Monday, September 7, 2015

The Iron Ring by Lloyd Alexander: A Review

I love classics. They are probably my favorite “genre” of book to pick off the shelf, though of course classics can’t be defined into one particular genre of romance, suspense, mystery or tragedy. Yet no matter how many classics I read—the centuries-old stories lauded by contemporary and modern audiences and critics alike, written about by scholars, argued by academics, and force-fed to students—I always eventually return to Lloyd Alexander.

I had already read all of Jane Austen’s novels, David Copperfield, Robinson Crusoe, several Shakespearean dramas, Jane Eyre, and all of the Sherlock Holmes stories before I picked up my first Lloyd Alexander YA novel. But for a shy, introverted bookworm such as myself, it was akin to meeting a best friend. 

Lloyd Alexander’s novels for children and teens are almost always action-adventure books. Often the main character is a young man who must come of age through a series of misfortunes that usually lead him to meet a despicable Villain (often a corrupt bureaucrat abusing his authority) and helped by at one or two Comic Relief sidekicks and one feisty Heroine with whom he falls in love. 

These characters are sometimes a bit caricatured, but in the world Alexander creates—somewhere between a heightened reality and a book of fairy tales and fables—they are definitely vivid and alive.  The reader easily identifies with the emotions and problems of the main heroes.  And then there is always Alexander’s distinctive sense of humor. And beyond the formula of these novels there is usually something deeper, a theme that is taught in a non-preachy way. 

The Iron Ring is one such story. Set in a pseudo-Indian world of talking animals, a caste-ridden society, and principalities that struggle amongst each other for power, King Tamar of Sundari is our young, idealistic hero. When he shows hospitality to a fellow-king—the rude and condescending King Jaya—he finds himself forced to prove his dharma and defend his dignity…by gambling away his life in a dice game. The next morning he wakes up, and none of his advisors or servants remember Jaya’s visit. Tamar is almost convinced it was a horrible dream…until he notices an Iron Ring on his finger, a symbol of what he owes Jaya. 

Because he is a man of his word, Tamar sets out to Jaya’s kingdom, unsure if it really exists. On the way many side-adventures threaten to distract or keep him from his goal: he becomes embroiled in a blood-feud between brother princes, he rescues the impudent Monkey King Hashkat from the King of Snakes, Shesha, and finds himself enthralled by the beautiful and unconventional cow-tender Mirri, to name a few of his adventures. 

The common thread running through every episode is Tamar’s strict code of honor, his strident clinging to dharma, which in the book is explained as the rules of nature for every being’s station in life. For the monkey Hashkat, for example, he is only following a monkey’s dharma when he is tricky and thieving, while to a human king like Tamar trickery and theft are completely against his lot in life. The problem with Tamar’s attitude, though, is that he allows social expectations to guide him more than his own moral compass: it is only when he has lost everything that he thought was true about himself that he can finally know what kind of person he is, and is freed to follow what is good and right rather than what is expected of him and his kingly caste.

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