Lloyd Alexander

How Social Media Has Helped my Research (or, the kindness of strangers!)

This is a title I never thought I’d write! But, having finished another book (submitted exactly a year ago today!) I’m in that reflective mood again, thinking back to some important moments and turning points.

Researching and writing a monograph is like going on a journey without a detailed itinerary. You sort of know where you want to go but you don’t quite know what is the best way there, or what places you absolutely must stop and visit on the way (so that your final destination becomes worth reaching). My first monograph was based on my PhD thesis – so it was, really, an act of re-writing. But my latest book, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, was a different story: I thought about it as a book, right from the beginning, and did a lot of the research (and thinking!) for it during maternity leave.

Not much writing at all happened during that time (baby in the house!), but a lot of close reading of primary sources (lots of children’s fantasy novels – quite apposite while getting used to life with a little one!) and a lot of thinking and note-taking (mostly on my phone while feeding, nap-time, etc.) Then, came the digging further into the Irish and Welsh sources my fantasy authors used (a lovely opportunity to go back to my MA in Early Celtic Studies reading and catch up with the scholarship since then). Also, a thorough read of interviews, lectures, reflective essays and blogs given/written by my selected authors (how lovely to be working with contemporary authors!), and – in many cases – a conversation with the authors, either face-to-face, or by email. In the case of the late Pat O’Shea, her partner Geoff Windle was so generous with his time in answering my emails and giving me an insight into her bookshelves and research. Also, my research on Lloyd Alexander was enriched by consulting his manuscripts at the Free Library of Philadelphia, though I never set foot there… but that is letting the cat out of the bag!!!

So during that research journey, there were times were I needed help: a quick chat with an archaeologist friend about Seahenge in Norfolk (which was part of the inspiration for Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge); a question to Welsh speaking friends and colleagues about an obscure (or imaginary?) Welsh word Alan Garner describes in The Owl Service; a telephone conversation with a former tutor about Roman helmets (for the chapter on Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence). All of these friends and colleagues are thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.

But there were also times when I (nearly) hit a dead end, and that’s when Facebook and Twitter came to the rescue! I was able to directly contact Jenny Nimmo because of Twitter. A series of messages there led to exchanging email addresses and a great conversation on The Snow Spider trilogy. Twitter was also the only way I managed to get hold of Marged Haycock (the editor of The Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin) and get a quick clarification on the title of the Welsh “Preideu Annwfyn” (The Spoils of Annwn).

As for Facebook, that’s where I moaned about not having a “portkey” for immediate transportation to Philadelphia, to see Lloyd Alexander’s manuscripts. I had been trying for a while to get in touch with the curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia, but my emails were bouncing back. Immediately, fellow Tolkien scholar John David Cofield (whom I had never met, but with whom I had “talked” on Facebook about Tolkien before) responded to my post to say that he knew someone working in the Free Library of Philadelphia. He put me in touch with the lovely Helen Azard who printed off my email and physically handed it to the curator! At the same time, Katherine Sas responded to let me know that she lived reasonably close to Philadelphia and that she’d be willing to go to the library for me if needed. So when a bit later I realised that I wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Philadelphia, but that they were happy to admit a research assistant on my behalf to photograph what I needed from the manuscripts, Kat took on that role immediately! The chapter on Lloyd Alexander would have been so much poorer without the manuscript research, and if it wasn’t for David, Helen and Kat I wouldn’t have seen the material at all! And all of this because of a moaning post on Facebook!

The second big Facebook success was related to my research on Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. I really needed to get hold of an obscure little book which shed more light on Garner’s involvement with the TV adaptation of his novel: Filming the Owl Service: A Children’s Diary. This is ostensibly the diary that Garner’s son and two daughters kept during the filming of the series (1969-70) which was then published in 1970 with contributions from Alan Garner himself, and Peter Plummer, the director. This little book has been out of print for years. Every now and then it does appear on second-hand bookshops online, usually for an extortionate price, and at that point there was just one copy on Amazon marketplace for an astronomical amount. At the same time, the few libraries that held the book had it marked as “reference only” and wouldn’t consider sending it to me as an inter-library loan.

In desperation, I went on the Alan Garner Facebook group and posted the cover of the book with this message: “Hello all, I was wondering whether anyone in this group has this book?” When a few members said they did, I explained further:


And, guess what? Katherine Langrish (THE Katherine Langrish, fantasist in her own right and author of the award-winning Troll Trilogy among many other novels!) responded straight away and within two days I had the book in my hands!!! And, I got to “meet” Katherine, even if only electronically!

