Review: The Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander is the second book in The Chronicles of Prydain. It is a Newberry Honor Book (a mark of excellence in children’s literature) and it truly deserves the accompanying prestige. I loved this whole book. It is immediately stronger and more exciting than its predecessor, and the exposition is handled much more gracefully. The book also has a much more grasping, enchanting feel, making it feel a lot more like its literary contemporaries of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit. The language is more beautiful and majestic. There is much less use of ‘to be’ verbs, which slowed the first book down some.  Altogether, it is a cleaner, tighter plot.

The story begins with Taran taking care of Hen Wen, when the exceptionally rude Prince Ellidyr arrives and calls him a “pig-boy”. Taran does not take too kindly to the gibe, and proudly proclaims that he is an Assistant Pig-Keeper.  Ellidyr is less than impressed and continues to put Taran down. It turns out that Ellidyr has come to Caer Dallben for a Council of all the leaders of the various city-states of Prydain. At the council, Gwydion and the other leaders decide on a bold plan to destroy the evil Arawn’s Black Cauldron, so that he cannot make any more of the horrifying re-animated dead soldiers called the Cauldron Born. It has reached the point where Arawn has been killing people just so he can bring them back to life as his slaves.

Once the plan is in place, Taran sets out with the others on their adventure. Having grown restless at Caer Dallben, he is excited at the prospect. However, he is forced to work closely with Ellidyr, and the two of them do not get along, to say the least. Ellidyr constantly puts Taran down and is rude to everybody in general. Taran’s temper is tested time and again. But when Taran’s life is in danger, Ellidyr still saves him—seemingly only so he can use this fact to put down Taran even more. Taran and Ellidyr are under the supervision of Adaon, a calm, kindly man who is trained as a bard and a warrior. Bards have special significance in the culture of Prydain—they are keepers of heritage and history as well as musicians.

While on the journey, they are attacked not by Cauldron Born, but by Arawn’s Huntsmen. The Huntsmen are unnaturally fast and powerful, and even though they can be killed, it is of no advantage to the defender. Once one is killed, his power is distributed against the rest of the Huntsmen—so if you do not kill them all at once, you are in serious trouble. When Gwydion fails his portion of the mission, the group is dispersed by Huntsmen, leaving it up to Taran, Eilonwy, Gurgi, and Fflewder Fflam to find and destroy the Black Cauldron.

There were so many things I loved about this book. It took my appraisal of Prydain from “It’s decent” to “It’s really good.” The characters are all much more interesting and well-developed. I like that the band of characters we got to follow through The Book of Three show up again and become the focal point of this story, too.  Eilonwy is marginally less annoying, but it is the introductions of new characters such as Ellidyr and Adaon that I loved the most.

I loved hating Ellidyr’s character. He was a complete [insert favorite term for an unpleasant person here] to Taran throughout the whole book, but by the end, he becomes more selfless than anyone else. I especially love character transformations like this. In many ways, Ellidyr is the most tragic character. He is the youngest prince of many, and there is nothing left to him but his name and his honor. Adaon says there is a “black beast on his back,” which is a beautiful metaphor for the horrible forces driving him forward.

The introduction of the Huntsmen was also a great facet of this novel. If you thought the Cauldron Born were scary, wait ‘til you meet these guys. Using the Cauldron Born again would have been one-note, and kudos to Alexander for upping the stakes. It was just plain cool.

There were a few things I did not love as much about The Black Cauldron, but they are pretty minor. There was one plot twist which, unfortunately, I did see coming. I will not spoil it for you if you have not read the book, but let’s just say that it is a betrayal which turned out to be, at least for me, entirely forseeable.

Also, I still can’t get over Eilonwy. She’s a strong independent character with a lot of her own agency, but she falls into the stereotypical woman-who-can’t-shut-up. Plus, her role in this story is weaker (she doesn’t do as much magic). Her presence does help to develop Taran’s character a lot more, but it seems that’s her only purpose here. As I noted in my review of The Book of Three, Eilonwy is a powerful character because she rebels against the notions of “a young woman should be prim and proper” and “a woman’s place is in the kitchen.” (At the beginning of The Black Cauldron, they literally leave her in the kitchen.) She is nothing close to as strong as characters from contemporary children’s books, such as Lucy or Susan from The Chronicles of Narnia. I think it is important for young women to have characters they can aspire to be like, and Eilonwy, while not the worst character, is not as strong a character. At the very least, she teaches young girls to speak their mind, which is good, I suppose.

