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

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The High King, Chapter 19 – The Death-Lord (Part 2)

Welcome back! Before the break in this action-packed chapter of The High King, Taran had just tried – and failed – to kill Arawn. He runs into the Great Hall where the rest of his companions are, “crying the warning that Arawn still lived and had escaped.” Achren is immediately all, “Escaped you, Pig-Keeper, but not my vengeance” and takes off running down the halls, with everyone else chasing after her. They reach a throne room that contains a throne shaped like a skull (because of course it is), and stumbling toward it they see Magg, who always seems to be perching his scrawny butt on somebody else’s throne.

Magg’s not looking so hot, though, with a “ghastly white” face and “contorted features.” Raving like a lunatic, he holds up a heavy iron crown, which Arawn apparently left behind when he was turning into a shadow to escape being struck down by Dyrnwyn. Achren wants to kill Magg on the spot, but Taran says they should take him prisoner and bring him to Gwydion for justice. Magg, meanwhile, is shouting “Magg the Magnificent! Magg the Death-Lord!” as he puts the crown on his head. The crown grows red hot, then white hot, and Magg shrieks in pain as he dies. (“A crown for a king,” amirite, GoT fans?)

We then cut to Gurgi and Glew, who got separated from the group, frantically searching through the halls of Annuvin for Taran and the others. They arrive at a chamber full of “precious stones and golden ornaments.”


Glew, of course, starts drooling at the sight of all the treasure, and he makes a dive for it. Gurgi pulls Glew back “as flames burst from the walls.” Outside the Great Hall, Gwydion (the real one, this time) and Taran are reunited, along with all their surviving allies. Taran unbuckles Dyrnwyn and tries to hand it to Gwydion, saying, “The blade is safer in your hands.” Gwydion tells him that he’s “earned the right to draw it,” and therefore should keep it.

Fflewddur muses that Hen Wen’s prophecy came true, except for the part about stones speaking. Taran says that part came true, too, and tells them about the rock atop Mount Dragon that led him to Dyrnwyn’s hiding place. Eilonwy suggests that Hen was “mistaken” about “Dyrnwyn’s flame being quenched,” as Gurgi and Glew, singed but alive, run out of the Great Hall to join them. But we don’t have time to celebrate that they’re OK (or at least that Gurgi is; I could care less about Glew, TBH) because Achren suddenly yells, “Do you seek Arawn? He is here!” and throws herself at Taran’s feet.

Taran whirls around to see a “serpent ready to strike,” which Achren has grabbed with her bare hands. The serpent bites her in the throat, she falls back, the serpent strikes at Taran, Taran slices it in two with Dyrnwyn, and that’s the end of both Achren and Arawn. It happens so fast! As Gwydion cradles the dying Achren, Eilonwy and Taran watch as the serpent blurs into a decapitated man (ewww), and then vanishes into the earth.

“Look at the sword!” says Fflewddur, and they all see the white flame of Dyrnwyn turn into rainbow swirls and then go out. Now it’s just an ordinary sword, except for the writing, which Eilonwy brightens with her bauble, in time for Taliesin to read it as it fades. The full inscription reads “Draw Dyrnwyn, only thou of noble worth, to rule with justice, to strike down evil. Who wields it in good cause shall slay even the Lord of Death.” Taliesin concludes that Dyrnwyn has fulfilled its destiny. The companions lay Achren to rest in the Great Hall, and then the whole stronghold starts to blaze and completely collapses as they ride away.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The High King, Chapter 19 – The Death-Lord (Part 1)

Taran is clinging helplessly to the side of Mount Dragon when the gwythaint sinks its talons into his shoulders and starts to pull him away from the cliff face. He sees its “head, deeply scarred by an old wound” and notices that its “blood-red eyes” carry a “strange gaze of recognition.” He suddenly remembers the gwythaint he saved from the thorn bush all the way back in Book 1. “Was this the ragged bundle of feathers he had nursed back to life? Had the creature come at last to pay a debt so long remembered?” With no other choice than to trust that it is, Taran lets go of the cliff. The gwythaint flies him to the peak of Mount Dragon, then sets him down.

Can't help noticing that the sword
shown in the cover art
is neither black nor flaming.
From the peak, Taran can see that “Achren had spoken the truth” – the western descent is a short, straight shot to the iron gates of Annuvin. Said gates are currently swinging open to admit the army of Cauldron-Born that Taran failed in his mission to stop. Some of the Cauldron-Born spy Taran on his perch and split off from the main troop. The gwythaint attacks them, and a few fall, but then the gwythaint is slain. Loyal to the end, that poor bird! Three Cauldron-Born have survived and are headed up the mountain to dispatch Taran once and for all. Taran looks around wildly for something to defend himself with. He sees—and hears—a weird-looking rock, making a keening sound as the wind blows through its eroded nooks and crannies. It’s almost like mute rock is speaking, y’all! Taran sets his shoulder to the rock and is able to shove it out of its hollow and send it crashing down the slope. The rock takes out two of the Cauldron-Born, but one is still making a beeline for Taran.

Taran looks down and sees, beneath the rock he pried from the hill, a crevice lined with stones and containing Dyrnwyn!! He grabs the sword, not recognizing it as the one that almost killed him the last time he tried to draw it, and only after he unsheathes it, blazing in all its glory, does he realize that he has drawn the sword and is unharmed. He stabs the Cauldron-Born through the heart, and “from lips long mute burst a shriek that echoed and re-echoed from the Death-Lord’s stronghold as though rising from a thousand tongues.” The Cauldron-Born – all of them – crumple and fall as one!

The Commot men mount their horses and follow Taran into the courtyard, battling Arawn’s guards and the remaining Huntsmen, who weren’t killed when the Cauldron-Born were. Taran runs into the Great Hall, waving Dyrnwyn, and finds Gwydion, who warns him: “Sheathe the blade, or it will cost your life!” Taran puts the sword away. Gwydion demands to know how Taran dared to draw Dyrnwyn, and commands him, “Give me the sword, Pig-Keeper.” Taran is surprised to hear Gwydion’s voice so “harsh and commanding,” since yeah, Gwydion’s usually a douche, but in a more gentle, patronizing kind of way. But when he promises to let Taran rule half of Prydain after they seize Arawn’s treasure, Taran finally realizes – duh – that ain’t Gwydion. He draws Dyrnwyn and gasps “Arawn!” As he strikes, “the “Death-Lord’s disguised shape” morphs into shadow and vanishes. Um, Taran, maybe that would have worked better if you didn’t say his name right before you tried to kill him?

At this point I was expecting a chapter break, but instead there’s just an extra blank line before the action plunges right on, which I think is a bizarre choice. Because so much has already happened and is yet to happen in this chapter, I’m going to split this entry into two parts. See you next time!

Monday, July 30, 2018

The High King, Chapter 18 – Mount Dragon

Welcome back! It’s been a while since we visited Prydain (in book form, anyway). As we approach the climax of the final book in the series, things have gotten much colder and darker for Taran and his friends… literally. They survived a deadly snowstorm only by burning Fflewddur’s treasured harp, while Llassar and the Commot warriors (I’d almost forgotten about them!) found shelter in a cave. And now they’re facing down the final obstacle in their journey to Annuvin, a “dark and forbidding” (because of course it is) peak called Mount Dragon.

Achren has regained consciousness, and Gurgi is uneasily sharing his lembas and jerky with her. Haughty as ever, she scoffs at the idea that “a pig-keeper and his shabby followers hope to triumph where a queen failed.” Eilonwy whispers to Taran that Achren is not a queen anymore but seems to think she is, and Achren, overhearing, apologizes. She says she’s grateful for her life, and she will repay the companions by showing them the only surmountable path to Annuvin, a hidden trail to the western descent of Mount Dragon.

Taran, Doli, Eilonwy and Fflewddur huddle up to decide whether to trust Achren or not. Taran concludes that although he fears Achren, “I will not let fear blind me to hope.” They agree to follow Achren to Mount Dragon, which got its name by being—wait for it—in the shape of a dragon. Who’d a thunk? Achren leads them up a steep path, bounded by tall cliffs to keep them hidden as they approach Annuvin. This path, she boasts, is known only to her and Arawn, “for it was I who showed him the secret ways of Mount Dragon.” I’ll bet you did, you naughty minx, you!

As they crest the shoulder of the dragon, Kaw flies to them, calling out “Gwydion!” Taran struggles over a rock ridge and sees Annuvin below him, “glittering like black, polished marble,” with a battle raging in the courtyard. He spots Gwydion and Taliesin, seeming close to victory over Arawn’s forces, but also the army of Cauldron-Born hastening toward the gates. You had one job, Taran! As he jumps from the ridge, the stones give way under him! He's left clinging to the side of Mount Dragon, his sword clattering down into the gorge below. He’s too far down for his friends to reach him… and then… a gwythaint swoops toward him!

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Visiting Prydain!

Sorry for the unannounced hiatus, folks. I’ll be back with a new chapter recap next week, but in the meantime, I want to share some photos of my recent trip to Wales, on which Lloyd Alexander based much of Prydain's mythology and geography. I've always been fascinated with the history and language of Wales, especially after reading Sharon Kay Penman's Welsh Princes trilogy, so it was a dream come true to glimpse it in person.

My husband and I traveled to Swansea, where our hosts, his aunt and uncle, gave us a wonderful tour of the Gower peninsula, roughly equivalent to Prydain's Southern Realms, according to this map by Brendan Wanderer. Of course, I had to wear my Prydain map T-shirt!
I met Melynlas, the silver-maned stallion (or perhaps one of his cousins), and his family! These beautiful wild horses roam the common lands of Gower and aren’t a bit disturbed by humans getting fairly close to them.
You can almost picture a battle taking place on the hillside around this rock, known as Arthur’s Stone:
This rock formation is called the Worm’s Head, because it looks like a dragon rising up out of the water.
I fell in love with beautiful Rhossili Bay, with its rolling green hills almost touching the lapping waves. (Apparently, so did the band Mumford & Sons, who used it in their "Lover of the Light" video!)
It was hard to leave Wales; really wish we could have stayed longer. I think the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas summed it up best:

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The High King, Chapter 17 – The Snowstorm

The companions journey laboriously through Annuvin, leading their horses over the treacherous rocky terrain, which only Llyan manages with ease. Doli’s pace begins to slow down, and soon he starts to stagger and can’t catch his breath. Turns out he’s not as immune to the effects of Annuvin as he thought. Taran says they must stop for the day and let Doli recover his strength. Doli says they can’t afford to lose the time, but it’s obvious his condition is serious. Taran tells Fflewddur to ride back on Llyan with Doli, to save his life. Doli says to just leave him, that the mission is too important to lose Fflewddur’s sword. When Taran protests, Doli demands, “Are you a war leader or an Assistant Pig-Keeper?” And Taran replies in the most darling way, “Need you ask, old friend? I’m an Assistant Pig-Keeper.” It’s a great moment.

Fortunately, Doli has another brainwave. He turns himself invisible and immediately starts to feel better. Apparently, it was being invisible last time he was in Annuvin that protected him, and had nothing to do with the time he’s spent around humans. He picks up his staff and resumes guiding the party, who follow his staff, leaving me with all kinds of questions. If he had been holding the staff when he turned invisible, would the staff have turned invisible too? If he puts on a hat while he’s invisible, does the hat stay visible? The world may never know.

Fflewddur spots three gwythaints circling around something in the distance. As they begin to swoop down toward their prey, a murder of crows (greatest group noun ever) suddenly surrounds them. The crows drive the gwythaints away, and one of the crows is, of course, none other than Kaw! He tells Taran that the gwythaints were attacking Achren, who we haven't seen since she left Caer Dallben. Kaw leads the companions to her. Achren is alive, but unconscious and badly hurt. Taran and Fflewddur lift her and put her on Llyan’s back.

A violent snowstorm moves in. The companions are very close to freezing to death, particularly Eilonwy, who lapses into a dream-state in which she’s wrapped in a “lovely goosefeather quilt.” Taran says they need a fire, but they have no fuel for one. Fflewddur unslings his harp, saying, “It shall give us the tune we need.” Then he smashes it over his knee, and Doli sets the small pile of wooden fragments ablaze. The fire burns brightly all night, and the from the fire come all the songs that were ever played on the harp. “All night the harp sang, and its melodies were of joy, sorrow, love, and valor. The fire never abated, and little by little new life and strength returned to the companions.” In the morning, the storm ends and the fire finally subsides. From the ashes, Fflewddur pulls out the one unbreakable harp string that Gwydion gave him. Sob!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The High King, Chapter 16 – The Enchanter

In this “bottle episode” chapter, we’re whisked away to Caer Dallben, where Dallben is drowsing over the books on his table. At his feet, Hen Wen (who is allowed indoors, I guess?) starts whimpering, agitated by something that Dallben can’t hear at first. Dallben says that if their time has come, “it is a moment to pass, no more than that, whatever the outcome.” He walks out into the wintry night and tells Hen Wen he can hear about twenty riders approaching: “I do not know whether to be insulted or relieved. Only twenty?”

He waits quietly until the war band eventually arrives. Alexander’s writing is masterful here, as Dallben unleashes his bad-ass wizard powers the most awesomely low-key way. He exhales “as gently as if he were puffing at thistledown,” which causes a wind to rip through the forest with “the force of a thousand swords.” Then he strikes his staff on the ground, creating an earthquake. Finally, he stretches out his hand “as though he were casting pebbles into a pond,” creating ropes of flame that drive his attackers back into the forest. All but one, that is. A single man presses on, pursuing Dallben into the cottage. Dallben recognizes him as Pryderi, “King of the West Domains.”

Pryderi corrects Dallben that he’s now the ruler of all Prydain. Dallben pretends to be surprised at this news: “Is Gwydion of the House of Don no longer High King?” Pryderi scoffs and says Caer Dathyl has fallen. Dallben says it don’t make no nevermind: as long as Caer Dallben stands and Dallben lives, Arawn will never prevail. What’s more, he says, Arawn knows he can never enter Caer Dallben, nor can the Huntsmen or the Cauldron-Born; that’s why he sent Pryderi to kill Dallben for him. Pryderi bristles at this and says he serves only himself. He draws his sword and strikes at Dallben, who blocks the blow with his wooden staff. Pryderi’s sword shatters on the staff. He says scornfully that he knows Dallben’s strength and also his weakness: Dallben can use his spells to frighten and deter attackers, but not to kill them.

Pryderi reveals he has a black dagger from Annuvin that is immune to Dallben’s magic. With pity, Dallben says it’s true that Pryderi can kill him with the weapon, but that what Pryderi doesn’t realize is that Arawn has betrayed him. He’s only a pawn in Arawn’s scheme to kill Dallben, and once he’s done so, he won’t leave Caer Dallben alive: “No man has ever suffered death at my hands. But those who scorn my spells do so at their own peril.” A circle of flame surrounds the cottage, and Dallben says that as soon as Pryderi kills him, the fire will engulf them both. Pryderi doesn’t believe it, because Arawn not only wants Dallben dead, but wants Pryderi to bring back The Book of Three.

Dallben says that the book will never serve Arawn, or Pryderi: “Good cannot come from evil. You leagued yourself with Arawn for what you deemed a noble cause. Now you are a prisoner of the very evil you hoped to overcome.” He says that he’s already foreseen Pryderi’s death. Pryderi lunges for The Book of Three. As Dallben warns him not to touch it, a bolt of lightning from the book strikes him dead. Dallben bows his head, and the circle of fire quietly fades away. (This whole scene would be so amazing in a live-action film. Come on, Disney, get moving on that already!)

So… The Book of Three definitely has a protective spell on it, but when Taran touched it at the very beginning of the series, he only got some blistered fingers. Pryderi, on the other hand, is rendered quite dead. Does the book know who is grabbing it and why, and respond accordingly? Or was Taran protected by some greater magic? Discuss!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The High King, Chapter 15 – The River of Ice

The sudden light from Eilonwy’s bauble frightens the Huntsmen, and they fall back. Seeing their numbers, Taran realizes what a close call they’ve just had, but he’s mostly just overjoyed to know Eilonwy is still alive. Fflewddur wisely restrains him from going after her then and there. The valley turns dark again; Taran and company huddle in the mouth of the mine tunnel wondering what to do. They can’t go back through the mine, and the Huntsmen block them in every other direction.

Taran asks Doli to turn himself invisible and spy on the Huntsmen to find out their plans. After much complaining, Doli does so. He returns late that night with the news that the Huntsmen are hiding in the gorge until sunrise to avoid being killed by the bears and wolves that Medwyn sent. “And that’s where I want them,” says Doli, who has a plan. He’s found a frozen waterfall directly above the gorge, which if melted will go pouring down into the Huntsmen’s camp. Taran is dubious at first but trusts Doli’s confidence that it will work. For the rest of the night, the Fair Folk warriors, along with Fflewddur and Taran, chop away at the ice and build a massive pile of tree branches to set on fire. The heat melts the ice, and the waterfall thunderously gives way, crushing and drowning the startled Huntsmen far below.

Eilonwy and Gurgi return! Taran is too happy to even speak at first. He pulls Eilonwy close, and whispers that he had given up hope. “A silly thing to do,” replies Eilonwy, though she admits to having “a few uneasy moments with that ruffian Dorath.” You mean when he was announcing his plans to rape you? That’d make me uneasy too. Eilonwy doesn't elaborate on her recent trauma, but instead compliments Taran and Doli on getting rid of the Huntsmen. It looked like a burning river, she says, then gasps: the prophecy! The prophecy says Gelfling will destroy us! No, I keep telling you, wrong prophecy. It’s the one from Hen Wen’s letter sticks. “Night turn to noon and rivers burn with frozen fire ere Dyrnwyn be regained.” They realize that Eilonwy’s bauble lighting up the valley and the melted waterfall full of flaming branches have fulfilled those words. Gurgi is elated: “Wise piggy told the truth!” But Fflewddur wet-blankets that the prophecy also said mute stones would speak and Dyrnwyn’s flame would be quenched, so he thinks they ought not to put much stock in it.

Taran says that their last hope to stop the Cauldron-Born returning to Annuvin is to travel straight across the mountains, into what Doli says is forbidden land to the Fair Folk. Apparently, they’ll die if they get to close to Annuvin. Doli is the exception, because he’s spent a lot of time above ground, with humans. Ohhh…kay. So hanging out with humans makes him immune to Arawn’s death germs? That doesn’t make any sense to me. Feels like Alexander needed to get rid of the Fair Folk army but keep “good old Doli” in the group, so he invented this explanation on the spot. What do you think? Is this a cheat, or did I miss the part where this logic was established earlier? Let me know in the comments!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The High King, Chapter 14 - Daylight

Another POV shift! In this chapter we find out what happened to Eilonwy. Gurgi saved her life during the battle by dragging her away from the action, then found a cave for the two of them to spend the night in. The next day, as they searched for Taran, they were suddenly set upon … not by the Cauldron-Born but by a gang of mauraders. Tied to horses and brought to a campfire, they now face off with none other than our old friend Kid Rock (aka Dorath)! He swipes Eilonwy's bauble and demands she tell them where they can find "more treasure like this."

When Eilonwy won't answer, Dorath approaches Gurgi and realizes they have met before, when Gurgi was the "comrade to a pig-keeper." It's then that things get really creepy, y'all. Dorath looks more closely at Eilonwy, whom he'd previously thought was a boy, and notices that she's a "wench." She corrects him that she's no wench, but a princess of Llyr, and he calls her "Princess Vixen" and says he'll set her free later, after he settles a score with Taran. And by that, he means he plans on raping her and inviting his gang to do the same. This meaning was totally lost on me when I first read this book at age 11 or so, but when I read it now, his intentions are very clear - and what's more, they're clear to Eilonwy as well: "she could sense the outlaw's thoughts behind his cold eyes and for the first time she was deeply afraid." Yikes. Heavy stuff.

Gurgi tries to protect Eilonwy by biting Dorath on the leg. Dorath draws his sword and is about to kill Gurgi when - just in the nick of time - the wolves arrive! They tear out the throats of Dorath and his company, then chew through the ropes binding Eilonwy and Gurgi. Eilonwy retrieves her bauble from Dorath's corpse and thanks the wolves for helping them. She says the only wolves she's met before lived with Medwyn, and then very slowly puts it together that these must be the same wolves. She wishes she could communicate with them, and then suddenly she's able to. How terribly convenient! Is this the same magic power that Gwydion acquired at Oeth-Anoeth and then never mentioned again?

Gurgi and Eilonwy travel with the wolf pack through the Hills of Bran-Galedd, the wolves protecting them from bears and other dangers. They arrive at the crest of a hill just in time to see Taran and the war band disappearing into the mines in the valley far below. It takes them the rest of the day to get halfway down the slope. As the sun is setting, Brynach and Briavael sound the alarm that a band of Huntsmen is approaching. Right about that time, Taran and the others emerge from the mine entrance. Eilonwy calls Taran's name, trying to warn him, but he's too far away and can't hear her. She pulls out her bauble, which glows brighter and brighter until the valley is drenched with a light as bright as the sun. Eilonwy's about to rescue Taran once again!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The High King, Chapter 13 – Darkness

Taran and company try to catch up with the retreating Cauldron-Born, but make slow progress crossing the Hills of Bran-Galedd in the wintry weather. Knowing that the Cauldron-Born get stronger as they get closer to Annuvin, Taran grimly observes that “Unless we halt them, one time for all, our efforts will do no more than sap our own strength.” Snow-blind and exhausted, they stop to make camp … and in the morning, the Cauldron-Born attack. The battle rages all day, and when the Cauldron-Born finally push their way back into the Red Fallows, Eilonwy and Gurgi are missing! Oh noes! Taran searches all night through the bodies of the fallen Commot folk, but can’t find them alive or dead.

The surviving Commot folk assemble, and Fflewddur advises Taran to give up searching and lead the charge to stop the Cauldron-Born from reaching the Fallows. Taran wants to keep looking for Eilonwy and Gurgi but reluctantly agrees. The war band tries to make up for lost time by pursuing the Cauldron-Born as fast as they can. It always cracks me up how they are able to go for days and nights at a time with only “moments of fitful rest” in these books. And with Gurgi gone, I guess they’re out of lembas and jerky too?

On the third day, an outrider raises an alert. The British are coming! No, it’s actually a band of Fair Folk, with Doli at the head. Taran greets him by goofily repeating “Doli! Good old Doli!” a bunch of times, and Doli gets a genuine laugh out of me by replying, “If I ever doubted you recognized me, you’ve fully convinced me that you do.” He explains that King Eiddileg sent him to serve Taran, whom he owes a debt for saving them from being transformed by Morda.

Doli meets Glew, who starts whining about having been a giant and a king in “the finest cavern, with the finest bats, on the Isle of Mona.” Hearing the word “cavern” gives Doli an idea: there’s a nearby Fair Folk mine that they can use as a shortcut to catch up with the Cauldron-Born at the edge of the Red Fallows. I don’t know, Doli – I’ve seen this movie and it didn’t turn out well. Taran hasn’t, apparently, because he agrees to follow Doli to the mine, even though he’s sure that by doing so he’s losing the last shred of hope that Eilonwy will somehow find them.

They light torches, and lead their horses into the mine entrance. Taran sees wooden platforms and notices that the timbers that brace the arches are partially rotted (foreshadowing!). Glew starts scavenging gems, gloating to himself about how rich he’s going to be. When he climbs up to one of the wooden platforms to get an exceptionally large jewel, his pouch rips open, scattering gems, and he loses his balance trying to grab them. He pulls on the platform, causing an avalanche of stones and timbers, which doesn’t kill anyone but blocks their way forward.

Doli says they can dig their way through, which could take days, but that there are likely to be other cave-ins now that the mine is weakened. He advises them to retrace their steps and try to get to the Fallows above ground. Taran and Fflewddur fear they have lost any chance of catching the Cauldron-Born before they reach Annuvin. Oblivious to the fact that he's probably doomed all of Prydain, Glew whines that nobody seems to care that he's lost a fortune (womp womp!).