The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain #2)

By Lloyd Alexander

Rating: 4 stars

From fairly early on, this book seems more assured than its predecessor. The Book of Three felt very Tolkien-by-numbers, while this feels more unique, like the author has found his rhythm and his own style. We start on a fairly standard quest, but I was expecting the quest to capture the Black Cauldron from the dark lord Arawn to be the main plot of the book, but that quickly falls by the wayside, and the search for the Cauldron takes a different turn.

Taran has matured in this book. He’s still hot-headed and quick to temper, but he’s no longer the whiny brat of the first book. That role is taken by Prince Ellidyr, who’s got arrogance and temper aplenty, but is hiding a deep emptiness within. Of the new characters, I liked Adaon the best, the bard with a deepset melancholy about him, something I wouldn’t necessarily expect in a children’s book like this.

The three enchantresses were intriguing. The blurb had set them up to be villains, plotting to use the Cauldron for evil purposes, and turning people into toads, but what we encounter are something possibly more like the three Fates of Greek mythology (they even have even a loom).

There’s a lot to enjoy here, although the book is substantially darker than its predecessor, so if you’re thinking of getting it for a child, you’d be best reading it through first to judge if it’s suitable (it’s not like it’ll take long). I’m enjoying seeing Taran maturing, and look forward to more of his adventures. It was disappointing to see Eilonwy get very little to do here – especially as she’s the only female character in the book, after how feisty she was in the last one. I believe the next book focuses more on her though, so hopefully that will balance things out.

Book details

Publisher: Fontana Lions
Year of publication: 1985

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain #1)

By Lloyd Alexander

Rating: 3 stars

Taran is an assistant pig-keeper in Caer Dallben, which he doesn’t find very interesting, even if the (singular) pig he looks after is oracular (it’s completely unrelated, but I couldn’t help comparing Hen-Wen to the Empress of Blandings, and the various scrapes the latter gets into). Soon enough, Taran gets his wish to go adventuring and, as you’d expect, finds it less pleasant than he’d expected. He soon gathers a little group around him (although, frankly, I still don’t really understand why the others followed such an inexperienced youth, other than for Plot Reasons) and tries to take news of the coming of the evil Horned King to the ruler.

I’ve owned The Black Cauldron since I was a child, but had never read it. On a recent visit to my parents, I pulled the book down, intending to read it when I got home, before I realised that it wasn’t the first in the series, which led me to picking up this so that I could read the series in order.

It feels very Hero’s Journey, and you can all but tick off the stages of Taran’s development. To be honest, Taran isn’t a hugely interesting character, and can be oblivious and arrogant. His companions are interesting and more fun: the king turned bard Fflewddur Fflam, whose harp strings snap when he lies, and the princess Eilonwy, not to mention the marvellous Gurgi, with his crunchings and munchings and other rhyming.

It’s impossible to read this without comparing it to Tolkien. At times, it does feel quite “Lord of the Rings for children”, with many of the same tropes emerging, including a Dark Lord with powerful supernatural minions, a fellowship on a quest and a mentor who falls into darkness. But, at least, the Welsh-inspired setting gives it a distinctive flavour.

It’s an entertaining book though and the language is evocative. I’ll definitely read the next one.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006705925
Publisher: Armada Lions
Year of publication: 1973

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