During my childhood, I lived and breathed books. Sadly, when I stumbled blindly through adolescence, very few of my beloved books could help me understand the intensity of my emotions. The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander proved an exception. As its beloved main characters of Taran and Eilonwy found their identity in adulthood, so I believed that I might too. While some books lose their magic over time,The Prydain Chronicles still enthrall me.
What makes The Prydain Chronicles exceptional? First, there’s the plot. One can’t read a single chapter without wondering what will happen next. Yet unlike many modern young adult fantasies, the series is not merely action without substance. The moments are carefully crafted. One won’t read far without gaining deep insights into people, places, and life itself. Indeed, every time I read The Prydain Chronicles, I feel as if I am growing up right along with Taran and Eilonwy. Speaking of which, most of the main characters are folks you’d likely identify and enjoy getting to meet. They are honorable, fallible, quirky, and complex. Then there are the sensory-laden descriptions. Nestled between battles and other dramas are details of unique individuals and beautiful (or harsh) landscapes. Like a bed that provides the perfect support, Alexander’s descriptions enhance The Prydain Chronicles by immersing one into its imaginary Wales-like world while also temporarily relieving one’s heart from the anxiety. Expect to spend a lot of time resisting the urge to skip ahead to know a character’s fate and have tissues ready because there are lots of joyous and tragic moments. Last, but just as essential, is the humor. Alexander creates moments, dialogs, and characters which will make you grin and chuckle. If my glowing accolades have yet to convince you that The Prydain Chronicles is a must-own set, continue on to read summaries and highlights of each of the five individual books.
THE BOOK OF THREE
Meet Taran. Like most of us, he dreams of a more adventurous life. He doesn’t want to tend vegetables or make horseshoes but instead dreams of galloping about on horses, flashing swords, and being a hero. Coll, charged with Taran’s education, tries to appease him by helping him become something practical: an Assistant Pig-Keeper. This title bestows upon Taran the responsibility of caring for their prophetic pig, Hen-Wen—which, incidentally, has been his responsibility long before he was given the title. At the moment he is arguing that point, Taran notices that the bees are fleeing. Next, the rooster and hens follow the bees. And before he can stop her, Hen Wen has burrowed under the fence of her pen and escaped. In plunging after Hen Wen, Taran is thrust into a battle of good against evil with such abundance of adventure his heart ought to feel content, but instead he is left yearning for the peace of his home Caer Dalben.
On his perilous journey, Taran meets Gwydion who saves him from the Horned King. Although Gwydion and a few other adults (including the aforementioned Coll) often seem like one-sided characters, being faithfully good and honorable and wise, they possess enough personality to feel like dear friends by the end of the series. One thing that astounds me about The Prydain Chronicles is how large of an ensemble Alexander not only introduces but makes memorable. While trying to keep up with Gwydion, Taran is assaulted by a wolfhound named Gurgi. The latter’s favorite phrases are “poor, tender head” and “crunchings and munchings”. Although initially Gurgi seems only out to gain food, he proves a faithful companion. As the companions proceed, they’re captured by the wicked queen Achren. Taran is rescued again, this time by a girl. Although Eilonwy resemble the liveliest of chatterboxes, she also proves herself a feisty companion. When Achren catches Eilonwy talking to Taran and tries to whip her, she escapes by biting Achren. Although his release wasn’t intentional, Fflewddur proves another valiant companion, despite his penchant to embellish the truth. At the moment he stretches the truth, one or more of his harp strings break, adding unforced comical relief to a tale fraught with danger and grief. Much later in their adventures, as troops are being rallied for battle, Taran also meets Doli. He’s a dwarf who keeps trying to turn invisible by holding his breath. Everyone in his family has the power but him, which makes him feel like an outcast. As I said above, Alexander’s characters are all ones with whom you’d likely identify and enjoy getting to meet.
