Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) was one the greatest authors of novels for young people. His five book series Chronicles of Prydain is one of the most entertaining and profound fantasy epics of all time. Before becoming an author of over 40 books and winning many coveted awards, Alexander translated some of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical novels, such as Nausea and The Wall, from French into English. Sartre’s philosophy, which emphasizes freedom, choice, and authenticity, seemed to leave a powerful mark on Alexander whose stories typically portray characters facing existential decisions. Indeed, my ongoing love of existentialism can be traced back to my early love of the Prydain series which I read when I was ten. These decisions leave the reader, both young and old, with a lot of food for thought. But his writing includes many other philosophical insights about morality, politics, love, art, society, and so on.
Recently I read the series to my son, also ten, and I was amazed at the many insights I missed, or couldn’t adequately process, as a child. One insight I would like to share – really a bit of a riddle – comes up in chapter 19 of the first book in the series, The Book of Three, and has to do with evil. Consider these passages in which the wise and courageous Prince Gwydion is speaking to young Taran, the great hero to be, about the evil Horned King:
“He, too, realized the one thing that could destroy him.”
“What was that?” Taran asked urgently.
“She knew the Horned King’s name.”
“His name?” Taran cried in astonishment. “I never realized a name could be so powerful.”
“Yes,” Gwydion answered, “Once you have courage to look upon evil, seeing it for what it is and naming it by its true nature, it is powerless against you, and you can destroy it.”
What is Gwydion talking about here? How can we make sense of this? If you have any suggestions, please post them! I think one insight worth sharing is this: if evil people are, as Soren Kierkegaard pointed out, in part defined by their effort to defy the good by shutting themselves up in hidden isolation, then seeing into this isolation might indeed mark the end of evil. For an overview of this approach, see my posts on demonic evil here.