The Prydain Project

Thirty years after first devouring Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, I'm rereading them to see if the magic is still there. If you've arrived at this blog because you loved Prydain as a kid, I hope you’ll enjoy the chance to revisit it along with me. To read the recaps in order, start here: "The Book of Three," Chapter 1

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 4 - The Gwythaints

Gwydion and Taran find Hen Wen’s tracks on the banks of the Great Avren river, and Gwydion gives Gurgi props. They start to cross the river, but Taran nearly drowns as Melyngar pulls him forward and then collides with him. Gwydion rescues Taran, then scolds him. We learn that Taran can’t swim, but didn’t say so because he felt sure he could learn. They then have a close call with three gwythaints, birds of prey who have been trained to be spies for Arawn. Gwydion exposits that the gwythaints aren’t the worst servants Arawn commands – they are flesh and blood and can be killed, whereas the Cauldron-Born are deathless. The Cauldron-Born were men whose bodies Arawn stole from the barrows – though I have to wonder why he doesn’t just kill them himself instead of going to all the trouble of grave-robbing – and steeped in a cauldron to reanimate them as silent warriors with no memory of their human lives. Gwydion mentions that their power wanes the farther from Annuvin they are, which seems like an important video-game weakness we will return to later on.

They pick up Hen Wen’s trail again, but then it suddenly vanishes. Gwydion says they may need the help of Medwyn, who understands the ways of animals and is rarely, if ever, seen by men. They hear baying hounds and a poignant hunting horn, which Gwydion attributes to Gwyn the Hunter, who is not himself aligned with evil but whose appearance is a harbinger of death and destruction. I don’t recall if Gwyn (who is apparently a “real” figure in Welsh mythology) ever comes into the series again, but he feels a little shoehorned into this chapter, which already has a lot of explaining going on.

Next, there is a mysterious rustling in the bushes behind Gwydion’s back. Taran bravely dives in and pulls out… Gurgi! Gurgi's back, hooray! But Taran is not as happy as I am to see Gurgi. He shakes him angrily, and when Gwydion admonishes him, shouts “Save your own life next time!” Which is awesome, because it makes Gwydion realize that Taran was trying to rescue him from danger, and he actually bows and offer his thanks. It’s the nicest he’s been so far.

Gurgi wants crunchings and munchings in return for “helping find a piggy,” but Taran snaps, “We didn’t find any piggy” (which is also awesome). Neither did the Horned King, Gurgi says. And I know it's just his translation, but I'm cracking up thinking about the Horned King and his warriors in their ranks, referring to Hen Wen as “the piggy.”

Gwydion asks if Gurgi can lead them to where the Horned King is now, and he does. They halt on a ridge and witness a terrible scene on the plain below: sacrificial drumming accompanies a battle dance of warriors on stilts and wicker baskets on posts. The Horned King sets the baskets on fire and “the agonized screams of men” arise from them. Pretty nightmarish for books aimed at children, I always thought, but then I guess it’s nothing compared to the carnage in “The Hunger Games.”

Our heroes retreat hurriedly and silently, and at dawn Gwydion halts and says he must return to Caer Dathyl immediately, to alert the Sons of Don that the Horned King has raised an armed force representing all the “cantrevs of the south.” But just then, five armed horsemen arrive on the scene and draw their swords! Cliffhanger ending to the chapter!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 3 - Gurgi

