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, October 24, 2016

Taran Wanderer, Chapter 4 – A Matter of Cows

Taran, Fflewddur, and Gurgi arrive at the castle of King Smoit, who greets them effusively and comments that the last time he saw them, Taran was as “scrawny as a plucked chicken,” implying – without actually saying so – that Taran has filled out some since then. Taran asks Smoit if he’s ever heard of the Mirror of Llunet; Smoit hasn’t, but says the Llawgardarn Mountains are in “the land of the Free Commots,” and the residents there are “a stiff-necked breed.” Fflewddur exposits that Annlaw Clay-Shaper, plus a bunch of other craftsmen with mad skillz, live in the Free Commots. They have no ruler except the High King Math, and Smoit says “there’s more peace and neighborliness in the Free Commots than anywhere else in Prydain.” (The word “neighborliness,” which is just beautiful – in both sound and meaning – is ripe for a revival, don’t you think?)

Smoit advises Taran to forget about the Mirror of Llunet and hang out with him in Cantrev Cadiffor, where they’ll enjoy feasting and hunting and put even more flesh on Taran’s bones. But Taran won’t be deterred from his quest, and so, the next morning, they go to Smoit’s storehouse to get outfitted with some gear for the journey. A guard bursts in to say that the cantrev lords are fighting again: Goryon has stolen Gast’s fancy COW – which I sure hope you all remember from the last chapter! – and the rest of his herd as well. Smoit roars that he’ll throw Gast in his dungeon, and Taran is confused – isn’t Goryon the thief? Smoit says that no one knows who Cornillo’s rightful owner is; she’s been stolen back and forth by the two squabbling lords for years. The companions mount their horses (and Llyan) and ride from the castle at a breakneck pace, accompanied by a dozen of Smoit’s warriors.

Smoit, who can never go very long without eating, soon calls a lunch break, and starts to chow down on a “joint of meat” from his saddlebag (hooray for the naming of foods instead of mysterious references to “provisions!”) Taran suggests that there must be some way to achieve peace between Goryon and Gast. After all, Smoit’s thrown them both into his dungeon many times, but it never seems to work. Smoit says Taran may be on to something – then, hilariously, posits that the dungeon’s not damp enough and vows to have it “well watered down tonight.” Taran’s like, um, that’s not exactly what I meant.

A messenger from Lord Goryon rides up and begs the party for help in defending Goryon’s stronghold from Gast’s army. He says that when Gast attacked, the cows got scared and ran off, and now both lords are swearing vengeance for the herd’s loss. Smoit is ready to crack some skulls, and even Fflewddur gets caught up in the battle lust. Taran sensibly says that maybe someone should go find the cows, but Smoit ignores him, and the war party rides off in the direction of Goryon’s stronghold. On the way, they take a detour through some woods, and find themselves at the bank of a swiftly moving river. The reckless king gallops on in, and Taran watches in horror, as the current pulls Smoit from his mount and carries him over the edge of a waterfall. And on that cliffhanger, we end chapter 4, so until next time: Peace and neighborliness to you!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Taran Wanderer, Chapter 3 – Goryon and Gast

Taran and Gurgi ride to Lord Goryon’s stronghold, which is described as “a large huddle of buildings circled by a barricade of wooden stakes lashed with osier,” which made me so happy, because I recently learned what osiers are! They find a stable boy, and Taran asks him if a gray stallion was recently brought in. The boy exclaims, “Gray dragon, rather!” Melynlas, it seems, bit him and has thrown off both Lord Goryon and the Master of Horse multiple times, but Goryon is determined to break the stallion’s spirit, “even if he must first break its back.” Alarmed, Taran runs in the direction the boy indicated and sees Melynlas, surrounded by a ring of armed warriors, fling a bearded man to the ground.

Taran runs to Melynlas and takes hold of his bridle. The would-be rider, Lord Goryon, sputters, “Insolence! Impudence!” and orders Taran thrashed. But Taran says he does no more than claim his own horse, and Goryon’s like, that’s impossible, my men rescued the horse from six giants. Taran says there were no giants, just him, Aeddan, and Gurgi, but when Goryon blusters that his men are not liars, Taran thinks quickly and posits that the long shadows caused by the setting sun could understandably have made their height and numbers seem greater. The Master of Horse challenges Taran to try mounting Melynlas, which of course Taran does with ease. He continues thinking on his feet by offering to give Lord Goryon his “pig-keeper’s nag” as a gift. Goryon is outraged by the impudence and tells Taran and Gurgi to get lost and take the horse (and Gurgi’s pony, barely mentioned up till now) with them. And so they ride off, Taran having channeled his inner Odysseus in a way that’s effective if not quite consistent with what his character has been in the books so far.

