Over at Sam Riddleburger’s blog, there’s an interesting post (among several) on Lloyd Alexander. Specifically, after reading The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, Sam, a big fan and defender of Alexander, nevertheless asks the question that probably occurs to most of his readers sooner or later, namely:
Why did Alexander write the same book over and over again? Prince Jen, The Iron Ring, The Arkadians and his last novel Carlo Chuchio are basically the same book set in respectively, the Orient, India, Ancient Greece and the Mideast. Meanwhile, other books of his, including Westmark and the Prydain series also feature some of the same characters & situations. By the time you’ve read a lot of his books, it’s hard to tell Lukas Kasha from Gypsy Riska from Sebastian.
I can’t argue with this, really. Nor with the basic Lloyd Alexander plotline Sam presents as applicable to most of his fantasy for children. In my own forthcoming review of Chuchio, I acknowledge as much, pointing to “Alexander’s usual cast of misfits” and other recurring elements from his body of work. So, if this is true, one might ask why, as Sam does in his post. Was it creative myopia or deliberate reflection?
He wonders whether Alexander “felt that he had a great story (and it IS a great story) and he wanted to polish it, to perfect it, to try it out with different backdrops and cultures,” or maybe whether “he didn’t quite realize what was happening. Perhaps he started writing and the characters just always pushed him in that direction. He set a kid on a quest and partway through the book realized that the quest was lame compared to a bigger lesson he could offer.”
I think both are part of the answer. In an interview conducted shortly before he died (part of the press material for Chuchio), Alexander wrote: “I have to hope that maybe this time I got it right. As objective as I can be (which is never really objective), the architecture is right, the structure works.” It sounds to me like Alexander had a sort of prototype story in his mind, an edifice of moral lessons he wished to convey — and he built many (perhaps most) of his novels on this foundation, varying the details and settings in whatever ways interested him at the time, but always retaining that same moralistic foundation. The prototype story does work, and he left us with many examples of similar, but very satisfying retellings of it. I can, however, understand where this could become a bit hackneyed. Fortunately, Chuchio varies in other ways — for example, in its use of the first-person, which was very uncommon for Alexander until late in his career.
I also think that Alexander felt he was doing an important service by representing the underlying values common to all cultures, showing children that we should respect people from all walks of life and all parts of the world. Elsewhere, I put it like this — “Alexander’s sensitivity to ethnic and cultural diversity continues to teach young readers about the cultural mores of China, India, Greece, and the Middle-East as well as Europe” (this is from my forthcoming encyclopedia entry on Alexander for Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy: An Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, edited by Robin Reid, 2008).
Could Alexander have stretched himself, creatively, more than he did? Yes, he could have. Whether he should have is perhaps not for us to judge; we’ll have to let his reputation stand against the test of literary history. But if I were a betting man, I’d say his place in the canon of children’s literature is perfectly safe.