Last but not least, I often used Facebook and Twitter just to keep awake during the many late nights I spent working on the book (well after midnight most of the time!) or motivated during the equally numerous occasions of having to work on weekends. Here’s only a selection of such posts:

And, triumphantly, the last one, posted at 05:20AM, exactly a year ago today!


The book is out! (plus “extended” table of contents!)

This week, the e-book version of my new monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, was released. This is my first experience of the braver new world of simultaneous e-book and hardback publication. The hardback won’t be out there for another couple of weeks, but the book is now, for all intents and purposes, published. Hooray!

I’ve blogged before about the cover of the new book (with which I am very pleased indeed), and I have also shared some of my research on Lloyd Alexander (here and here) and Henry Neff (here and here). You can download the front matter of the book via this link, and get access to particular chapters (or indeed purchase the entire e-book) here.
This book is part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature series, and when a monograph is part of a series it has an additional layer of “house style” to adhere to. This means that my Table of Contents is a little less detailed than I originally intended. I tend to work better with chapter titles which are then subdivided into smaller sections with their own subtitles. In my first monograph on Tolkien, all chapter titles and subtitles appeared in the Table of Contents, but with this one I had to stick to the rules and include chapter titles only.

For those of you, though, who may want to know a bit more about the contents of each chapter and would like to see the subtitles for each chapter section, I am offering below an “extended” table of contents with page numbers – I hope it will prove useful to readers.

Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology

by Dimitra Fimi

(Extended) Table of Contents

Note on Spelling and Dating (p. vii)
Acknowledgments (p. ix)
Contents (p. xi)

List of Figures (p. xiii)

Chapter 1: Introduction: ‘Celticity’, fantasy, and the child readership (p. 1)
Fantasy: tropes, categories, structure (p. 2)
Myth, Legend, Folktale and their relation to Fantasy: Reception and Adaptation (p. 4)
The Celts, Celticity and ‘Celtic’ myth (p. 7)
Children’s literature, Celticity and Ideology (p. 15)

Unravelling Celticity: The Structure of this Study (p. 16)

Part I: Irish Myth

Chapter 2: Otherworldly Ireland: Pat O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Mórrígan and Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman (p. 27)
Revisiting the ancient Irish deities (p. 28)
Irish Landscape and Images of Celticity in Tír-na-nÓg (p. 36)
From Pagan ‘Gods’ to Irish Folklore (p. 45)
Celtic Past and Christian Present – Redux (p. 53)

Conclusions (p. 59)

Chapter 3: Celticity and the Irish Diaspora: Re-writing Finn mac Cumaill and Cúchulainn for American youngsters (p. 71)
Mary Tannen’s The Wizard Children of Finn (p. 72)
Mary Tannen’s The Lost Legend of Finn (p. 81)
Henry Neff’s The Tapestry Series (p. 85)
The hero’s journeys of Max McDaniels and Cúchulain (p. 86)
Irish Gods and Goddesses: Weaving a new Tapestry of Myth (p. 93)
Irishness, Celticity and the Material Culture of The Tapestry (p. 100)

Conclusions (p. 104)

Part II: Welsh Myth

Chapter 4: Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain: Building Fantasy upon Forgery (p. 115)
Prydain and Wales (p. 116)
Fantasy Templates: From ‘Welshify’ The Lord of the Rings to ‘Filling the Gaps’ of Welsh Tradition (p. 122)
Prydain and the Counterfeit Tradition (p. 132)
Feisty girls, Oracular Pigs, Evil Enchantresses and Triple Goddesses (p. 138)

Conclusions (p. 147)

Chapter 5: Welsh Heritage for Teenagers: Alan Garner, Jenny Nimmo, Catherine Fisher (p. 157)
Alan Garner: The Owl Service (p. 159)
Jenny Nimmo: The Magician Trilogy (p. 177)
Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge (p. 195)

Conclusions (p. 207)

Chapter 6: Susan Cooper and the Arthur of the Welsh (p. 219)
The ‘Dark Ages’ and a Celto-Roman Arthur (p. 220)
The Arthur of Welsh legend and folklore (p. 231)
Wales and Celticity: ‘Oldest Hills’, Celtic stereotypes, and Gravesian Interpretations (240)

Conclusions (p. 249)

Chapter 7: Conclusion: Celticity and ‘Celtic’ Heritage (p. 263)
(Re)defining the ‘Celts’, ‘Celtic’ history and ‘Celtic’ mythology (p. 264)
The ‘Celtic’ past as national/cultural heritage (p. 267)

The ‘Celtic’ Character (p. 271)

Bibliography (p. 277)

A Beginner’s Guide to Researching Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain

Well, my new book (third book, but second monograph) is due to appear in the new year from Palgrave Macmillan. It is titled Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology and it explores the creative uses of ‘Celtic’ myth (mainly focusing on Irish and Welsh medieval texts) in modern fantasy for children and young adults. Chronologically I begin from the 1960s, with novels such as Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967), and end with very recent examples, including Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman (2005), and Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge (2005).