As dawn breaks, Taran wakes to find that every joint in his body aches from sleeping on the ground. Far from glamorizing the adventure, Alexander makes sleeping in the woods sound so awful that I suspect my lifelong aversion to camping stemmed from reading this at an impressionable age. Gwydion pulls Taran into Melyngar’s saddle with him, but soon dismounts and tracks Hen Wen on foot. Taran, not for the first or last time, thinks that Gwydion looks like a gray wolf. Gwydion does some quick exposition and map-making, telling Taran (and the reader) that his land is to the north, that the River Ystrad divides Prydain into east and west, and to the west are Annuvin and Spiral Castle, “the abode of Queen Achren… as evil as she is beautiful.” He is certain that Hen Wen would not have gone in that direction, because she was a prisoner in Annuvin and would stay far away. Taran is surprised to hear that Hen Wen was in Annuvin. Gwydion explains that she once belonged to a farmer who had no idea of her powers, and she was kidnapped by Arawn and then rescued by a lone warrior who went into Annuvin and brought her out. Who was that brave warrior of legend? Why, none other than “Coll Son of Collfrewr.” Taran can’t believe that Coll was a hero because: “he’s so bald!” Gwydion laughs, but then of course has to turn it into a teaching moment, telling Taran that he’s never known courage to be judged by the amount of hair on a man’s head, OK, fine, we get it, Prince Super-serious.

Off they go after Hen Wen, Gwydion walking silently, Melyngar moving quietly and giving Taran “reproachful” glances whenever he makes noise, which is often. Taran’s about as stealthy as I would be in the forest, I think. The quieter he tries to go, the farther behind he gets, which is how he suddenly gets ambushed by my (and probably everyone’s) favorite character in the series! A pair of “hairy and powerful hands” grab him by the throat, and after he scuffles unsuccessfully with his assailant, Gwydion rescues him by flinging poor Gurgi against a tree. The “strangest creature Taran had ever seen,” Gurgi is apparently both animal and human, with long hairy arms and prehensile feet (not at all like his cute and cuddly appearance in the Disney animated film of “The Black Cauldron”). He’s basically a hairier version of Gollum, covered in dirt and leaves and with “the distressing odor of a wet wolfhound.” He immediately starts howling and sucking up to Gwydion in his peculiarly awesome speech pattern, begging for “crunchings and munchings” and to avoid being “smacked on his poor tender head… But what honor to be smacked by the greatest of warriors!” Gwydion says he’ll give Gurgi food if he answers his questions, and asks him whether he has seen a white pig. Gurgi says that he saw great lords riding angrily through the forest for “the seeking of a piggy.” The warriors went to “a certain place” where they were turned away by fire. The piggy went across the water “with swimmings and splashings.”

Gurgi reminds Gwydion that he promised “crunchings and munchings,” and says he wants “the smaller one for munchings,” eyeing Taran beadily, which is so awesome in light of their later relationship (spoiler alert) that I wonder if Taran ever reminds his most faithful friend later on that when they first met, Gurgi wanted to eat him. Probably not, because Gurgi would be overwhelmed with guilt and remorse. Gwydion says that Taran is an Assistant Pig-Keeper and would disagree violently with Gurgi. He gives him some dried meat instead, and Gurgi climbs a tree and disappears from sight. Taran is frightened for Dallben and Coll because of Gurgi’s mention of fire, but Gwydion suspects that the fire was “something Dallben arranged for unexpected visitors.” Taran says they must find Hen Wen before the Horned King does, and Gwydion channels the Professor from “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” as he haughtily says that has been Taran’s “only sensible suggestion” so far.

What do you think, readers? Am I drawing too many parallels between the characters of Middle-Earth and Prydain? (It’s hard to resist, because they have so much in common.) Do you love Gurgi as much as I do? Is Gwydion really a douche, or am I being too hard on him? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 2 - The Mask of the King

Taran runs deep into the woods after Hen Wen, but soon loses her, of course, and before long realizes he is lost himself. The atmosphere of the woods changes and becomes cold and scary. And then! In a sequence that gave me serious chills as a wee lass, the Horned King rides in from nowhere, sporting a crimson cloak, crimson stains on his arms – are those supposed to be blood? Tattoos? It’s not clear – and of course, a mask made from a human skull adorned with the horns of a stag. Terrifying. (And probably really heavy and uncomfortable. No wonder he’s so grim.)

