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.)

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Review: The Book of Three

The Book of Three, which is the first book in the series The Chronicles of Prydain, is by Lloyd Alexander and was first published in 1964. This is around the same era as when C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit were both taking off. In many ways, these three writers’ works for children (though in today’s jargon we would call these Young Adult fiction) set the stage for all the fantasy writing that came after them. Never having read the Chronicles of Prydain but always having wanted to, I finally went to the library and picked up the first book. The Book of Three is a short, easy read which only took up most of my afternoon and a little of my evening.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Taran, a youth who lives at Caer Dallben, is tasked with mundane things such as making horseshoes, gardening, and taking care of his master Dallben’s pig, Hen Wen—who, by the by, is an oracle. That’s right! The pig is an oracle. She tells the future by arranging rune sticks. Taran thinks his life is dreadfully boring, and even the fact Hen Wen is magical doesn’t excite him much, since she never tells the future to him. He longs for adventure and swordplay, and fears he will never do anything worthwhile with his life. Coll, a man who also works for Dallben, tells Taran that if it’s a grand title he wants, he can have one: Assistant Pig-Keeper.

Taran is not terribly impressed.

When danger is on the way to Caer Dallben, Hen Wen panics and digs out of her pen. Taran is forced to go after her as she runs away into the woods. Once in the woods, however, he loses her—but finds something worse. An army, led by the Horned King, is marching to Caer Dallben. After the army passes, Taran runs into Lord Gwydion, a great and famed warrior and leader, who is also looking for Hen Wen. They also meet Gurgi, a bizarre furry creature who is good at sneaking around. They are attacked by the evil Arawn’s Cauldron Born, dead people resurrected by the power of the Black Cauldron, and dragged away to Spiral Castle, where the witch Achren imprisons them. Taran is freed from captivity by Eilonwy, a young woman sent to apprentice under Achren as an enchantress. Eilonwy, however, hates Achren and agrees to help Taran. Gwydion is nowhere to be found, but Eilonwy also sets free Fflewder Fflam—a bard with a penchant for stretching the truth. Together, Taran, Eilonwy, Gurgi, and Fflewder Fflam set off for Caer Dathyl, Gwydion’s home, to warn the other leaders there.

In many ways, this setup is familiar to Young Adult novels of today. There is the disenfranchised teenager who wants more than the boring life he or she already has, the potential love interest, and being swept up into an adventure one never had any intention of going on. What makes this more unique, however, is that by the end Taran comes to the realization that maybe he ought to be content with his mundane life. It is an interesting character arc.

The book conveyed a good, clear theme about what it really means to be a hero and how not everybody has the same part to play in such heroic endeavors.

There were many things I truly enjoyed about this book. Firstly, the humor is genuinely funny, and this humor forms a great hook at the beginning of the story: “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long.” For some reason, that made me laugh. It does a great job setting the tone for the story—lighthearted, but also showing the struggle of the heroic versus the mundane in the first sentence.

I also ended up liking some things I did not like at first. I hated that the adults were not telling us things they obviously knew, but were holding back for the sake of what I thought was keeping suspense. Then I realized this was because they were not telling a kid these things because they thought he could not handle it. Of course he hated it, and we are meant to hate it too. We are meant to feel what the main character feels, and that’s that. So that was well done on Alexander’s part. At first, I also hated that Taran got knocked out during the final battle scene, only to realize that Tolkien does the same with Bilbo in The Hobbit during the Battle of the Five Armies. There was just enough info to go on, but I do wish Taran had gotten a moment to really shine. However, if Taran had this moment in the spotlight, it would not have fit with the theme of the book. Instead, he gets to listen to the story of the battle secondhand. As a result, he sees his own role more clearly.

There were a few things about the book that I did not like as much. I didn’t like the fact that Alexander used a lot of passive voice and ‘was’ sentences. That, and he used several adverbs that might have been cut and given a stronger verb rather than the weak verb-adverb pair. However, considering this is aimed a young readers (middle grade or so) and it was written in a different time period, one can expect to find different conventions. Besides, only people who obsess about writing probably notice stuff like that. Also, the exposition was not as gracefully done as in similar age-group books, like The Chronicles of Narnia or Harry Potter. It seemed forced rather than organic. For example, the first chapter had a lot of the “As you know, this is the history of…” type of exposition.

I really, really wanted to like Eilonwy. At first I did, but then she got more an more annoying as the book progressed. I hated how she constantly put down Taran, and that she prattled so much. In her know-it-all attitude, she was a lot like Hermione from Harry Potter, but she never seemed to soften or become less annoying. Upon further reflection, I realized that Eilonwy rebels against her society’s expectation for a young woman—she is anything but quiet and prim. Really, it makes her strong a strong character.

But she’s still annoying.

Finally, the title seemed not to match the book. It’s called The Book of Three, but it barely focuses on Dallben’s tome “The Book of Three” from which he reads to Taran. “The Horned King” would have been a better title, in my opinion.

Despite its few foibles, I liked this book a lot. There is an exceptionally well written action sequence in the chapter “The Broken Sword,” and Alexander does a great job of writing descriptions. I love Taran’s persistence despite continued put-downs. I love the mythos, even if I wish a lot more of it was shared in this book. Fflewder Fflam was great, too. He was an amusing addition to the cast. Also, Alexander includes a pronunciation guide at the back of the book, which was useful.

All in all, I recommend this book to anybody who likes fantasy and is looking for a fast read. The book contains no objectionable material beyond some violence and blood here and there—which is by today’s standards downright mild. I can’t wait to read The Black Cauldron! Check back next week for the review of that.

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

Image taken by me of my library copy; used for review purposes only under fair use. Support your local libraries!

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