Series Week VIII: Wrap-up of The Chronicles of Prydain

Series Rating: 3/5

Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain mix of medieval fantasy and mythology doesn’t always hit all the right notes, but when it does it hits them well. Taran’s character development, the heroism in The Black Cauldron, and the general awesomeness of The High King are all what make this series stand out to me.

Some things make less sense to me, such as how the entire plot of The Castle of Llyr hinges on Magg snatching Eilowny from the castle in broad daylight, the occasional stiltedness of the dialogue, and Eilowny’s presence as the only female young adult living in Prydain. But those are not large enough black spots to ruin the good things, at least in my opinion.

I do think my speculation that Alexander was influenced by Tolkien is correct, or at least hints at the truth, since Prydain is so LOTR-esque in every respect. In fact, lovers of LOTR will probably enjoy Prydain if they keep in mind Prydain is a lesser being than LOTR.

The Chronicles of Prydain is not a series I find easy to reread, but it is one I enjoyed coming back to after eight or more years of not reading it. It definitely has its own place in fantasy and is memorable because of it.

As always, my favorites, ranked from most to least:

1.) The High King

2.) The Black Cauldron

3.) Taran Wanderer

4.) The Castle of Llyr

5.) The Book of Three

Tomorrow I’ll be posting a review copy, then I’m back to my normal schedule of Tuesday and Thursday, with fairy tales/2015-2016 books on Friday!

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.

You can buy this here:

Series Week VIII (The Chronicles of Prydain): Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

Taran Wanderer, by Lloyd Alexander, was published in 1967 by Henry Holt.

Taran is an Assistant Pig-Keeper no longer; he has become a hero. Now he dreams of winning the hand of the Princess Eilonwy. Eager to find his origins, Taran sets off with the faithful Gurgi on a quest across the marvelous land of Prydain. Their journey takes them to the three witches in the Marshes of Morva, through the many realms of Prydain, and finally to the mystical Mirror of Llunet, which may hold a truth about Taran’s identity that he cannot bear to face. In the course of his travels, Taran will learn much about his world and the good and bad people in it, but will also discover much about himself. After many hard lessons, Taran Wanderer learns the secret of the Mirror of Llunet and of his past—and finds not an ending but a beginning.

Taran Wanderer is the calm before the storm in Prydain—the last trip the hero takes before the final battle. It’s an oddly relaxing, soothing novel, Taran’s inner anguish aside. Maybe the lack of Eilonwy and her tantrums and similes have to do with the mellower mood. Taran basically just travels around Prydain trying to find himself or something like that. Along the way he solves a few problems, vanquishes some bandits, learns stuff about himself, and ultimately becomes the no-longer-whiny-but-still-annoyingly-philosophical-and-noblish-sounding Taran who will go into The High King with much more self-confidence and win the day for all. I’m not sure if I prefer it to The Black Cauldron or The Castle of Llyr, but it certainly has a different feel to it.

Yes, Taran is no longer whiny, but I still find his tone strange. It’s a tad melodramatic in places and just sounds off to me. I’m not sure why. It might be because, as I’ve mentioned before, no one else really talks like he does. But he does at least get some closure over who he is in this book, even if he does go through a plethora of metaphor and symbolism piled into certain occupations.

There’s a bit of lovely symbolism in the book in Taran’s sword(s). Alexander is usually pretty heavy-handed about character development (especially in this book), but the sword was a nice touch, I thought. Also, we can really see all of the lessons Taran has learned in the first three books culminating in his wisdom and ability to help out villagers in danger, which I appreciate even if it does make him seem pretentious at times.

Also, I am now convinced that Prydain has no teenage/young adult girls in existence except for Eilonwy. Boo.

I’m super excited to read The High King because I remember virtually nothing about it except for the end, so here’s hoping Alexander delivers and brings the Chronicles of Prydain to a satisfying end.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Some violence, war, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“But what of the salmon of Lake Llew? I’ve never met a wiser fish?”

“Gone,” muttered Orgoch, sucking a tooth. “Long gone.”

“In any case, ousels and fishes are flighty and slippery,” Orddu said. “Something more reliable would serve better. You might, for example, try the Mirror of Llunet.”

“The Mirror of Llunet?” Taran repeated. “I have never heard it spoken of. What is it? Where…”

“Best yet,” Orgoch broke in, “he could stay with us. And the gurgi, too.”

You can buy this here:

Series Week VIII (The Chronicles of Prydain): The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

The Castle of Llyr, by Lloyd Alexander, was published in 1966 by Henry Holt.