But the chapters of my book are thematic, rather than chronological, looking at the Irish ‘mythological’ cycle, the Táin, and the Fenian tradition, before turning to the Mabinogion, the Welsh Triads and the “Arthur of the Welsh”. Today’s entry is the beginning of a series of blog posts on motifs, ideas and research tit-bits that didn’t make it into the book, alongside some introductory material on my selected authors, some of whom my readers will know well, while others they may want to find out more about.


And I begin with American fantasist Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007), whose Chronicles of Prydain won critical acclaim and became a classic series of American children’s fantasy. The Book of Three (1964), The Black Cauldron (1965), The Castle of Llyr (1966), Taran Wanderer (1967) and The High King (1968) were later supplemented by The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain (1973) a collection of short tales that provide “back-stories” of the characters and events in the main series.


That Prydain is based on Wales, not only in terms of its geography and nomenclature, but also in terms of its mythology and storylines, is no secret: Lloyd Alexander was fascinated by the Mabinogion, enhanced by his posting to Wales during WWII. He spoke admiringly about Wales and Welsh legend in numerous articles and interviews, and was equally fascinated by Lady Charlottes Guest’s notes, as with her 19th-century translation of the Mabinogion.

Although Lloyd Alexander is often included in children’s literature courses (more so in the USA) and his fantasy world of Prydain has attracted its fair share of scholarship, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a fresh wave of research into his work in the next few years, especially as there are murmurs about a possible new film adaptation of the Chronicles (Disney’s 1985 film The Black Cauldron was a pretty loose adaptation of The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron, the first two fantasy novels in the Chronicles). I have, therefore, put together my version of a “beginner’s guide” to researching Lloyd Alexander, with a focus on Prydain.

To begin at the beginning, every good research project on Lloyd Alexander needs to understand the author, his time, his childhood experiences and growing up process, the circumstances that led him to writing for children (which wasn’t at all what he had originally intended) and the complexities of his engagement with Welsh legend.

418znewqekl-_sx314_bo1204203200_In terms of biographical background, two books are available and both are indispensable: Lloyd Alexander: A Bio-Bibliography, by James S. Jacobs and Michael O. Tunnell  (Greenwood Press, 1991) and Lloyd Alexander: A Critical Biography, by James S. Jacobs (EdD dissertation, University of Georgia, 1978).*

The former is the more recent book, made up of a brief biography of Alexander (37 pages) and devoting the bulk of its contents to an extensive bibliography of Alexander’s own works and to works of criticism on Alexander’s fiction. The biography we get in this book takes us to the 1990s, but Jacobs’s 1978 dissertation, despite stopping at an earlier point, is the superior biographical study, offering over 300 pages of double-spaced typed pages on Alexander’s childhood, formative years, first literary endeavours and road to success as a children’s fantasist. On the other hand, the bibliography in the Jacobs and Tunnell book is superior to the one that appears in Jacobs’s dissertation, mainly because of the systematic listing of secondary sources on Alexander’s work.

lloyd-alexanderThe two books, therefore, complement each other really well. The 1978 dissertation will tell you about Alexander’s “eat and read” programme (this is such a good idea I ought to do a separate blog post on it!), about his struggle to find his calling, about his war experience, and his involvement with translating into English some of the works of giants of the Parisian high-brow literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s (such as Paul Éluard and Jean-Paul Sartre). It will take you through his first, abortive, effort to write an “enormous  novel of social realism” along the lines of Balzac, and his eventual acceptance of writing as a craft, which became exciting again when he struck upon the idea of Time Cat, a book about a cat who time-travels to live his “nine lives”, taking his boy-owner along for the journey. It chronicles the birth of the idea of the Chronicles of Prydain in minute detail, with appendices that include Alexander’s first written proposal for the series to his publishers (plus his outlines for each volume), as well as correspondence with his editor over many years, Anne Durell. The 1991 book, on the other hand, will give you a much wider picture of Alexander’s entire oeuvre (he remained a prolific writer throughout his life, though the Chronicles of Prydain remain his most popular series of books) and will get you started on what has already been done/said/argued about his creative work (at least up to the 1990s).

