The Black Cauldron is the second in Lloyd Alexander’s five-part Chronicles of Prydain, and possibly the most well known. When discussing these books with other people, you’ll usually get a blank look if you say “the Prydain books” or The Book of Three, but if you mention The Black Cauldron, you’ll probably get a vague sense of recognition. It is a Newbery Honor book and was made into a Disney film, and as such is the most popular of all five books.
A few seasons since the events in The Book of Three have passed, and the old enchanter Dallben has called together a secret council to make war against the Death-Lord Arawn. Traveling to the small cottage are many great lords and warriors, including Prince Gwydion, a son of the House of Don, the wise and gentle bard Adaon, the proud warrior Morgant, and the arrogant Ellidyr. Together Gwydion and Dallben have hatched a daring plan to snatch Arawn’s greatest weapon from his grasp — the terrible Black Cauldron that creates his undead warriors: the unkillable, zombie-like Cauldron-born.
All this is immensely exciting news for Taran, who still has lofty dreams of heroism and danger, and for the Princess/scullery maid Eilonwy and the odd creature Gurgi (who can best be described as a hairier, benevolent Gollum). Taran is delighted to find that he has a place in the mission, but less excited to find that it simply involves minding the horses. Traveling with Ellidyr and Adaon, who give him very different lessons about the meaning of honor and courage, Taran once more ends up on an unplanned-for adventure with his core group of friends: Elionwy, Gurgi and Fflewddur Fflam.
What follows is another wonderful story, with all the mystery, suspense, adventure, and intrigue that builds on the previous book and sets us up for the next one. All of the main characters are beautifully endearing, from the feisty Eilonwy, the loyal Gurgi, the grumpy Doli and the traveling king/bard Fflewddur who snaps a harp string every time he stretches the truth. But this is perhaps the only book when the secondary characters are more fascinating — Ellidyr, Morgant, Adaon, Gwystyl, and the strange sisters — Orgoch, Olwen and Orddu. None of these characters are who they seem to be, and blur the straightforward line between good and evil.
Alexander laces wonderful humor throughout his story, as well as subtle morals that are worthy of thought. The fact that Alexander has actually used the myths and legends of Wales means that there is a sense of resonance in the environment and history in the pages — especially in the tale of how Dallben gained his wisdom.
All of these books are utterly essential to a child’s bookshelf, and to a fantasy fan of any age, so make sure you pick up the following books The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer and The High King. These are classics, and as such they will stay with you a long time after you’ve closed them.~Rebecca Fisher
Here’s Bill’s review of the entire series:
Lloyd Alexander’s THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN, loosely based on Welsh myths, is a classic work of fantasy that no one should miss. If you think you won’t get anything out of it because it’s “young adult,” think again. If anything, a mature reader probably gets more enjoyment out of it.
The series begins with The Book of Three, which introduces the main character, Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper. He is a foundling who lives with the great enchanter Dallben, who to Taran’s eyes never actually does any great enchanting. He shares Dallben’s home with the seemingly useless gardener Coll and the strange part-beast-not-quite-human Gurgi. Life at Caer Dallben is far too dull for a young boy who dreams of becoming a great warrior like his idol Prince Gwydion.
Events, as one would expect, soon expel Taran from the dull but safe world at Caer Dallben and soon he is battling for his life against fell creatures, including the witch Achren and the Horned King himself, battle-leader for Arawn, Lord of the Land of Death who threatens to destroy Taran’s land of Prydain.
Along the way, Taran meets Fflewddur Fflam, a bard whose harp breaks a string anytime he exaggerates (he goes through a lot of strings); Doli, a gruff dwarf who has his own problems; Eilonwy, the strong-willed princess with a sharp wit and even sharper tongue; and even Prince Gwydion himself, all with faithful Gurgi at his side. All of these characters continue throughout the series, and are joined by what becomes a stable cadre of familiar secondary characters.
Alexander’s strengths are too many to list. The major ones are what one would expect in an award-winning series long recognized as a classic. His characterization is precise and deep from the beginning, but more importantly, these characters all change and deepen and mature as the series continues. And they do so realistically, with all the pain that such maturation often entails. Hidden depths and strengths are revealed, as well as flaws that lead to at times harsh consequences. The secondary characters, though given less time, are drawn equally sharply, if not as richly due to the space constraints. Impressively, they too change and mature over the course of the series. By the end, you care deeply not just about the major four or five characters, but even about the half-dozen or so minor characters — a trick that is hard to pull off as an author.
The plots are compelling, both in terms of suspense with regard to various quests and with regard to the impact on the characters. The books darken as they continue, and the stakes rise ever higher, but even at the start Alexander is not shy about presenting us with glory’s darker side, the side Taran never considers as he play-acts with his sword around his home at Caer Dallben. Honor, glory, war, bravery, nobility — these are mere words to the young, inexperienced Taran, and they have sharply narrowed definitions in his worldview. He learns, not always soon enough, not always easily, and not always at the first lesson, that the world is much more complex.
Though they should be read in order, each story is relatively independent in that it starts and stops on its own — one could read book three without having read the first two, though it would have far less impact. And one could stop reading at the end of Book Three and have a complete close to that particular story, but nobody should stop there. There are too many heartbreaking scenes, too many scenes of joy, too much reward to come, bittersweet though some of it may be. The two strongest books in the series are the last two (the last won a Newbery and for good reason), but that is more testament to their strength than to any weaknesses in the first three. Alexander maintains a high standard of excellence throughout the entire series, and unlike some authors, he knew when and how to stop. The series is not only recommended, but is pretty well required, regardless of age.