As night falls, they arrive at another stronghold, and Taran calls to the guard in the watchtower that he is a friend of King Smoit’s. The name-dropping works, and Taran and Gurgi are invited into the Great Hall, where a war lord is listening to a harp played by none other than Fflewddur Fflam! The bard greets them, saying he really did intend to try staying in his kingdom and ruling, but then spring came, and “here am I.” As reasons for inserting him into the storyline, that’s barely better than the Dinas Rhydnant one, but I love Fflewddur, so I’m not complaining. He plays a tune of his own composing, busting a harp string when he says it’s been “praised by thousands.” Oh, that Fflewddur. Always exaggerating his YouTube reviews.

Lord Gast makes a big show of being generous, while stuffing himself and barely sharing any of his food with the assembled guests. When he finally passes out at the table, the companions are able to eat a little bit before retiring to “a meanly furnished chamber” for the night. The next morning, Gast shows off his treasures, which include a beautiful wine bowl Fflewddur recognizes as the work of “Annlaw Clay-Shaper… the most skilled potter in Prydain.” Taran wonders how Gast came by it, and Fflewddur says probably the same way Goryon acquired Melynlas. Finally, Gast shows off his cow, “Cornillo, the finest cow in all the land!” Cornillo, he says, can pull a plow better than an ox and her milk is always sweet cream. This section of the book, to be honest, feels a little bit like a video-game tutorial. Did everyone notice the WINE BOWL? The fancy COW? OK then. Just checking.

Finally, Taran, Gurgi, and Fflewddur, who has agreed to accompany them (riding Llyan), are allowed to go. As they ride away, Taran wonders aloud how Gast and Goryon see such good qualities in themselves. But Fflewddur says not to judge the cantrev nobles too harshly – they’re all hoarders, sure, but he’s known them to be extremely generous at times, including laying down their lives in battle for a comrade. And then, going on a bit of a tangent, he says that stories of valor in battle tend to be exaggerated with the passing of time, and if everyone had a harp like his, “what a din you’d hear from every stronghold in Prydain!” And that’s the third chapter in a row that ends with riding away from one place and heading to another – this book is episodic as hell – but since chapter 4 is titled “A Matter of Cows,” I have a feeling we’re going to see more of Lord Gast. Hope you all noticed the fancy COW a few pages ago. If not, please repeat the tutorial level before moving on.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Taran Wanderer, Chapter 2 – Cantrev Cadiffor

Taran and Gurgi leave Morva and head to Cantrev Cadiffor, ruled by King Smoit, who Taran plans to ask for sturdier gear for the long journey ahead. They stop to camp for the night, but are set upon by a group of five armed horsemen. The rough-looking riders who demand to know who Taran is, and jeer when he introduces himself as “Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper.” Which, seriously, Taran. If ever there was a time to haul out “Prince Glessic,” this would be it. They ask how a punk like Taran came to have a fine-looking steed like Melynlas, naturally don’t believe him when he says that Melynlas was a gift from Gwydion, and proceed to force him out of the saddle, striking him on the head with the flat of a sword. Surprisingly, Taran doesn’t lose consciousness from the blow, but by the time he regains his footing, Melynlas has been horsenapped!

A stranger with an oaken staff drives the riders away, and tells Taran not to worry, Melynlas will be all right: “The henchmen of Lord Goryon treat steeds better than strangers.” He introduces himself as “Aeddan Son of Aedd,” and invites Taran back to his farm to heal his broken head. At the farmstead, Aeddan’s wife Alarca gives Taran a dry jacket to wear and mixes a poultice for his wound. Aeddan shares his food with Taran and Gurgi, and it’s an exciting moment, because for what I think is the first time in the entire series, we’re told what a meal consists of: “bread, a cheese, and some dried fruit.” He apologizes that they don’t have much to offer guests, seeing as how they’re dirt-poor and their crops have failed the last two years in a row. I wait for Taran or Gurgi to say, that’s OK, we have a magical wallet full of jerky and lembas, so we wouldn’t dream of eating what little food you have saved, but they don’t.

Aeddan says that in his ancestors’ day, the people of Cantrev Cadiffor had magical plows and scythes that worked the land, but that Arawn stole these treasures along with their secrets of making the soil rich and fruitful. Now Aeddan has to work for his neighbors to make ends meet, and “the more I must toil for others, the less I may work my own fields.” Alarca adds that they also lost their ox and cow to illness and that their son, Amren, whose jacket Taran is wearing, died defending the fields from raiders. Taran tries to console her by saying her son is a hero. She replies, “My son is slain.” The raiders, like the farmers, were starving, all thanks to Arawn. Aeddan says that most of their farm is now fallow; they only have one field planted, and if it fails, they’re goners. This sounds like pretty ominous foreshadowing, you guys.

In the morning, Taran and Gurgi work alongside Aeddan and Alarca to help repay the couple for their hospitality. Once again, I wonder if they plan to share some of their literally limitless supply of food, but if they do, it’s not mentioned. Aeddan compliments Taran on his mad farming skillz and tells him he’s welcome to stay longer. But Taran’s gotta find Melynlas, so he gently returns Amren’s jacket, and they say farewell.