Another gentle way to begin this journey of researching Alexander’s biographical background, is to watch Jared Crossley’s documentary Lloyd Alexander (2015), now available online, which features both Jacobs and Tunnell, and includes – of course – extensive footage of Lloyd Alexander himself.

The next absolutely indispensable resource on Alexander’s Prydain, is Michael O. Tunnell’s The Prydain Companion: A Reference Guide to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (Henry Holt and Co., first published in 1989, revised in 2003). This is a comprehensive glossary/dictionary of every single character, place-name, object, or motif, in the entire Chronicles, including The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain

9781429960007Tunnell takes us through the secondary world ‘infrastructures’ Alexander invented for his Prydain, from Achren (the female villain of the series) to Ystrad (the river that runs through Prydain), reminding us of plotlines, genealogies, obscure references, places and peoples. In many entries he quotes liberally from Alexander’s letters, essays, and also from the private interviews he had with the author. In addition, he also references Alexander’s Welsh sources, citing Lady Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion, Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, and even Edward ‘Celtic’ Davies’s Mythology and Rites of British Druids, where appropriate. This is, therefore, a doubly useful book for anyone researching Prydain, not just a quick reference for any of the countless names one may need a reminder about, but also as a first introduction to the kind of Welsh sources Alexander used, and they ways he engaged with them. Chapter 4 of my book, “Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain: Building Fantasy upon Forgery”, problematizes these sources and focuses on the constructedness of ‘Celticity’ in Alexander’s work, but Tunnell’s book is still a great place to start.

I am not going to attempt an exhaustive bibliography of “main” critical work on Prydain, but I am offering you below a list of books (specifying chapters) and journal articles that were very useful when researching my own chapter on Alexander’s use of ‘Celtic’, especially Welsh, medieval literature and legend:

Filmer-Davies, Kath (1996) Fantasy Fiction and Welsh Myth: Tales of Belonging. Basingstoke: MacMillan. [See Chapter 5: “The Place of the Pig-Keeper: To Know Oneself”]

Lane, Elizabeth (1973) “Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and the Welsh Tradition.” Orcrist 7, 25-29.

Sullivan III, C.W. Welsh Celtic Myth in Modern Fantasy. Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1989. [See Chapter 4: “Inventing”, the first section of which focuses on Lloyd Alexander]

White, Donna R. A Century of Welsh Myth in Children’s Literature. Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1998. [See Chapter 5: “Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain”

I am hoping that Chapter 4 of my forthcoming monograph will be a worthy addition to this list (especially as it takes issue with some of these sources too!).

From this point on, I am adding a few more resources that cannot really be claimed to be in the “beginners” category. One is most definitely “advanced”, while the other is within the realm of reception and adaptation. But they are both worth knowing about!

Being a scholar who has enjoyed archival research (working with J.R.R. Tolkien’s manuscripts, primarily) and have found it very fruitful, I went looking for Alexander’s papers, and was very pleased to find out that they are in a public institution and accessible to scholars and researchers. For those lucky people who can easily travel to the Free Library of Philadelphia, Alexander’s papers are now held there as part of their Children’s Literature Research Collection. Here’s a link to the collection inventory. I visited this archive only vicariously, through my brilliant research assistant, Katherine Sas, and was very lucky to read the very first draft of The Book of Three, and explore other bits and pieces. Some of Lloyd Alexander’s handwritten notes and drawings are available online via the collection’s website, such as this map of Prydain (which will be reproduced in my book) and this delightful and whimsical letter by Alexander to his editor’s cat!

Last but not least, I have been following (and found a pleasure to watch unfolding) a fan adaptation of the first book of the Chronicles, The Book of Three, as a graphic novel. The artist, Dawn Davidson, has been gradually retelling the story of Taran, Gwydion, Eilonwy, and all of other beloved characters from the opening volume of the Prydain saga. She has just reached the point in which Taran and Eilonwy find the enchanted sword Dyrnwyn in the secret passages beneath Spiral Castle. You can follow her on Facebook too, where she posts each new page as soon as it’s done.




*Jacobs’s dissertation should be accessible via Inter-Library Loan or via ProQuest.