his quest of learning his parentage, and says the following: 

“My quest has brought only grief to all of you. And for me, it’s led me not to honor but to shame. Taran? Taran makes me sick at heart. I longed to be of noble birth, longed for it so much I believed it was true. A proud birthright was all that counted for me. Those who had none—even when I admired them, as I admired Aeddan, as I learned to admire Craddoc—I deemed them lesser because of it. Without knowing them, I judged them less than what they were. Now I see them as true men. Noble? They are far nobler than I. I am not proud of myself. I may never be again. If I do find pride, I’ll not find it in what I was or what I am, but what I may become. Not in my birth, but in myself.”

This decision to give up his quest of  learning his origins provides, over time, a twofold remedy: his decision to ‘become’ himself is not only a walking away from the vanity of pride of birth, but also of shame in his mistakes. Though he still speaks from pride—for pride is the source of shame—he has come so low in his own eyes by judging others based on their birth and rank that he has realized on the one hand that he can never undo such folly, and therefore his past is of no merit, but on the other hand that the worth of a man has nought to do with his past (as with Craddoc), and therefore again his past is of no merit. Forsaking all hope of pride in his past deeds, he is now free to begin forsaking all shame also in his past mistakes. 

The work that he then pursues in the Free Commots is more interior to his identity, for it does not hold value in his eyes as meritorious actions or outward glory. The blacksmith and the weaver each testify to this in their statements, which inspire Taran, that life is a forge, or life is a loom: one’s character is not only proven, but formed over time, and the result is not a thing achieved by tasks performed without mistake, but rather a work of art formed from years of toil and learning from error, a thing whose beauty and merit lies not in anything outside itself, the finished product. That this emphasis on work is not an emphasis on personal accomplishment is further exemplified by Taran’s love of pottery despite having less skill in it. It would have made him most happy, not because he had a gift for it—which he did not, though he did with smithing and weaving—but because he felt fully alive while doing it. Man must work. But, he must rest, rest after his work, as well as rest in his work, as Taran would have done with pottery had he been gifted for it. The fact that he cannot do that which he desires most is a simple and great fact of many people’s lives. This does not, however, lessen the value of other work Taran does, and to which he returns in the end of the story; nor does it lessen his own value or worth, and so it does not lessen the joy and love with which he may do other work. We are human being, not human doings. The doing must flow from the being, as Taran saw was the case with Annlaw Clay-maker. 

Taran notes in his final conversation with Annlaw that friendship is also one of the great goods he has gained. This, I think, helps lead him to the decision to return to Caer Dallben, for the work he goes back to is a work of love, and we are made for service and love, for joy and rest. Taran will find this best at home in Caer Dallben, with his friends, with the work which he does love and which, like pottery though less so, is an emanation from his being. The work is care-taking for a place he loves, a place that is the only home he has known, and the work provides companionship with Coll and Gurgi. 

All Comparisons are Odious to Me

But the most interior part of his journey, where he ends, is seen in his final conversation with Annlaw, his final conversation in the book. He says: 

“I saw myself [in the Mirror]. In the time I watched, I saw strength—and frailty. Pride and vanity, courage and fear. Of wisdom, a little. Of folly, much. Of intentions, many good ones; but many more left undone. In this, alas, I saw myself a man like any other. But this, too, I saw. Alike as men may seem, each is different as flakes of snow, no two the same. You told me you had no need to seek the Mirror, knowing you were Annlaw Clay-Shaper. Now I know who I am: myself and none other. I am Taran.”

