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, December 28, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 13 – The Plan

After all that talk of dear little Dallben, the three enchantresses usher the companions out of the cottage, slam and lock the door and refuse to open it again, even though Taran bangs on it until Fflewddur wisely advises him to leave off, since “all that knocking and thumping might – well, you don’t know but what those, ah, ladies get upset at noises.” I love Fflewddur. Even more so when he pulls the age card, reminding the gang that he is the oldest one present and his advice is to return to Dallben, who will know how to deal with Orddu et al. But Taran says they don’t dare leave the cauldron in the hands of the enchantresses, and Eilonwy agrees with him: “I believe no one, human or otherwise, should have that much power.” The bard is outvoted, yet undaunted, and he quickly warms to Taran’s suggestion that they should simply steal the cauldron and take it to Dallben and Gwydion. But first they must find it.

The shed they are supposed to sleep in is drafty and cold, so Gurgi runs off to find some straw to keep them warm. Fflewddur and Eilonwy suggest that Taran try to sleep, perchance to dream of the cauldron’s location. He’s about to try it when a terrified Gurgi returns, pointing wordlessly to the chicken roost… where there sits an enormous cauldron, covered in “dark brown flecks and stains which Taran knew were not rust.” They are all affected by how plainly evil it is, and agree it must be destroyed as soon as possible. They plan to come back after nightfall with the horses and haul it off. Gurgi overcomes his fear enough to congratulate himself for always finding lost things: “He has found piggies, and now he finds a great cauldron of wicked doings and brewing!” Tee hee! Drink for “piggies.” But Taran can’t help wondering if they were meant to find the cauldron, considering how poorly hidden it was.

As dusk falls, a candle lights the window of the cottage. Taran does his peeping Tom act again, peering in the window, and this time what he sees aren’t three old crones, but three beautiful young maidens! They are busy carding wool, spinning, and weaving, and they continue to work until almost dawn, when the candle vanishes and is replaced by the sound of snoring. Fflewddur thinks they must have resumed their other forms, since he “can’t imagine beautiful ladies snoring like that.” The companions hastily return to the Black Crochan, and, one on each side, try to lift it. They aren’t able to budge the cauldron, but when they try to reposition, they find they are stuck and cannot pull their hands free. They struggle in vain… and then Orddu appears in the doorway.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 11 – The Cottage – and Chapter 12 – Little Dallben

Taran responds to a sudden voice behind him in his usual manner – by whirling around, sword at the ready – but before he can get to hackin’ and slashin’ at his unseen opponent, the sword transforms into a serpent in his hands. He throws it to the ground (where it turns back into a sword), then looks up to see a dumpy little woman with large bare feet and a tangled mess of hair. She cheerfully promises the companions that being turned into toads “won’t hurt a bit,” and reassures them that she won’t actually step on them: “I couldn’t stand the squashiness.” But she can’t allow people “poking and prying” either, so transformed they must be.

Two more women appear, and the leader addresses them as Orwen and Orgoch, leading to much elbow-jabbing and whispering by Taran and Fflewddur: “We’ve found them!” (I think it’s a little too convenient that the first people they encounter in Morva are the very ones they’re looking for, but then again, maybe the witches are the only residents of the entire marsh, given how very unpleasant it is.) Much like the Fair Folk we’ve met, each of the enchantresses has a shtick: Orddu calls everyone animal-based pet names like “duckling,” Orwen is airheaded and rather vain, and Orgoch is grouchy and always hungry. As they argue over whether to transform the companions into toads or something else, it’s revealed that they each take turns being each of them, though of course no one wants to be Orgoch, given her “horrid indigestion” and all.

Orwen compliments the companions on having drowned the nasty Huntsmen in the marsh. Taran tells the three women that if they consider the Huntsmen enemies, then they are on the same side as he and his companions. He falteringly introduces Eilonwy as “Indeg,” and Fflewddur as “Prince Glessic.” The witches scoff at him and, discouraged, he gives the right names. When he introduces Gurgi, Orwen says, “So that’s a gurgi,” to which Eilonwy retorts, “It’s not a gurgi. It’s Gurgi. And there’s only one.” (How is that possible?) Orgoch wants to know if “the gurgi” is for eating or for sitting on. Heh. Then Taran introduces himself as “Taran of Caer Dallben,” and Orddu exclaims, “How is dear little Dallben?”

