The High King is the fifth and last book in the truly wonderful Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, preceded by The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, and Taran Wanderer, all of which are necessary reading if you want to fully understand and enjoy this last installment. The High King, however, has the added distinction of being the winner of the Newbery award, as well as being a good deal thicker than the previous books.
Throughout the last four books the allied forces of Prydain under the leadership of Prince Gwydion and the enchanter Dallben have waged war against the evil Death-Lord Arawn, whilst the Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran has grown from boy to man. Now returning from his journey of self-discovery in Taran Wanderer, he is eager to be home, especially since Princess Eilonwy has returned from the Isles of Mona. Soon everyone is reunited in the cottages of Caer Dallben, which is a special treat if you’ve read the previous books, as everyone is there: Gwydion, Fflewddur Fflam, Gurgi, Doli, Llyan, Kaw, Hen Wen, Glew, Rhun, Coll — you name them and they’re there. Also among them is the conquered enchantress Achren, a shadowy figure who despises Arawn and has her own secret plans to have her vengeance.
But Arawn has struck sooner than the good guys intended, and the magical black sword Dyrnwyn has been stolen. Now Taran is swept up once more on an adventure that’s way over his head. Guided by the mysterious prophecy of the oracular pig and devastated by a betrayal amongst the allied forces, Taran gathers together the people of the Free Commots and begins a dangerous journey through the mountains to reach Annuvin in time to help Gwydion’s fleet. On the way we re-meet every possible character we’ve ever met in Prydain — Magg, Gwystyl, Eiddileg, Smoit, Medwyn, Dorath, Melynlas, all the common folk from Taran Wanderer, and of course Orddu, Orwen and Orgoch — Alexander hasn’t missed a single one, and they all have important and meaningful parts to play.
Previously, the books have been told solely from Taran’s point of view, but now for the first time we see events through the eyes of other characters — everyone from Eilonwy to Dallben to Kaw gets a chance to be in the spotlight. The High King is an exhilarating read, as by this stage most readers will be deeply invested in these characters and the land of Prydain, and the author swings us continually back and forth from despair to hope and back again. The fortunes of the good guys are always up for grabs, and Alexander makes sure we know that the stakes are high and the cost of defeat is unthinkable.
As well as Alexander’s wonderful sense of humour that is found throughout the series, there are many moments of great wisdom, poignancy and bitter-sweetness, not to mention romance, magic and mild horror. There are sacrifices, deaths of major characters, destruction of beautiful things and many a difficult decision to be made. Some of the issues are incredibly deep, and not at all what you’d expect to find in a children’s book.
Every story is wrapped up satisfactorily, from Magg’s escape in The Castle of Llyr to Taran’s role to play in The Book of Three to the gwythaint fledgling that was saved in the first book. Very few series endings leave you with a sense of completion as satisfying as this. The High King has my highest recommendation as a truly worthwhile and rewarding read, a perfect five stars.~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.