I’ll give whoever reads this blog post fair warning right here, up front: This is going to be a little different than my usual posts. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, will up to you to decide.
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to actually make the attempt to do something with this blog in 2018. Initiated in December 2015, I only started making somewhat erratic postings on it in July of 2016. I had, in my head, a schedule of making a post every ten days which would have equaled to about three posts a month. Not bad, I thought to myself. Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men, often go astray: last year there were some pretty noticeable gaps and again, this post, whenever it goes online, will the first one to be posted in over three weeks. Not a very good track record and not a very good way to start off a New Year’s resolution.
There have been some quasi-legitimate reasons: last year, my laptop, the only computer I have, needed some emergency repairs in the form of a new hard-drive. Other gaps had more to do with laziness than anything, with me wanting to curl up with a bowl of popcorn and a movie rather than thinking about what to write and then actually crafting it on the blank page. This latest gap is a little different because I have been under the spell of acedia.
Acedia was a new word for me. I just happened to come across it while looking through J. Budziszewski’s blog, The Underground Thomist. In one blog post, he defined acedia as “oppressive sorrow which so weighs upon man’s mind that he wants to do nothing.” Boom, I thought; that explains perfectly how I’ve felt for the last week. If anyone is worried that I’m going to make this post into a public confessional and start the old, “Woe is me…” routine, you can turn off the red alert. This is not going to be one of those blogs. I’ll only say that doubts, jealousies, second-guesses and a feeling of entrapment have woven around me, which is the reason for this little mini-hiatus. In other words, life is happening like it happens to everyone.
Acedia might seem like too strong a word. “Oppressive sorrow,” seems to be pulled from a melodrama. I wouldn’t have used the word, nor would I have seen the word as describing my state of mind, except for the part which said “that he wants to do nothing.” When you’re a bibliophile and you don’t really want to read anymore and the thought of acquiring more books does not but a spring in your step or if you’re trying to be a writer but putting words to the paper feels like trudging uphill through a foot of frozen molasses or if you love old movies but the thought of watching them doesn’t put a smile on your face; and instead, if you just want to sit and think about everything that is in your mind from when you clock out at work until you put the lights out and go to sleep, and then repeat the whole process again tomorrow, you might have acedia. Not for reasons of melodrama but because it’s there. What to do in a situation like that? Different people have different responses. My response is to escape into the fantasy of my youth and that means The Chronicles of Prydain.
It’s not that Prydain was the only fantasy that I read as a boy: my uncle read me The Hobbit and my mom read me The Chronicles of Narnia as well as a children’s version of The Arabian Nights, The Adventures of Robin Hood and John Henry. But Prydain was the first fantasy series that was, in a sense, my own. No one introduced me to it; no one suggested it to me. I just received the first two books—The Book of Three and The Black Caldron—for my tenth birthday. By the end of the week, they were done. For Christmas that year, I received the next two books—The Castle of Llyr and Taran Wanderer—and then, after a few years, from the local library, I got my hands on the fifth and final book, The High King. Although not as well known as Middle Earth or Narnia, Prydain weaves its own spell with its overarching story of Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper on the farm of Caer Dallben and his journey from boy to man. There are, of course, the inner circle of companions: Eilonwy, the copper-headed princess of the House of Llyr, Flewddur Fflam, the bard, Doli of the Fair Folk, Gurgi, caught between the world of men and animals; there are the secondary characters, real as life, in the form of Coll, former warrior turned farmer, Dallben, the enchanter, Gwydion, warrior and prince of the House of Don; and then there are the villains, chiefly in the forms of Queen Achren and Arawn, Death-Lord. The author who discovered Prydain, Lloyd Alexander, was, simply, a very gifted story-teller whose ability and imagination, even a horrible Disney movie could not destroy.
But what does Prydain have to do with acedia? Truth be told, not much. Though I still hope for and even seek occasionally, silver bullets for problems, I know pretty well by now that there are no such things. If re-reading the Chronicles was supposed to cure me of the acedia, then they failed. But, in another sense, they didn’t fail.
What has always enticed me about Prydain and the characters in it is that it is the most realistic fantasy that I have read which means, at times, it is quite gritty. Before Harry Potter made killing characters off a hobby, Lloyd Alexander filled his series with death and not just of monsters and villains. A noble character is killed about half-way through the second book, and more characters, some of them well known and loved, die as the story progresses. But there is more to it then just death. Life is there, in all its ups and downs, triumphs and defeats, successes and failures. And because the story is plotted so, there is more than a bit of wisdom in the books, perhaps more so than in most children’s books. There are, of course, the usual themes of good fighting evil and friendship, but there is more than that. There is the theme of honor and duty, which runs throughout the entirety of the Chronicles and which claims that there is as much honor in tilling a field well as in going to war. War, as Alexander shows, may be necessary, but glory and honor and not merely found in the battlefield. And then, there is the theme of life itself, which may be written most strongly in the fourth book, Taran Wanderer. Hevydd the Smith tells Taran that life is like a forge which will batter and beat a man into nothing unless he has the mettle to withstand it just as metal is worthless until it is shaped and tempered; Dwyvach, the Weaver-Woman tells Taran that life is a loom, where lives and days intertwine so that only the wise can see the pattern; and Annlaw, Clay-Shaper, shows him that life is a potter’s wheel where, in a sense, we become what we make of ourselves. And then, there is the wisdom of the enchanter, Dallben, himself, who says that sometimes the seeking counts greater than the finding and that there comes a time in every life when we must become more than what we are.
Rereading the series after more than ten years, reacquainting myself with the companions of Prydain and going with them on their adventures and quests again was like having old friends come over and stay for a visit. And, just like friends, they cannot really take the acedia away; they can be with you, for a time before they have to go, and leave you to yourself again. But they remind you that you are not alone, that daylight always comes, sooner or later, and that after rough times, wisdom may be gleaned. It does not take away the acedia. But it does give hope to shoulder on. And hope is sometimes all that an Assistant Pig-Keeper has to lean on.