He’s followed by a host of riders, one of whom, “an ugly, grinning warrior,” spots Taran and slashes at him with a sword for no reason. Taran flees, passes out, and comes to later on to find himself being nursed by none other than Strider from “Lord of the Rings”! But he’s called Prince Gwydion in this series. We know this because he refers to himself in the third person, as “Gwydion Son of Don,” causing Taran, who has seen only his “simple attire” and “worn, lined face” to rudely cry out that that’s not possible, only to bite his tongue when he sees Gwydion’s bad-ass sword. Taran introduces himself as Taran of Caer Dallben, which Gwydion is surprised to hear, because he himself is on his way to consult Hen Wen about the Horned King. Gwydion confirms that the Horned King is Arawn’s champion, and he talks about the threads of a pattern “loomed in Annuvin” while weaving some blades of grass together to make a mesh (this will be important later).

Gwydion says he has taken an oath to meet the Horned King in combat “and one of us will die,” because he’s extremely serious, and also seriously extreme. He reluctantly agrees to let Taran accompany him to finish searching for Hen Wen, who is, after all, Taran’s responsibility, though Gwydion kind of brushes that off, and only agrees to team up because taking Taran back to Caer Dallben would waste time. He shares with Taran the provisions he keeps in the saddlebags of his white horse, Melyngar – I remember wondering what exactly those provisions were, but Alexander doesn’t describe the meal other than to say it was “hurried” – and then Taran tries to sleep on the unheroic-feeling ground while Gwydion sits against a tree philosophizing out loud and probably muttering in Elvish.

Taran reveals that he doesn’t know who his kinsmen are, if he even has any – he’s lived with Dallben as long as he can remember. “I suppose … I don’t even know who I am.” Gwydion sort of douche-ily says that that’s something we all must figure out for ourselves and how funny is it that he should get help from an Assistant Pig-Keeper, “or is it perhaps the other way around?” And now I remember not liking Gwydion very much on first meeting. I think he gets a little cooler later on, but he’s always somewhat stuck-up, if I recall correctly. And that’s the end of chapter 2!

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 1 - The Assistant Pig-Keeper

The first book in the Prydain series is titled The Book of Three, but it’s not the actual Book of Three – that’s another book that shows up briefly in the story and is sort of like the Bible, or the History of the World. I think the title of Chapter 1, “The Assistant Pig-Keeper,” would have been a more appropriate title for the book, since the pig in question is the impetus for Taran’s entire quest … but maybe it didn’t sound “high fantasy” enough? Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The book starts off by introducing us to Taran and Coll in the midst of a difference of opinion: “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.” That’s about all we get in terms of who these characters are and what their relationship is, but there’s a physical description of Coll as stout, round and bald, so you know he’s at least middle-aged, while Taran is clearly young – how young isn’t clear, but not a grown man, as he’s still being educated and Coll is clearly the boss of him (or at least the middle manager under Dallben).

We also get a hint that Coll was something other than a farmer once, as he mentions having held a sword once or twice in his day, and quickly gets the better of Taran in their mock sword fight. Then we meet Dallben, “master of Caer Dallben,” who is 379 years old and spends most of his time “meditating,” which Alexander slyly lets us know is code for “napping.” Dallben takes Taran to his Merlin-esque chamber overflowing with relics and books (including The Book of Three!). He gives Taran – and us – a brief history of Prydain, which is a land made up of many small kingdoms, with the High King Math ruler over all. The Sons of Don have guarded Prydain “against the lurking threat of Annuvin,” the Land of the Dead, ruled by Arawn, who long ago stole many treasures from the race of men, hiding them in his stronghold. Dallben explains that Prydain has enjoyed relative peace until recently, when a new threat arose: a cruel and powerful warlord, known as the Horned King because of the antlered mask he wears to hide his face. Dallben cautions Taran to put away his fantasies of becoming a hero, because, yeah, that advice always works really well in adventure stories. Taran says he wants to be a hero like the great Prince Gwydion, a descendant of the legendary Sons of Don, but we don’t learn any more about Gwydion at this point because Dallben resumes his “meditation.”