THE BLACK CAULDRON
Cover via Amazon
Trouble seems to follow Taran. That could be a good thing, given how much he seeks adventure. Yet the trouble he finds isn’t necessarily what he desires. One day while Taran is undertaking the dull task of washing Hen Wen, an arrogant stranger rides into Caer Dalben. The stranger demands Taran to run and tell his master that Prince Ellidyr has arrived. When Taran refuses, having his hands full with Hen-Wen, the prince leans down his horse, grabs Taran by his jacket, and hauls him across the yard. Fortunately, the incident mostly serves to damage Taran’s pride. Later, Taran gets himself in trouble while talking to Eilonwy. He asks her to gird him with a sword but ruins this sweet moment by explaining that he needs her help because she’s “the only girl in Caer Dalben”. Poor Taran! He’s in all this trouble but has yet to even leave with the council of men to battle against Annuvin.
Yes, the second book in The Prydain Chronicles is another epic tale. Normally, war stories are not my taste, but The Black Cauldron is about far more than battles and bloodshed. For example, there is what happens when Taran and his friends discover the location of the Black Cauldron. The group is under the leadership of Adoan. Each one debates whether to find Gywdion to tell him the news or to seek out the cauldron themselves and destroy it. The cauldron is magical, in that whenever a dead body is thrown into it, that body becomes a Cauldron Born under the service of evil. The Cauldron Born kill without mercy, but themselves cannot be killed. Naturally, the good side wants the cauldron destroyed. Adoan allows Taran to make the choice of what to do, which leads the group into the Marshes of Morva where grave choices await. The latter involves an opportunity on Taran’s part to gain unfathomable knowledge. Using it, he is able to guide his companions into unknown paths, sense impending danger, and know of the future. Yet is this how one really wants to gain wisdom? As I suggested above, one can’t read The Prydain Chronicles without thinking about life. Throughout the entire series, I never ceased to be impressed by how many gentle insights Alexander instilled into his terrific adventures.
THE CASTLE OF LLYR
The Castle of Llyr (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So far I haven’t told you much about Eilonwy. Alexander prefaces The Castle of Llyr by stating that, “For each of us comes a time when we must be more than what we are. And this holds true for princesses as well as assistant pig-keepers.” You’d think that with The Castle of Llyr being focused on Eilonwy, and my being female, this book would be my favorite. Yet except for The High King, the tales are all seen from Taran’s viewpoint making The Castle of Llyr still a boy’s read. Second, for much of the time, the story centers around the attempts of her friends to protect her. You see, Achren has returned and is seeking revenge. Well, actually, it turns out that Eilonwy is the last princess of Llyr. She alone has the power to invoke the magic devices and potent spells of the House of Llyr. And so Achren actually is seeking Eilonwy so she can control that power and rule the Prydain kingdom. Third, although I love Eilonwy as much as the other major characters, in many ways Eilonwy fits the stereotype of girls in traditional fantasies. Her societal role is to dress up, chatter, cook, and serve men, but she rebels against it by wearing men’s garb, wielding swords, and demanding rights as an equal. In the sense that she refuses to become a respectable princess, Eilonwy serves as a role model. In other ways she doesn’t, for she regularly thrusts herself into the forefront as one of the guys. For all these reasons, The Castle of Llyr is not my favorite book.
Yet I still like it. For within its pages, we meet the Prince of Rhun. He reminds me of a younger version of the inept and impatient but honorable and likeable Taran. I enjoyed how easily vexed Prince Rhun could make Taran. When Rhun introduces himself, he realizes to his shame that he forgot to ask anyone’s name. Now he has to repeat his whole greeting. In telling about himself, Rhun proudly talks about how easy it is to command a voyage: “All I have to do is tell the sailors….” Thankfully, the sailors know how to do their job and quietly go about their tasks without paying heed to Rhun, who has no idea how a ship is really run. Unfortunately, his lack of knowledge doesn’t stop him from trying to take his hand at steering, any more than it once kept Taran from trying to make or brandish a sword. Under Rhun’s control, the ship lurches so violently that Taran is thrown against the bulwark where he receives a nasty bump on his head. Still, when Eilonwy disappears and is suspected of being in danger, Rhun is among the first to join the search party. Despite all impending doom, he refuses to turn back but vows to find her. Through Prince Rhun and other new characters, Alexander instills humor into a sometimes dark story.
Taran Wanderer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Now I reach my favorite book. Alexander dedicates it to “For Wanderers still journeying, for Wanderers still at rest.” More than any of the other books, this one makes me think of The Wizard of Oz with its routine introduction of new characters and settings. In this way, Alexander has found an ideal way to introduce readers to the varied landscapes of Prydain. Herein, you cannot help but fail to appreciate Alexander’s ease in handling descriptions.
- Cantrev Cadiffor: “The countryside had long since changed from gray moors to green meadows and pleasantly wooded lands with farmholds nestled in the clearings.”
- Caer Cadarn: “Unlike the palisaded strongholds of the cantrev lords, Smoit’s castle was a fortress with halls of hewn stone and iron-studded gates thick enough to withstand all attack.”
- Hill Cantrevs: ” The farmstead Taran saw to be a stumble down cottage, whose walls of stone, delved from the surrounding fields, had partly fallen away…. In the midst of the high summits, hemmed in closely by thorny brush and scrub, the farm stood lorn and desolate.”
- Free Commots: “This was the land of the free commots, of cottages clustering in loose circles, rimmed by cultivating fields and pastures.”
The place Taran most seeks however is the Mirror of Llunet, which can be found in the Llawgadarn. The significance of Its description, which I won’t reveal here, lies in what it reveals to Taran.
Like Dorothy, who in The Wizard of Oz seeks a way home, Taran wanders in search of his identity. Taran hopes to find that he is of a royal lineage, so that he might propose to Eilonwy whom he deeply loves. While seeking his lineage, he learns many truths:
- The secret of luck is to sharpen one’s wit to use what falls into one’s hands.
- Life is a forge. Metal is worthless till it’s shaped and tempered.
- One’s lives and days intertwine; Wise is he who can see the pattern.
- Nothing is ever lost, but comes back in one shape or another.
The most important truth, which I won’t reveal here, lies in what the Mirror of Llunet tells Taran about his parentage. When upon meeting the herdsman Craddoc, Taran learns that he might have finally found his father. What will his reaction reveal about Taran as a person? To find out, you must travel along with Taran on his journey in Taran Wanderer.
THE HIGH KING
In his author’s note to The High King, Alexander writes “Like the previous tales, this adventure can be read independently of others.” Nevertheless, he admits, l”ong-standing questions are resolved in this final book”. For that reason I recommend that you first read the rest of the set. In this way, you’ll feel the most fear when learning that Arawn, Death-Lord, has left his stronghold. You’ll also better understand there is no hope if the enchanted sword Drynwyn can’t be recovered. You see, as with The Last Battle in The Chronicles of Narnia, The High King is about the beginning of the end of Prydain as we and our beloved characters know it.
As such, Alexander took some liberties that he didn’t in his previous chronicles. For example, now and then, you’ll find a chapter which is from the viewpoint of a character other than Taran. I especially liked the tale of Kaw the crow, a longtime companion to Taran who seeks out Medwyn (protector of animals) after being mercilessly attacked by gwythaints. Prophecies and magic also play a stronger role. Hen Wen makes two incomprehensible prophecies before her “prophecy sticks” break beyond repair. By the way, Coll now takes his place among the war gang. Indeed, pretty much everyone we know (along with some more new characters) will be required to take a stand for or against evil. You’ll also find that with so many beloved characters on the battlefield, it’s harder to know who will live and who will die. If you haven’t gotten yourself a box of tissues by now, I urge you to reconsider. Although I made it through the first four books unscathed, I felt heartbroken and more than a bit teary-eyed at some of the choices Alexander made in The High King. Yet I loved rereading it and the whole series enough that you can bet that I’ll pick them up again several more times in my lifetime.
The Chronicles of Prydain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
P.S. Christian artist Twila Paris composed a song “The Child Inside of You,” inspired by The Prydain Chronicles. My husband and I selected it as the solo sung at our wedding.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
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