“Dallben straightened and turned. In his hands he held a sword.
Taran’s heart leaped. He grasped the weapon eagerly, his hands trembling so that he nearly dropped it. Scabbard and hilt bore no ornament; the craftsmanship lay in its proportion and balance. Though of great age, its metal shone clear and untarnished, and its very plainness had the beauty of true nobility. Taran bowed low before Dallben and stammered thanks.
Dallben shook his head. ‘Whether you should thank me or not,’ he said, ‘remains to be seen. Use it wisely,’ he added. ‘I only hope you have cause to use it not at all.'”
I honestly don’t know what to say. Perhaps this book is most remembered for leading to the Disney film that nearly sent the company into bankruptcy, but I never expected it to be as enjoyable, as beautifully written, as it is.
Before I get into it, as usual, I’ll give a summary.
Young Taran is an assistant pig-keeper in the kingdom of Prydain ruled by the great Caer Dallben, when a noble soldier, Gwydion, calls a meeting about a magical object known as the Black Chrocan, which can be used to raise an army of undead warriors. The evil wizard Arawn has the Chrocan and Gwydion and all the warriors in Prydain are tasked with retrieving the Chrocan and destroying it. During this meeting, we are introduced to a cast of characters who will play different roles in the story, either in large or small ways. Once the meeting is adjourned and all characters given different tasks for this expedition, they all set off for Annuvin, where the Chrochan is located. Along the way, we get to know such characters as Adaon, a noble warrior, Fflewddur, a bard with a penchant for his harp, Ellidyr, a cocky and hotheaded prince, and Doli, a dwarf with the power to turn invisible. While Adaon leads Taran and his companions, Gwydion and the others go in the opposite direction, in hopes of cornering Arawn. Along the way, the princess Eilonwy follows Taran’s group discreetly with her pet Gurgi, in hopes of proving that she is useful to them. Once Taran and his traveling companions discover her, she insists on coming along, as does Gurgi, and they ultimately are allowed to. But things turn out to be not as easy as originally thought.
Taran receives word that Gwydion’s troops got to Arawn’s hideout, but the Chrocan is not there. Making camp while Gwydion’s troops return to Caer Dallben to deliver the news, Ellidyr slips away while everyone is asleep. Thinking that he is going after the Chrocan, Taran and his friends go to look for him, only to stumble upon three witches and their cottage. Taking refuge there for the night, they find the Chrocan, which they bargain with the witches for. They try to destroy it, only to learn that the only way to do so is for someone to sacrifice themselves to it. Doing this would mean the death of that person. On the way back to Caer Dallben, Taran and his friends run into Ellidyr, who forces them to allow him to have the cauldron and the glory of returning it. Taran eventually agrees to this, only to realize that Ellidyr does not trust his word. They nearly come to blows, and Taran gets knocked out. Waking up some time later, he learns that Ellidyr took the Chrocan and fled, so the group heads back again. On the way, they meet up with the King, Morgant, who reveals himself to be a traitor who severely wounded the now-repentant Ellidyr. Gwydion’s troops arrive, and they clash with Morgant over the Chrocan. Finally, Ellidyr sacrifices himself to the cauldron, destroying it and ending the battle. The story ends with Taran and his friends returning to Caer Dallben to honor those lost in the struggle for the cauldron.
Fantasy stories have always been kind of a hit-or-miss for me. Growing up, I read Jenny Nimmo‘s Children of the Red King series and, while I really loved it, nowadays I find myself hesitant to read fantasy because some of the worlds authors dream up don’t click with me, or I find it hard to understand how they work.
My all-time favorite book happens to be in the fantasy genre, but let’s not talk about that here.
All right, honestly, I did struggle with this in the beginning but, ultimately, I’m glad I stuck with it.
The world of Prydain is one that reminded me a lot of medieval Europe, and I thought that was a nice touch to the story in making the world seem all the more real. It was enjoyable to follow Taran and his friends as they journeyed to find the black Crochan. The characters weren’t as fleshed out as I’m used to seeing, but considering the story’s audience, length, and flow, this can be forgiven. The characters aren’t given the most attention I’ve ever seen, but they are given just enough care that the reader can empathize with them as the story progresses.
Speaking of characters, let’s delve into them a little more. Let’s start with the main protagonist, Taran.
From the beginning I liked Taran. While his character is introduced using a strategy I’ve seen many times before (with him starting out as a lowly pig-keeper who is mocked by certain characters of higher status), it helped me to feel sympathetic toward him right from the get-go. He wants to be a hero, but does not let that desire corrupt who he is as a person. The quote which opens this review illustrates just how much potential he really has to do something great, just by being a good-hearted and well-intentioned young man. It should be noted that, like any great character, he is not without flaws. Throughout the story he struggles with the question of what it really means to be a hero, and the implications of forgoing honor to do the right thing. These are not easy questions, and honestly I was surprised to see Taran be confronted with such significant ideas and actually have to work through them to reach his goal in the end.