Princess Eilonwy of the red-gold hair is sad when she must leave her friends to go to the Isle of Mona for training as a proper princess. But Eilonwy will face much more than the ordeal of becoming a lady, for she possesses magical powers sought by Achren, the most evil enchantress in all of Prydain. When something sinister and secret befalls the princess, her loyal friends set out to rescue her. Along the way they have terrifying encounters with the forces of evil, private and sometimes painful revelations—and always, the promise of excitement and magic.

The Castle of Llyr has always stood out to me in the Chronicles of Prydain. I don’t know if it’s because of the giant cat on the cover of the edition I read, or if the (rather simplistic) plot just stuck with me over the years. Though I haven’t read the book in years, I remembered almost all of what happened—which, depending on how you look at it, could be good or bad (I have trouble reading the first Harry Potter book because I know it so well—it makes it very hard to read for some reason).

Taran is, thank goodness, much improved from the first two books, possibly because there’s no intimidating older hero to wound his pride. For the first time, Taran is the one who has to take charge for the most part, because even though Gwydion shows up to warn of Dire Danger and Doom, he disappears again, letting Taran take the reins. And let me tell you, Taran reads much better when he’s not whining about his honor and his ability. Alas, he still laments about his being only an Assistant Pig-Keeper, but whatever. We can’t get everything fixed at once.

Eilonwy bothers me exceedingly, if only because every time she shows up in this novel she’s throwing some sort of tantrum or storming off in a huff. At least she has a bigger role to play and is more involved with the defeat of Achren (if not almost completely responsible) this time around.

Some other things I thought about while reading the book were: 1.) Magg’s ridiculous plan to kidnap the princess, because all it took was just for him to waltz out the door in broad daylight with her, la la la, nothing to see here. 2.) I feel as if the only people in Prydain are the ones Taran encounters. There’s no mention of towns, villages, or anything and I’m wondering where all the plain folk are, the ones who aren’t noble rangers/princes like Gwydion or traveling bards like Fflewddur. Luckily, that gets sorted out somewhat in Taran Wanderer.

The Castle of Llyr does do wonders for Taran’s development, but as the series goes on I’m beginning to notice more flaws than high points. I’m not usually the type of person who insists on “strong” female characters in every novel (because what people perceive as strong is completely different) but Eilonwy is a bit of a mess, honestly. And yet there’s still lots of charm in the series if you can get past some of the worst bits. And the next two books are the ones I remember least, so perhaps some surprises will crop up!

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Some violence, war, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

You can buy this here:

Series Week VIII (The Chronicles of Prydain): The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander, was published in 1965 by Henry Holt.

In the imaginary land of Prydain, where “evil is never distant,” Prince Gwydion faces dangers more threatening than have ever been dreamed of. It has become imperative that the black Cauldron, chief implement of the evil powers of Arawn, lord of the Land of Death, be destroyed. For each of the warriors chosen to journey to Arawn’s domain, the quest has special meaning .To Ellidyr, the youngest son of an impoverished king, it means a chance to satisfy his bitter longing for fame. For Adaon, beloved for his gentleness and bravery, the quest is an omen whose significance he dreads to discover. And to Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, the adventure seems a glorious opportunity to wear his first sword, and be a man among men.

The Black Cauldron is probably the most well-known of the Chronicles of Prydain, likely due to the Disney movie. On my part, I always think of The Black Cauldron when I think of Prydain (although Castle of Llyr is close behind). It just seems to encapsulate Alexander’s work, although funnily enough, I don’t actually think the book is all that great.

The story is good, don’t get me wrong—but I found myself rolling my eyes more often than not at Taran’s speech patterns and all the melodramatic pronouncements of Ellidyr’s “black beast.” I do think the story itself is a good one, but it’s marred every time Taran opens his mouth and makes a fool of himself. Which, I suppose, is still part of his development—I don’t think Taran gets much better until Taran Wanderer when he goes off to figure out his past and grows up a little.

Fflewdur and Eilonwy also take a little more of a backseat in this novel, which is a bit of a disappointment. Eilonwy as a tag-along is not a good Eilonwy. I also don’t like how she’s the only female present for most of the series, not because of the lack of female representation but because she’s literally the only woman around who Taran could possibly fall in love with, which makes that development really boring. Who else is he going to be with if not for her?

But as I mentioned, I think the story is good: the temptations of pride and anger, the desire for glory, the importance of keeping one’s word, self-sacrifice, pity for the positions of others–these are all good themes present. And the best part of this novel is that Taran is not the ultimate hero of this book. Yes, he’s the main character and the majority of this book is him once again learning the lessons he learned in The Book of Three but with more people involved, but he is not the true hero.

