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

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 14 – The Price – and Chapter 15 – The Black Crochan

Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch appear (as crones, not as beautiful maidens) and affect sympathy for the “poor lambs” who are magically stuck to the cauldron – except for Orgoch, who wants to cook them. Taran, who was right in thinking that it was a trap, calls them “evil creatures.” Orddu corrects him that they are neither good nor evil, but “simply interested in things as they are.” Eilonwy contends that being objectively uncaring is “worse than being evil.” Orddu changes the subject, saying the enchantresses have good news and that the companions can go ahead and carry the Crochan outside. Taran and the others find they’re able to move again, and they laboriously move the cauldron out of the chicken roost. Orddu says that they’ve talked it over and they’ll let Taran take the cauldron in exchange for the North Wind in a bag… or the South Wind… or a memory of his nicest summer day. When he protests that all those things are impossible to give, she asks if they have something else to offer that they prize as much as the Crochan.

Taran offers his sword, then Lluagor, then, reluctantly, Melynlas. The witches refuse all three. Taran is about to offer Adaon’s brooch when Gurgi jumps in and says he’ll give up his magical wallet of crunchings and munchings, which is all he owns. Once again, they decline. Eilonwy tries to offer the ring that Gwydion gave her, and then her prized bauble, and dear Fflewddur offers up his harp. Heartbreakingly, all offers are refused, and Taran once again guesses Orddu’s true aim. Turns out she recognized the brooch from the start. She tells them that it was made by Menwy, “first of the bards,” who imbued it with magic powers that Taran could learn to harness and use to become a mighty hero. But the brooch's magic will only work if it is given willingly. So how did Arianllyn come by it, and did she know about its powers when she gave it to Adaon? I'd like to read that back story.

The exchange is made, and Taran hands over the brooch. He asks Orddu if they may use the iron bars and hammers in the stable; she agrees. Taran makes a very sweet and classy little speech to his friends thanking them for the sacrifices they tried to make and calls them “the best of true comrades.” Sniff! Then the companions beat the crap out of the cauldron with hammers, which has absolutely no effect. An amused Orddu tells them they’ll never destroy it that way. The only way is that “[a] living person must climb into it,” causing it to shatter, and that person “will never climb out again alive.” In addition, the human sacrifice must go willingly and with full knowledge of what will happen. After delivering this chilling news, the enchantresses go into the cottage and shut the door. (The windows even darken, so they must be made from the same material as Transitions lenses.)

Taran says they have no choice but to drag the cauldron all the way to Caer Dallben. Fflewddur says he relishes the exercise, breaking a harp string. Awww. Even with Lluagor and Melynlas taking most of the burden, they make achingly slow progress. That night, when they make camp, Eilonwy tries to console Taran. She says that when it comes right down to it, the brooch was never part of him, not like a summer day would have been: “I know I shouldn’t want to give up a single one of mine. Or even a winter day, for the matter of that.” I think it’s worth noting that Taran didn’t actually refuse to give up a summer day, he just didn’t believe that it was possible for him to give one. In his place, I think I would have been willing to try. But then I’m old, and my summer days are mostly lost to memory and aren’t doing me much good anyway. Eilonwy, who can probably remember all her summer days, tells Taran he should be proud that he won the cauldron, and he agrees, “This much I have done.” But he still cries, thinking of the brooch.

When I first read the story, I thought he was mourning Adaon all over again. Upon this reading, I have a less charitable view and think he’s mostly upset because the brooch gave him special abilities, and now he’s “only an Assistant Pig-Keeper” again. “I should have known that anything else was too good to last,” he says. That makes me feel a lot less sorry for him this time around. What do you think, readers? Is Taran being selfish again? Should he have agreed to give away a memory? Or is it moot because Orddu never planned to accept one, given that she wanted the brooch all along? And where can I find some good fanfic about the brooch's history?

2 comments:

  1. I think chalking up Taran's feelings to selfishness is an oversimplification. All throughout the series, his greatest desire has been to be a great hero. And with the brooch, he probably saw a way to realize that desire. As he considered giving the brooch away, the book talks about him remembering his heightened senses, Gurgi praising his wisdom during that rainstorm, and Eilonwy's admiring gaze. Letting go of the brooch caused him physical pain, but also meant he couldn't expect his friends to look at him the way they had anymore.

    When he talked with Eilonwy that night, he mentioned how he couldn't have made any other choice. (I don't believe he saw giving a memory as a realistic option at that moment, though by the time of the fourth book he may have seen it as a possibility, considering the memory they suggested taking from him then.) He also spoke of Adaon then. It wasn't until after Eilonwy went to sleep, when Taran was alone with his thoughts and could hear the wind blowing through the cauldron, that all those things came together and brought him to tears--just as he had seen in his dream while he had the brooch.

    Mourning the lost potential offered by the brooch could be seen as a selfish desire, but I doubt it was the only thing on his mind. If he had been truly selfish, he would have kept the brooch and instead decided to risk leaving the cauldron and telling Gwydion and Dallben where it was so they could deal with it. If he hadn't given it willingly, there's no doubt Orddu would have told him it had suddenly gone defective.

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    1. That's a very fair point, and well stated - and I do think that it's a very human response and part of what makes Taran so relatable. Plus, Alexander did a really wonderful job of showing Taran maturing gradually throughout the books, and where he is in this particular stage is evidenced by how he can give a really wonderful acknowledgment of his friends' generosity on the same day and then also be deeply disappointed at thinking he's lost his chance for honor and glory.

      Thanks for continuing to read and comment!

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