“Taran nodded. ‘I see now the price I paid was the least of all, for the brooch was never truly mine. I wore it, but it was not part of me. I am thankful I kept it as long as I did; at least I knew, for a little while, how a bard must feel and what it must be like to be a hero.’
‘That is why your sacrifice was all the more difficult,’ Gwydion said. ‘You chose to be a hero not through enchantment but through your own manhood. And since you have chosen, for good or ill, you must take the risks of a man. You may win or you may lose. Time will decide.'”
Moving on, I want to talk a little bit about the princess Eilonwy, because I really liked the way her character was handled.
I was pleasantly surprised with how she was written. I honestly did not expect to see such a strong and independent personality from her. It was nice to see her stand up for herself when she needed to and assert that she was worth something in the same way Taran and the others were worth something. Given that she is the only girl seen in the novel, there was a certain amount of sexism from Taran and some of the other soldiers. But her reaction to that misogynistic stance is really worth mentioning and I commend Lloyd Alexander for tackling this issue in a mature and thoughtful, yet still assertive and powerful, way.
“‘You’re a fine one to talk, Taran of Caer Dallben,’ said Eilonwy. ‘Besides, I don’t think you’re as angry as all that, not after what you said to Ellidyr. It was wonderful the way you were ready to spite him because of me. Not that you needed to. I could have taken good care of him myself.'”
On that note, I think it is worth mentioning Ellidyr next. I should note that, throughout most of the novel, he is written as very unlikeable. He is played as this very pompous, hotheaded, sexist elitist that rubbed me the wrong way many times over. As a result, I didn’t think I would ever warm up to him. That said, Alexander does not let him come away scot-free, and I liked that Ellidyr’s mistakes and pompous attitude caught up to him and eventually led to him being the one to sacrifice himself in repentance. I like the message the author conveyed through him, even if I didn’t like him throughout most of the story. I don’t think I can say that I really even like him now, but I do understand his motivations and character better and I honestly feel sympathy for him.
“‘For long, I hated him,’ Taran said, ‘but in the little while I bore Adaon’s brooch, I believe I saw him more clearly. His heart is unhappy and tormented. Nor shall I forget what he said to me: that I taunted him for seeking glory yet clung to it myself.’ Taran spread his hands in front of him. ‘With dirty hands,’ he said heavily.”
Finally, I want to talk about one character that genuinely surprised me. King Morgant was not fleshed out well at all in the beginning – he was merely a face with a name. We just knew that Gwydion called him to the council at the story’s start. And, while I would normally complain about that, I believe it was necessary here. That way, when he revealed himself as a traitor, it was justifiably shocking. When he revealed his goals – to become the most powerful monarch in Prydain – I was horrified by how powerful he already believed himself to be and how strong he knew he would become once he fulfilled his goals. I think that this revelation – hell, this character – is one of the strongest and most frightening aspects of the story as a whole. While an evil dictator is not a new idea, seeing it used in this story made it all the more terrifying, since the tyrant hid in plain sight and let others do his dirty work for him. This is an extremely frightening concept that Alexander took full advantage of, and I think it more than paid off.
“‘What,’ Taran cried, ‘will you set yourself to rival Arawn?’
‘To rival him?’ Morgant asked with a hard smile. ‘No. To surpass him. I know my worth, though I have chafed in the service of lesser men than I. Now I see the moment is ripe. There are few,’ he continued haughtily, ‘who understand the uses of power. And few who dare to use it when it is offered them.'”
The last thing I want to discuss is the story’s structure. Now, I fully admit that I was worried that it wouldn’t sit well with me. And, honestly, it did move a little too fast in the beginning. Again, given the younger audience it’s aimed at, this is not surprising, but I did worry that I wasn’t going to have a good experience. Fortunately, once I started to understand how the story worked, it was smooth sailing from there. I really did like how, in the beginning, it looked like it would be a straightforward journey to the Chrocan, but when it got to the point of arrival at Arawn’s hideout, you realize that it’s not as simple as the story first seemed to suggest. That made the story a lot more engaging than I had originally thought it would be.
All in all, it was a very good book and I may consider reading more of Alexander’s work in the future.
“‘What cause have I to grieve?’ asked Taran, surprised. ‘I am proud to serve Lord Gwydion, and there is a chance to win much honor, more than by washing pigs and weeding gardens!’
‘I have marched many in a battle host,’ Adaon answered quietly, ‘but I have also planted seeds and reaped the harvest with my own hands. And I have learned there is greater honor in a field well plowed than in a field steeped in blood.'”