TARAN WANDERER is still my favorite, and THE HIGH KING was particularly hard for me to read this time. At its heart, this book is about war and conflict, power and leadership, ultimate evil vs. uncertain good. Friends die. Hard decisions must be made. It's all a little too close to current events right now to be a comfortable read.
At least in this book, we have a thoughtful leader who struggles with the need to use violence to preserve culture -- the culture he learned in TARAN WANDERER in the Free Commots. "My way is not the warrior's way; yet, if I do not bear my sword now, there will be no place in Prydain for the usefulness and beauty of any craftsman's handiwork. And if I fail, I will have lost all I gained from you." And later, Coll says of Taran, "It is harsh enough for each man to bear his own wound. But he who leads bears the wounds of all who follow him." (If only.)
The end of the book is filled with themes so huge that it seems impossible that Alexander could pull it all off and pull it all together. Certainly this is why the book was a Newbery winner. There is the nod to the Arthurian legend when Taran rolls a boulder off the enchanted sword Dyrnwyn and defeats the ultimate evil. There is the Biblical loss of enchantment and eternal life when the Sons of Don return to the Summer Country and Taran must stay behind and Eilowny chooses to stay behind, forfeiting her magical powers. Hen Wen becomes an ordinary, rather than an oracular, pig.
And there is the bittersweet realization that one's greatest accomplishment is only a beginning:
"Evil conquered?" said Gwydion. "You have learned much, but learn this last and hardest of lessons. You have conquered only the enchantments of evil. That was the easiest of your tasks, only a beginning, not an ending. Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men's hearts whose flame can never be quenched."