While thus far The Black Cauldron has been my favorite book in The Chronicles of Prydain, Taran Wanderer is a close second. The fourth installation of the series, Taran Wanderer focuses in on Taran trying to find himself in a truly well-done coming of age story.
The book begins with Taran pining for Eilonwy, as she is now away on the Isle of Mona learning how to be a proper princess. When asked about Eilonwy’s wellbeing, Dallben replies that she is about as happy as you could expect for someone like Eilonwy being forced to learn how to do needlework. However, more than Eilonwy’s wellbeing is on Taran’s heart; he wants to marry her someday. Knowing nothing of his birth, he does not know whether he is of noble or common blood. This is a problem, since he wants to marry a princess. Now, as readers, we all know Eilonwy would take Taran in a heartbeat, common or noble. Taran is not privy to this information as far as I can tell, and even if he is, he feels it would be completely inappropriate for somebody as common as a pig-keeper to be married to a princess. So, he asks Dallben if he can set out and try to find if he can discover his heritage. Gurgi insists upon going with him, and so the two set out.
They begin by heading to the Marshes of Morva, where the witches (for lack of a better term) who previously owned the Crochan (the Black Cauldron) live. Taran hopes that he can get the answer of his origins from them, but he knows they never give away anything for free. So when they ask him what he is willing to give, he replies that he will give them a pledge: whatever his greatest treasure is in the future, they may lay claim to.
At this point, I was gripping the book, dramatically shouting, “Taran, no! You fool!” (I often shout while I read, like an obnoxious movie-goer at a horror film.)
Fortunately, the witches don’t like dealing with pledges, so they reject his offer. They tell him that the answer he wants is not easy, and that “The robin must scratch for his own worms.” They do, however, give him a hint that such a thing as the Mirror of Llunet exists, and it might show him the answer he is looking for, even if it is not the answer he wants.
With this new hope, Taran sets off for the mountains of the Free Commots, and has many adventures along the way.
I liked a lot of things about this book. I liked that the book had an episodic feel, as if it was a series of short stories tied together with an overarching plot. As a result, we get to see Taran shine (or not) in a variety of situations. We see him succeed in some places and stumble in others. It fits the character driven story perfectly.
I loved Taran himself as a character in the book. He has determination and a sense of duty. It is cool how he is faced multiple times with a hard choice or an easy choice, and always chooses the right, but less easy choice. The three labors he undertakes in the Free Commots are reminiscent of Greek Mythology and fairy tales, lending a more magical feel to the books, almost as if his hard work is magic itself. In a way, hard work is a type of real-life magic; this is a great lesson for young readers, and a good reminder for adults.
There was really only one thing I did not like about the book, and you will probably guess what it is. There was no Eilonwy. She is absent for the entire book, as she is still in her castle learning to be a lady. I will never be satisfied when it comes to the character, will I? However, her constant presence in Taran’s thoughts is adorable while not being over-the-top, which would have been an easy thing to do—so there is that, at least.
All in all, this is yet another Prydain book which I recommend. What are you doing? Get to your library and pick up these books, if you haven’t already! Go! Go now!