Taran is thunderstruck. The enchantresses bustle the companions into the cottage and serve them some food. Eilonwy tries to touch the weaving on the loom and gets a rebuke from Orddu. Taran wonders if the food is safe to eat, but Eilonwy can tell it is – she learned how when living with Achren. But before she can explain her method, Orddu interrupts, wanting to know how “little Dallben” is and if he still owns The Book of Three. Confused, Taran tries to explain that Dallben is not little at all – in fact, “he’s rather elderly.” But to the witches, he’s still the little baby they found floating in a basket in the marsh nearly 400 years ago. They reminisce about how they took him in and raised him (despite Orgoch’s wanting to eat him instead). One day, they were brewing a wisdom potion and Dallben splashed some on his fingers. When he sucked the potion off them, he instantly became as wise as they, so they had to send him away. They gave him his choice of a sword (which would have made him a great warlord/king), a harp (best bard in all the lands), or The Book of Three (which he chose, and which apparently made him the Dallben we all know and love).

Taran tries to use their mutual love of Dallben to his advantage, telling the enchantresses they can help Dallben by helping Gwydion find the black cauldron, which Kaw said was in their possession. Orddu says “Don’t believe everything you hear from a crow” (burn!) but yes, the cottage has tons of cauldrons and cookpots lying about. Taran says firmly that he means Arawn’s cauldron. Orddu says its name is the Black Crochan and that it belonged to them first, before Arawn paid them a very heavy price for the use of it. Arawn was supposed to return the cauldron, but when he did not, they simply took it back. And under no circumstances will they part from it again, not even to help dear Dallben. The witches tell the companions they can sleep in the shed that night and that they must leave first thing in the morning – whether it be in their own forms or “hopping all the way.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 10 – The Marshes of Morva

Sorry for the unannounced hiatus, folks – to paraphrase Shakespeare, my heart was in the ground with Adaon, and I had to pause ere it came back to me. That, and I’ve been busy. Last weekend, I went to YALLFest in Charleston, which was amazing! And I’ve been attending some great author classes and workshops at Jera Publishing. But I’m back and ready to follow that marsh bird in the direction of Morva!

The companions pause for a rest and a bite of lembas and jerky from Gurgi’s magical wallet. Taran demonstrates his brooch-born clairvoyance twice more: first by accurately predicting that it’s going to rain even though Fflewddur protests – “Great Belin, there isn’t a cloud in the sky!” – and then by knowing that the outcropping under which they’ve found shelter is about to collapse in a landslide. Gurgi is thankful that his poor tender head is spared from both drippings and dashings. That night, Taran dreams that Ellidyr is in danger and he can’t help. He also dreams that they found the cauldron, but “when we found it, I wept.”

They reach the marshes of Morva, and boy, is it stinky, with stagnant pools, dead plants, and ropes of fog. Taran’s dream of the two wolves and the bear turns out to mean that three Huntsmen are on their trail, dressed in animal pelts. The companions plunge headlong into the marshes, and their pursuers drown in the bog. On the other side of the swamp, Taran pulls Melynlas up at a seemingly deserted cottage. Peeking through the windows, he sees piles of clutter, and a loom, with a tangled weaving on it and strands dangling down. Suddenly, an unseen person asks cheerfully how he’d like it “if you were turned into a toad? And stepped on?”

It seems to be a requirement in works of fantasy, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to the NeverEnding Story, that marshes or swamps be described as exceedingly unpleasant. But how do they stack up against each other, I wonder? It’s poll time!

Which place is the worst?

  • Morva
  • Dagobah
  • The Dead Marshes
  • The Swamps of Sadness
Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 9 – The Brooch

Fflewddur and Doli draw off the attacking Huntsmen, calling to Taran, Eilonwy and Gurgi to take the wounded Adaon to safety. They flee through the cold, windy forest, until they reach a small sheltered glade where Adaon implores them to stop. They carry him to a sunny spot under the trees to rest. Taran opens the healing herbs and says that they’ll tend his wound and then make a litter to carry him between the horses. Poor, naïve Taran. Adaon knows that’s not going to happen. He says he’s not in pain and that “it Is pleasant here, as warm as spring.” Taran instantly recognizes that this is the scene Adaon described from his dream. He says he would never have chosen to go to the marshes if he knew Adaon would be in peril. Adaon says if he had interfered with the choice, he would never have known if it was a wise choice or just following his desire to go home to Arianllyn. “I am content to die here,” he says, and gives the protesting Taran his brooch. And then he closes his eyes and dies.

At this point, at age 11, I was so distraught that I threw the book across the room (and I’ve never been prone to violence toward books). It seemed like a betrayal by Alexander, introducing this wonderful, pure, brave character and then ruthlessly killing him off halfway through the book. At that point in my life, I hadn’t read too many stories in which a hero dies. But now, as an adult, I truly appreciate the way this death scene was handled – the books are clearly getting darker and more mature, and, as William Goldman put it, some of the wrong people are going to die. And yet the first “good guy” in the series to die is truly at peace, and despite the violence of his injury, has time to accept, even embrace, his destiny.

