[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]
During an early scene in The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, a palace servant gently mocks his sovereign lord. “Ignorance is a common ailment,” he says. “In time, it goes away. Unless it proves fatal.” His remark sets the tone of this strange and intriguing book, which is one of Lloyd Alexander’s more haunting novels, if hardly his most cheerful.
When the elderly emperor of T’ang is too frail to travel northward to study another kingdom’s system of perfect justice, his son, Jen, offers to go on his behalf. Decent but naive, Jen leaves the confines of the palace and is shocked by the harsh world beyond. Distracted from his journey, the young prince falls in love, faces murderers, is reduced to begging, and comes to understand how his decisions echo in the lives of friends and strangers alike.
Promises kept, traumas overcome, lessons learned, generosity rewarded—Lloyd Alexander’s foray into quasi-Chinese myth dwells on many of his usual themes, but The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen sparkles with eerie details: a general who stays conscious even as he turns to stone; an artist who literally gets lost in his own painting; and a catatonic child who sails through the clouds on a kite. The villain, too, is no cackling caricature but a mass murderer whose whispering sword begs to drink the blood of its victims. Full of roving mystics and fickle magic, Alexander’s mythologized China is weird and unnerving. As lost as Prince Jen, the reader discovers the workings of the novel’s moral universe only gradually, each time Jen and his companions stumble, suffer, and fail.
In 1991, after writing five Vesper Holly novels, Lloyd Alexander was clearly eager to try something different. The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen opened the final phase of his career, a mature, sixteen-year period marked by experiments with light comic fare, literary autobiography, and clever musings on the art of storytelling. With its depictions of human cruelty, including a good prince condemned by a corrupt magistrate and left to scavenge like an animal, The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen especially resembles The Rope Trick, in which even decency and good humor fail to leaven the sadness of the world. Jen’s journey ends well, but its lesson is somber: that we earn adult wisdom only through hardship, injustice, and fear.