Taran tries to touch The Book of Three and gets a kind of magical electrical shock to the fingers, our first indication of magic in the story. Dallben rouses enough to tell him to “see Coll about a lotion.” Coll takes Taran to the stable, treats his hands and, in reply to Taran’s complaints that he never gets to do or be anything interesting, bestows the title of “Assistant Pig-Keeper” on him – a job description which of course matches exactly what Taran already does, i.e. help take care of Dallben’s “oracular pig” Hen Wen, aka the book’s MacGuffin. Right on cue, Hen Wen escapes from her enclosure and vanishes into the woods, along with the farm’s bees and chickens, upset by ... we know not what. Taran plunges after her, into the “dark and threatening” forest, and, with that, we’re off on an adventure, friends!

Two things that I recall particularly from my first read of this book (30 years ago!) that I was dying to know are how old Taran is and how his name is supposed to be pronounced. We’re never told his age explicitly in the books, but I think I pegged him around 12 or 13 (and of course he ages over the course of the series). My version of the books didn’t have a pronunciation guide (later editions do), so I settled on “TARE-an,” rhyming with Aaron, and that’s how I hear it in my head even today -- though I now know that Alexander intended it to be TAH-ran.

That certainly sounds more British, but, as one of the popular girls suggested to OHHHN-drea in an early episode of “Beverly Hills 90210,” perhaps a little pretentious? I also have a lot of trouble with the official pronunciation of Prydain as prih-DANE, because I always thought of the “Pry” part as rhyming with “try” – to have the Y sound in rhyme, rather than rhythm. And Coll having the same vowel sound as Dallben bugs me, because why is it not spelled Dollben (or Call) then? I want it to be more like Coal or at least Cawl, not Cahl. Anyway, I’m sure more pronunciation peeves will rear their heads as I continue recapping. But the main takeaway from recapping this very first chapter, for me, is: holy oracular piggies but I love these books!

Recapping Prydain

I recently started a new full-time work contract, which hasn’t left me much time for writing – or reading, for that matter. Given (or despite?) my limited amounts of free time, I’ve decided to try something a little different on this blog – recapping books that I loved in the past, particularly the ones that I haven’t read in years, that evoke the memories of joyful times in my life. What better place to start than with Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series?

I first discovered Prydain in fifth grade, a shy time for me – my family had just moved from Virginia, where we’d lived as long as I could remember, to North Carolina, where I had difficulty making friends and fitting in. I was browsing in the school library, looking for more books in the vein of my beloved Chronicles of Narnia, and these seemed like they would fit the bill. I can’t remember if the librarian recommended Alexander to me or if I discovered him on my own, but I vividly recall what the shelf looked like and the feel of the library-bound hardback in my hand. Equally vivid is the memory of sitting propped up in bed, wearing the “Smile Makers” T-shirt I got from the orthodontist, with the reading lamp on the corner of my desk illuminating the pages, excited to devour as many chapters of “The Book of Three” as possible before I had to go to sleep and wake to the prospect of another lonely, tedious school day. At that moment, school was far away and Prydain was very near.

I got the boxed set of all five books for Christmas, and was as excited as I’ve ever been to open a present under the tree. I re-read them in order, lying on my stomach in my brother’s G.I. Joe tent, while listening to A-ha on my cassette tape player (thus ensuring that “Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale” would forever be linked as the soundtrack to the books in my mind). And now, 30 years later, I want to read them again and find out if the magic is still there. If you loved the Prydain books as a kid, I hope you’ll enjoy the chance to relive them along with me. Come along, then, and let’s start with an Assistant Pig-Keeper who wants to make a sword…

The Book of Three, Chapter 1 - “The Assistant Pig-Keeper”