Review: Taran Wanderer

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!

 

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Review: The Castle of Llyr

The Castle of Llyr is the third book in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain. As I have come to expect after reading two of Alexander’s books, the story proved to be engaging and enchanting.

However, I had a lot of issues with the book, mostly due to the fact that the teaser-line for this book on the inside jacket of The Black Cauldron led me to believe this book would focus predominantly on Eilonwy, thus giving her a chance to shine. Despite how much Eilonwy annoys me, I do like her quite a bit—and like her even more for having watched Disney’s failure of a take on her character. So I was excited to see more of the book version of Eilonwy.

I was disappointed.

Don’t misunderstand me—The Castle of Llyr is a fun, entertaining book with lots of heroics and a charming story to tell, but Eilonwy has very little in the way of an active role. Instead, the book focuses mainly on Taran and his character development. Considering that Taran is the main character of the series, this should not come as a shock, I suppose. However, the marketing set me up for a different story. I mean, it said something to the effect of “Eilonwy must learn to be a young lady and not a heroine among heroes.” That says to me, “This is a story about Eilonwy!” In truth, it is a fraction of the story and all of her character development is tossed in at the end in a rushed fashion.

Once I had gotten over my disappointment, I was able to analyze and appreciate the story a little more clearly.

The book begins with Taran escorting Eilonwy to the Isle of Mona, where she is to learn how to be a proper princess. A ship from Mona comes to meet them, led by Prince Rhun. Prince Rhun, as Taran does not learn until much later, is going to be betrothed to Eilonwy—which I could see coming a mile away, by the by. However, Rhun is basically a clumsy oaf and is not good at anything, and Taran dislikes him a lot. Taran does not like the idea of Rhun even talking to Eilonwy, and is obviously jealous before even finding out the two are going to be betrothed. Once on Mona, Taran runs into Gwydion, who is hiding under the guise of a shoemaker in order to thwart what he believes is a plot against Eilonwy. Achren, the enchantress from The Book of Three, is back, and she wants Eilonwy for her own purposes. Eilonwy is captured and the rest of the book is about Rhun, Taran, and Fflewder Fflam trying to rescue her.

I thought, in the midst of all the excitement and entertainment, there was a pretty profound message. Glew, a tiny man who creates a potion to make himself large so that he can earn some respect, is constantly referred to as a small man despite the fact that he is now a giant. Fflewder remarks that the size of a man has very little to do with his physical size. I think this is a valuable lesson for young men in particular, especially in a society which emphasizes strength and physical prowess as the only way to be considered a “man.” Lots of men drink potions (protein drinks) in order to make themselves bigger and more powerful, but young boys need to learn that it is the size of their heart that makes them men—and that a man can be as big as a bodybuilder, but if his mind is small and cruel, so is he. It’s a great message, and young women can learn from it too. While women mostly focus on being smaller rather than larger, this message that our exterior size has nothing to do with the values that matter is still a valid point.

I have to include a couple more things I really loved about the book, but they come with a spoiler alert. Skip the following two paragraphs if you want to avoid the spoilers.

This is a paragraph with a spoiler! At the end of the book, there is a rather profound message for young women as well. Eilonwy, in order to defeat Achren, has to destroy a book of spells which would have given her the ability to be the most powerful enchantress in all of Prydain. Disappointed, she says, “Now I shall never be an enchantress. There’s nothing left for me now except being a girl.” To this, Gwydion gently replies, “That is more than enough cause for pride.” Not only does this echo The Book of Three’s lesson for Taran that there is no shame in a simple life, it stands strongly against the “like a girl” sentiment that is so rampant in our society. Why should being a girl be something negative? Gwydion’s statement here suggests that there is an inherent value in femaleness, regardless of how that femaleness takes shape. It’s an interesting message in a largely male-dominated story. Yes, Eilonwy ends up having to learn how to be a proper lady (which in this case means domestic pursuits and etiquette), but many of Taran’s pursuits at Caer Dallben are domestic, too—taking care of a garden, for example. This is a repeating theme for the series: domestic pursuits are just as much cause for pride as heroic pursuits, which is another idea that is being lost in our society today. While Eilonwy’s consignment to a “ladylike” fate may be deconstructed and reviled by second- and third-wave feminism, I think it’s still a good message for girls—and really, is no different than the message learned by Taran in The Book of Three.

This is another paragraph with a spoiler! One of my first impressions of the book upon closing it was this: “Eilonwy was a total damsel in distress in this book! She had no agency!” However, upon further reflection, I realized that Eilonwy saved herself and defeated Achren almost single-handedly. The only thing the boys of the story did was to put the tools to do so in Eilonwy’s hands. Once Eilonwy had the book of spells and her magical bauble, she overthrew Achren’s mind control. Taran, despite the fact that he spent the whole book wanting to save Eilonwy, found himself powerless in the end. All of the power rested in Eilonwy’s hands. So, while she still was a damsel in distress for most of the book, she definitely had agency, even when under a powerful spell. This is the third time Alexander has taken saving the day right out of Taran’s hands and plopped it into someone else’s. I have to wonder if this will still be the case in the two remaining books. It would be really interesting if it was.

At any rate, I think that Eilonwy’s role in these books, while superficially seeming to be anti-feminist, actually has a great message that is empowering to women.

End spoilers.

There was little about the book which I did not like, as most of my disappointment was washed away with reflection on the story. It was not as powerful a story as The Black Cauldron, but it was still an entertaining read which both put me on edge and had me laughing at the same time. It’s one more book in The Chronicles of Prydain that I recommend to any lover of fantasy stories.

Have you read The Castle of Llyr? What did you think of it? Was Eilonwy’s character in this a feminist triumph or failure?

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