The Black Cauldron is a highly enjoyable, well-written, beautiful book to read. I recommend it to adults and children alike. Adults will find it to be a quick read, while children may require more time and the companionship of a dictionary. It is also unique enough of a book that it can be read without reading The Book of Three, so if you want to jump straight into Prydain here, you can. There may be a few connections you’ll miss, but it still stands as its own story. If this is not in your repertoire of books you have read, you need to add it.

Have you read the Chronicles of Prydain? What did you think of The Black Cauldron? (Be considerate of others and be sure to announce if your comment has spoilers.)

Flash Fiction Friday: Sea and Lord

High on a cliff the castle loomed, overlooking the foamy green sea.  Lord Mortan stood before the wide window facing the sea, gazing down at the tool of his justice. Sharp rocks filled the turbulent water around the base of the cliff like a hungry maw. Decaying bodies lay on some of the rocks, more fortunate to have met a sudden end than those who had fallen straight into the sea, doomed to die in the horrors of drowning.

His rise to power had come at the cost of many lives, and he would continue to sacrifice as many as were necessary to maintain his position. He turned around as the sound of jangling chains filled the throne room. His guards flanked an old man whose wild white hair was tinged with green, as though moldy. The old man’s unkempt beard reached down to his chest.

Mortan climbed the rostrum, sat upon the ornate throne, and looked down with narrowed eyes upon the old man. “Who is this you bring before me?”

“A malcontent who spreads dissent among your people, my lord,” one of the guards said. He jerked on the chain, forcing the old man to his knees. “He is called Orsair, and he incites rebellion, saying it is the will of the Holy Sea.”

Orsair knelt on the hard stony floor of the throne room, clutching at the chain around his neck and staring at Lord Mortan with rage-filled deep green eyes.

“Do the same with him as the others,” Mortan said, giving a dismissive wave. He rose from the throne and walked back to the window overlooking the sea as the guards began to drag the old man away.

Orsair spat on the floor. “You may be lord of this castle, Mortan, but heed my warning. The Sea has spoken—he shall stand no more innocent blood. You are an abomination to him. He does not abide tyrants!”

“Silence!” Mortan wheeled around. “You are just like the rest of the vile dissidents, except you come here claiming to be some kind of prophet of the will of the Sea.”

“Doubt my claim at your own peril. How many dozens of men, women, and children have you cast from the cliff into the Sea, bound and weighted with stones? Do you think the Sea will stand for such wanton killing?”

“Each man, woman, or child I have tossed into the Sea has earned such a death. The Sea is the bringer of justice, and he has brought justice to those who oppose my divinely foretold reign here.”

“There is nothing divine in your reign,” Orsair said. “Sky and Sea abhor you. You rightly say the Sea is the bringer of justice. Repent and leave this place, lest he visit justice upon your head!”

Mortan motioned to the guards. “Take him away. Cast him into the Sea he so foolishly believes he speaks for.”

“You will pay, Mortan!” Orsair shouted. “You will pay for innocent blood with your own!”

The echoes of Orsair’s voice faded as the guards dragged him away. Mortan looked out the window, waiting to see the mad old man fall to his death. His wait was not long; the guards brought the still-raving lunatic to the edge of the cliff, bound tight in chains. Mortan clenched his jaw, bracing himself for the all-consuming thrill of watching his opposition be destroyed.

The guards shoved Orsair over the edge, and he plummeted down, sinking beneath the foamy green waves.

Mortan closed his eyes as a shiver of exhilaration shot along his spine. “All the power of Sky and Sea has been appointed to me, old fool.” He laughed. “None shall triumph over me, least of all a madman!” He opened his eyes again, looking down at the majesty of the sea, the majesty of his vindication.

Dark clouds bloomed in the sky, blocking out all the sun’s light.  Lightning split the sky in two. Thunder roared through the air. Wind bellowed. Waves crashed wildly against the cliff in a frenzy. Higher and higher they climbed, spraying spume and salt through the air.

Heart racing, Mortan took a step back from the window. Within moments, the sea splashed so high it poured through the window. He turned and ran from the throne room, each panicked footstep raising his fear. Another wave surged through the window, and a tendril of water like rope shot forth, looping around Mortan’s neck. He could not even scream as the wave pulled him back out through the window, swallowed whole by the hungry sea that pulled him down into the rocky maw at the cliff’s base.  He struggled against the water, but it pulled him deeper and deeper. Lungs burning with agony, he could hold his breath no more. Cold salty water filled his lungs as he sank to the bottom to join all those he had killed.

Sated, the sea calmed.

Orsair stood on one of the rocks, free of chains and swathed in sea-green robes blowing in the wind like waves. “I warned you I do not abide tyrants.”


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Image courtesy of Petr Kratochvil via PublicDomainPictures.net