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.)