Lloyd Alexander is not famous for subtle narratives. His style is to address fear, selfhood, and growing up in very plain language. Taran wanders through the world in search of a pool of water to show him his fate, and instead finds a plain pool of water showing his reflection. A cloth is woven by the fates but chosen by the ones who live their lives. To return home is to find that one has changed.
Sometimes this works, and when it works it works. The Chronicles of Prydain are incredible novels, classics of children’s literature. But sometimes this doesn’t work, as in “The Wizard in the Tree.”
Maybe it’s just that Alexander doesn’t earn his anvils, the way he earns them in “Prydain.” The characters aren’t as strong and interesting, the world isn’t compelling, the narrative possibilities are textbook-perfect but fall flat. A trope is nicely subverted, as a sleeping wizard proves to be complaining and useless. But when the quotes work best out of context, instead of in context, you know there’s a problem:
“Nothing ends as it does in fairy tales. I did love them so, and I did believe them. I’m sorry they aren’t true.”
“Not true?” cried Arbican. “Of course they’re true! As true as you’ll ever find.”
“But you told me–”
“I never said such a thing! How could you have misunderstood me? Those tales of yours–yes, you people amde them up. They aren’t tales about us, though you may pretend they are. They’re tales about yourselves, or at least the best parts of yourselves. They’re not true in the outside world, mine or any other. But in the inside, yes, indeed.”
If Arbican weren’t largely defined by his uselessness, and Mallory by her helplessness, then this all may have hit home a lot better.