Through all of Taran’s adventures up to this point, including having mourned the assumed loss of Gwydion at Spiral Castle, he’s never actually witnessed the death of a friend. Now the poor kid has to bury Adaon with only Eilonwy and Gurgi to help. I hope Gurgi is a really good digger because digging graves is backbreaking work, though Alexander doesn’t mention that part. They raise a mound of stones and Eilonwy scatters flowers over them, bringing Adaon’s vision of flowers springing from bare rock to life. His foretelling that Taran would grieve has also come to pass, “thrice over,” since Taran fears that Fflewddur and Doli cannot have survived either. He decides they should wait for them until dawn and then move on. Then he falls asleep and has some wild and crazy dreams: a black beast torments Ellidyr, a gray bird shows Taran a path, Fflewddur’s harp sits on a boulder in the middle of a stream, and two wolves and a bear attack Taran in a marsh – at which he wakes in terror.

Despite Eilonwy’s protestations that they should head for Caer Cadarn, Taran leads the group south, in the direction of Morva. He notices his senses are heightened and without being able to say how, he knows when there is a stream nearby. Fflewddur sits on a rock in the stream, dipping his feet in the water. He’s glad to see them, but doesn’t know what became of Doli. Later, still unsure if they are going in the right direction to reach the marshes, they come to a meadow and Taran sees a gray bird. He declares it’s a marsh bird and they should follow its direction to Morva. By now, Taran has figured out what’s going on with his newfound prescience – it’s all due to his wearing Adaon’s brooch. Eilonwy doesn’t want to believe it: “Adaon was a wonderful man… You can’t tell me it was all because of a piece of iron.” Taran doesn’t claim to understand things the way that Adaon did, he just knows that he feels and knows things differently than before. Eilonwy agrees that the brooch has given Taran “a kind of wisdom” and that it’s a priceless gift. The chapter ends, and I’m left to wonder when and how poor Arianllyn will find out about her fiance’s death. Sob!

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 8 – A Stone in the Shoe

The companions set off toward Morva, with Fflewddur admitting only after two harp strings have snapped that he doesn’t know the way and letting Adaon lead instead. Ellidyr is pouting and won’t talk to anybody. Taran remarks to Eilonwy that trying to bring back the cauldron single-handedly is “the kind of childish thing I’d have done when I was an Assistant Pig-Keeper.” Eilonwy retorts that he’s “still an Assistant Pig-Keeper” and that he’s only going to Morva because of Ellidyr. Taran starts to regret his choice, and asks Adaon quietly if he’s kept something from him that would have swayed his decision. Adaon, who’s looking strong and joyful, responds that we all have a destiny, though we don’t always know what it is. Taran thinks that Adaon knows his. He asks again what Adaon dreamed about himself, the last night at Caer Dallben. Adaon smiles and says that he saw himself in a sunlit glade, with birds calling and flowers springing up from bare stone. Taran is relieved that it wasn’t something unhappy. As for me, I break out in chills at the beautiful image and what I know it means. Sigh.

They ride through the night with no sign of the pursuing Huntsmen. Doli isn’t sure exactly how long Gwystyl’s track-concealing powder lasts, but humphs that they’re bound to be caught sooner or later. Ellidyr’s horse, Islimach, has gone lame, and Taran offers to check it out. Ellidyr warns that no one can touch Islimach but him, and at first it seems that he’s right and the skittish mare will trample Taran. But then Taran is able to calm her and remove the stone from her shoe with a technique Coll taught him. I really like when Taran is able to use his farming expertise for good in these stories, although of course the proud Ellidyr doesn’t appreciate it one bit, accusing Taran of trying to steal both his honor and his horse. Taran fires back awesomely: “What stone is in your shoe, Prince of Pen-Llarcau?” He goes to dine with the others on Gurgi’s magical provisions and leaves Ellidyr to sulk.

Adaon commends Taran’s patience with the black beast. Taran says that Ellidyr will feel better when they all share the glory of finding the cauldron, and Adaon rather preachily replies that there should be glory enough in living all the days that we have. He’s sounding a bit like Gwydion, but I will cut him some slack because a) he’s my boyfriend, and b) I think he knows at this point that (spoiler!) he doesn’t have many days left. In fact, the next thing he does is to ask Taran, should some harm come to him, to take the three things he values most: his horse, his packet of healing herbs, and his fiancée. Er, that is, the brooch his fiancée gave him. He’s never met anyone he would trust more than Taran with these precious things. Taran is like, nothing’s going to happen to you, silly! But at Adaon’s insistence, he agrees.