Which, come to think of it, is probably why I—and undoubtedly others–always think of The Black Cauldron when thinking about the Chronicles of Prydain.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Some violence, war, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Our quest is urgent,” said Adaon, who had finished binding Ellidyr’s wound and had come to stand near Gwystyl. “We ask you to do nothing to endanger yourself. I would not tell you the circumstances that brought us here, but without knowing them you cannot realize how desperately we need your help.”

“We had come to seize the cauldron from Annuvin,” Taran said.

“Cauldron?” murmured Gwystyl.

“Yes, the cauldron!” shouted the furious dwarf. “You pale grub! You lightless lightning bug! The cauldron of Arawn’s Cauldron-Born!”
“Oh, that cauldron,” Gwystyl answered feebly. “Forgive me, Doli, I was thinking of something else. When did you say you were going?”

You can buy this here:

Series Week VIII (The Chronicles of Prydain): The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander, was published in 1964 by Henry Holt.

Taran is bored with his Assistant Pig-Keeper duties, even though his charge is none other than Hen Wen, Prydain’s only oracular pig. He’d rather be doing something more heroic, like making swords and learning to use them. When Hen Wen escapes and Taran goes after her, he finds himself farther from home than he’s ever been. Soon he begins to realize that heroism is no easy task. With the dreaded Horned King on the loose and King Arawn gathering the forces of evil, Taran must look past his own dreams to warn the population of Prydain—before it’s too late.

The Chronicles of Prydain is a book series I read when I was younger because my brothers read them, and I wanted to read what my brothers were reading. I don’t remember liking them terribly well, but I did read the first three several times, so the events of The Book of Three are pretty firmly established in my mind.

(Random side note: why is it called The Book of Three anyway? The book only appears at the beginning and the end.)

I like how Taran is a pretty unlikeable protagonist, especially in the beginning. He’s arrogant and foolish and rash and highly unbearable and it makes his change at the end more noticeable (although he’s not all together cured, as can be seen at the end of the book and in The Black Cauldron). He does have a strange way of speaking, but I’m chalking that up to the time period (1960s) and to the influence that J. R. R. Tolkien likely had on Alexander, and I do think there was an influence because this book is very Lord of the Rings-esque, and that can’t be chalked up just to the time period.

Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring was published about 10 years before this book, and the similarities between these two books are striking. We have Gwydion, the noble hero who travels the world as a “ranger” type who is strikingly similar to Aragon, right down to the special sword. We have Arawn, the Big Bad, who rules from a distant part of the world and plans to erase those who oppose him (Sauron, obviously). There’s also the similarity between the speech. Granted, Alexander based a lot of Prydain on Welsh mythology, which Tolkien also undoubtedly used, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of similarities.

I’m not sure I’m a fan of Eilonwy’s similes, but I like her if only that she is so different than most female heroines currently. She’s a bit bratty and a little annoying and while she can sort of handle herself, she also is helpless in other ways. And she and Taran have a very Ron-and-Hermione-type relationship, which is amusing.

The Book of Three is a good setup for the rest of the series. It gets across all the pertinent information and establishes character, all very important things for first books to do. However, I did find it a trifle inconsistent, especially with speech. Fflewddur and Eilonwy have a much more casual style of speech than does Taran, which can be jolting to read about, although I just realized that perhaps Taran is purposefully using that sort of speech because he thinks that’s what heroes sound like (or he is trying to imitate Gwydion). And that makes complete sense.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Some violence, war, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“I am Taran of Caer Dallben,” Taran said, then wished he had not. This, he realized, coud be another trap.

“That’s lovely,” Eilonwy said gaily. “I’m very glad to meet you. I suppose you’re a lord, or a warrior, or a war-leader, or a bard, or a monster. Though we haven’t had any monsters for a long time.”

“I am none of those,” said Taran, feeling quite flattered that Eilonwy should have taken him for any one of them.

“What else is there?”

“I am an Assistant Pig-Keeper,” Taran said. He bit his lip as soon as the words were out; then, to excuse his loose tongue, told himself it could do no harm for the girl to know that much.

“How fascinating,” Eilonwy said. “You’re the first we’ve ever had—unless that poor fellow in the other dungeon is one, too.”

Overall Review:

The Book of Three is a good set-up book for the rest of the series. Taran is annoying, but I do like his development as a character throughout the book and the series as a whole. Alexander builds the world fairly well, although I found some things inconsistent, such as speech patterns. I also thought this book felt a little like a mini-Lord of the Rings, which I can only attribute to Tolkien’s influence on Alexander and/or a shared use of mythology.

You can buy this here: