Series Week VIII (The Chronicles of Prydain): The High King by Lloyd Alexander (1969 Newbery Medal)

The High King, by Lloyd Alexander, was published in 1968 by Henry Holt.

In this magnificent finale to the Chronicles of Prydain, the whole land is the stage for the ultimate clash between the forces of good and evil. The last and greatest quest of Taran and his companions begins when the sword Dyrnwyn, the most powerful weapon in the kingdom, falls into the hands of Arawn Death-Lord, threatening Prydain with annihilation. Taran and Prince Gwydion raise an army to march against Arawn’s terrible cohorts, human and inhuman, in a decisive struggle that may be their last. After a winter march filled with danger, love and sorrow, the challenge of battle and the tragedy of defeat, Taran and his army finally arrive at the very portal of Annuvin, Arawn’s stronghold and, ultimately, at a decision for Taran that is the most crucial of his life.

The High King is the Prydain book that I remember the least, but upon rereading it may now be my favorite. Everything fits in this novel: Taran’s voice, Eilonwy’s stubbornness (and lack of similes, thank goodness), the threat of Arawn, and the return of characters from the first four books. The scope of the book is much bigger and it has a finality to it even from the beginning that marks it as The Last Book.

It’s also quite bittersweet, especially the ending. Yes, it’s happy in terms of Taran and Eilowny (who actually work much better here than in any of the previous books; Taran has matured and Eilonwy has mellowed and it makes for a much more understandable and endearing relationship), but it has a Lord of the Rings ending, where a lot of the characters we know and love sail off to what’s basically heaven while some are left behind—and the ending of Prydain is even more bittersweet, since the majority of the characters leave and Taran is faced with the prospect that the rest of his life will be filled with toil that he might not even succeed at—and he won’t even be remembered for it. But if there’s one thing the Chronicles of Prydain is distinctly lacking, it’s happiness, and the ending fits that. This is not a happy series, and the ending is not stereotypically happy, either.

As much as I liked the book and what it accomplished, I did think the final battle was a little anticlimactic. I also didn’t understand how Taran could see something behind him if it’s not stated that he turns around, but whatever, Alexander. I get you. Taran is awesome and accomplishes great things, even if Arawn is dispatched rather swiftly. The flaming Dyrnwyn and the death of the Cauldron Born was suitably awesome. (To be honest, the Cauldron Born are scarier than Arawn, at least as portrayed in the book since we never actually see him).

The High King is a memorable ending to the series in that it has a wider scope and has a grand finale air throughout the entire book. It also is my favorite in the series. Taran’s voice now seems much more natural, he’s suitably awesome, his relationship with Eilonwy finally begins to cement itself as an Actual Thing and not just some sort of You’re The Only Girl I Know and Probably The Only Girl That Exists in Prydain, and don’t forget the awesomeness of Dallben, who is right up there in Gandalf/Dumbledore-levels of cool wizards. A fine ending to a series that, while not very happy, is certainly satisfying and suitably fantastical. 

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Some violence, war, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Fflewddur bowed his head. “His hurt was beyond my skill to treat. I could do no more than bring him here as you see him.”

“You saved his life, my friend,” Taran said.

“And lost what Gwydion would have given his life to keep!” cried the bard. “The Huntsmen failed to slay him, but a greater evil has befallen him. They’ve stripped him of his sword—blade and scabbard!”

Taran caught his breath. Concerned only for his companion’s wounds, he had not seen that Dyrnwyn, the black sword, hung no longer at Gwydion’s side. Terror filled him. Dyrnwyn, the enchanted blade, the flaming weapon of ancient power, was in the Huntsmen’s hands. They would bear it to their master: to Arawn Death-Lord, in the dark realm of Annuvin.

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