To put it simply, Taran learns a rule necessary for humility: as St. Teresa of Ávila put it, “All comparisons are odious to me.” I do not mean that it is prideful to see someone excel and to desire to excel likewise, or even to surpass them. But if my primary desire is for competition, so that another must lose or I must win in order for me to be satisfied, then that desire is born, not of the desire for excellence, not of magnanimity, but of vanity, pride, comparing myself to another and judging the value of each in light of whatever comparison I am making.1

Taran learns to lose comparisons because he has learned, firstly, that he has neither a monopoly on virtue nor on folly. As C. S. Lewis said, humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. Taran learns in the course of his journey not to focus so much on his mistakes—as if he were the only one who fails and were a novelty—nor on anything outward, such as blood or rank or accomplishment—since he witnessed in other men greatness of character while being lowly in birth and having made mistakes in the past. And if mistakes cannot lessen one’s worth and do not distinguish one as less than other men, neither can accomplishments increase one’s worth or place him above other men. Mistakes are, indeed, the way all men grow and learn.

He loses comparisons, secondly, in coming to know the uniqueness of each man. In his encounters with others, such as Annlaw and Llonio, who expressed joy of living fully in their own ways, such that none could or should compare themselves with them, and in coming to know himself, both his weaknesses and his strengths, forged over time and woven such as no other man has been or could be, Taran comes to see that he like every man is unrepeatable, incomparable. His analogy of snowflakes is apt, for how laughable it would be for one snowflake to pretend to be above or below others. How laughable, also, for any snowflake to pretend to be ordinary or dull.2

“Man, become who you are.” ~St. John Paul II

A final note, which is due in relation to the theme of humility and the well-planned design of the story, is the author’s demonstration of how virtue is acquired. In the series up till now, Taran has shown courage in doing the right thing when it costs him dearly—especially when it costs him his pride. Yet up to and within this book he has often begrudged such self-denials, and afterwards is dismal (take, for example, how he hangs his head in letting Prince Rhun go to rescue Eilonwy in The Castle of Llyr). But virtues are, put simply, good habits. We acquire them over time, by practice. It is only at the end of this book (as observed by other characters in the next book, which takes place just after) that he has true joy in virtue. That is, he has acquired the virtue of humility to a great degree, so that it is natural for him, not forced; he is inclined toward it, not begrudging it. His countenance is simpler, he can honestly look at himself without shame or pride. For humility is to know oneself in right relation to the truth. As Fflewddur put it, when Taran asked if a man is truly what he see himself to be: “Only if what he sees is true.” 

Understanding this development of virtue shown over the course of Taran Wanderer further reveals the intricateness with which the events are woven. The seemingly accidental side quest with Morda is an excellent example. There, in choosing to give to its rightful owners the jewel with which Taran could have learned his parentage (which at that point he still sought self-validation in), Taran practices self-denial and justice, growing in the virtues of humility and justice. This act takes place before his shift of perspective in truly understanding that, as Prince Zuko put it in Avatar: The Last Airbender, “Honor isn’t something anyone can give you. It’s something you earn for yourself, but doing the right thing.” Taran does not yet believe and understand this, for he desires still to know his parentage and find validation therein, which he believes the stone could buy for him. Yet he does the right thing, denying himself, or rather denying this lie that he believes concerning himself. This seeming side quest forms a pivotal step in his growth toward humility and giving up self-validation in his parentage. Taran shows that without the initial and intermediary steps toward virtue, we will be incapable of later possessing it in its fullness and joy. 

Thus what seems an aimless wandering forges Taran into “himself, and none other.” Lloyd Alexander’s story weaves together a beautiful pattern of true humility, of right understanding of oneself in relation to others and oneself. This virtue of humility and great gain in self-knowledge and self-mastery do not come through a mere spell, or a sudden revelation. They are attained over time, by practice of virtue, experience, honest reflection, and perseverance. It is thus that, in the end, Taran becomes a humble man, at home in himself, and so makes the journey homeward.

  1. Right competition springs out of mutual desire for excellence. In the movie, Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrahams says, “If I can’t win, I won’t run.” Sybil Gordon responds: “If you won’t run, you can’t win.” Abrahams’ primary desire was not for personal excellence, but for competitive winning, born of envy, born of comparisons, born of pride.
  2. If you’ve never seen photos of snowflakes up close, look them up, or the latter statement will make less sense.

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