They decide to rest until midday, and Ellidyr takes the first watch. Taran, the first to wake, finds Ellidyr and Islimach are gone. He wakes the others, and they find Ellidyr’s trail headed in the direction of Morva. They head after him, but he’s got several hours’ head start. When the shrill call of a bird rings through the woods, Adaon says it’s not a real bird call, but the signal of the Huntsmen. Doli rushes off to check, and comes back to report five Huntsmen are close. He’s all set to play the same invisibility trick that worked last time, but Adaon for some reason says no, we have to stand against them this time. I’m super-annoyed because what can be the goal of standing versus running away? They engage in battle, and one of the Huntsmen draws a dagger and is about to kill Taran. Adaon slays the Huntsman, saving Taran’s life and getting a dagger in the chest for his efforts. Hold me, you guys. Adaon slumps over in the saddle, clutching the dagger. Taran catches him before he falls, and cries to the others to retreat: “Adaon is wounded!”

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 7 – Kaw

Gwystyl immediately tries to take back ‘fessing to knowing that Arawn no longer has the cauldron, and instead of elaborating he simply implores the companions to abandon their quest and get to safety. Eilonwy says they should rejoin Gwydion at Caer Cadarn and Gwystyl is like, yes, yes, do that, absolutely, goodbye. Eilonwy calls him on his BS – “Goodbye?” but the Huntsmen are still out there and you haven’t done a thing to help us – and so he reluctantly offers them a powder to put on their feet and hooves that will cover their tracks. He was saving it for emergencies, you see. Doli calls Gwystyl a “clot,” grabs him by the arm and tells him he has a “skulking, sneaking look” in his eyes as if he’s trying to get away with something. He threatens to squeeze him to find out what will come out. At the thought of being squeezed, Gwystyl faints and has to be revived.

Mariana Crow Corvus kubaryi Suddenly, Kaw the crow croaks out “Orddu!” and then “Orwen! Orgoch!” The companions are quite surprised that he didn’t say “kaw” at all, but they have no idea what he means. Doli can tell that Gwystyl knows, and threatens again to squeeze him. Gwystyl hems and haws but finally reveals that the cauldron is “in the hands of Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch.” Taran demands to know who – or what – they are, but Gwystyl says he doesn’t know. Taran then asks where they can be found. Gwystyl again pleads ignorance, but Kaw pipes up: “Morva!” With much hand-wringing, Gwystyl explains that Kaw means the Marshes of Mova, about a day’s journey west.

Should they go and tell Gwydion the news? Or go straight to Morva and retrieve the cauldron themselves? Eilonwy sensibly promotes the former, but Taran is tempted by the glory of the latter. He finally agrees Eilonwy’s plan is better, only for Ellidyr to jump in with a “screw you guys, I’m going to Morva.” He calls Taran “pig-boy” again and insults his courage. Taran flares up and says he was a fool to listen to a girl (Eilonwy and I both shriek in anger), but then quickly calms himself. He says he would be twice a fool to be goaded by Ellidyr’s taunting, but that, all things considered, they can’t risk not going after the cauldron and having Arawn find it first. Taran’s clearly matured a bit since the start of the book, since he was able to get control of his emotions pretty quickly after Ellidyr riled him up. But he seriously owes Eilonwy an apology.

Eilonwy wisely points out that it’s not Taran’s party to command – Adaon is the boss of both him and Ellidyr. But Adaon says that this is a choice he cannot make, and someday Taran will understand why. In the meantime, he will support whatever decision Taran makes. Taran decides on Morva. Adaon says, “So it shall be.” Gwystyl finds the track-concealing powder while Doli turns invisible and goes to check on the Huntsmen. They’ve camped down for the night, so it’s a good time to sneak away. They dust their feet and the horses’ hooves with the powder, and Gwystyl escorts them out from the thorny portal, seeming very satisfied and muttering, “Goodbye. I hope we meet again. But not soon.” Heh. And with that, they slip out into the night.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 6 – Gwystyl

Doli has a long, muffled conversation with the voice from the hollow tree trunk, and afterward he leads the party down a steep embankment to an imposing wall of thorns. The thorn bushes crack open to reveal a sad, thin member of the Fair Folk, wrapped in a dingy robe. This is Gwystyl, and I picture him looking like Dobby the house-elf crossed with Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle. He's morose and self-pitying and acts as if he’s suffering terribly from some feverish ailment, but it’s pretty clear that, like King Eiddileg, he’s just a bundle of neuroses (though I find Eiddileg's fussbudgetry more entertaining than Gwystyl's melancholia). Doli reads Gwystyl the riot act about being in charge of a Fair Folk way post and not being prepared to offer protection to those in need. Gwystyl moans in protest about being asked to admit not only humans, but horses as well! Nonetheless, he parts the thorns enough to admit everyone into the gallery. There’s a passageway leading to a small chamber with a smoking hearth (where Gurgi curls up), a sleeping pallet and a table and chairs.

Adaon gallantly thanks Gwystyl for his hospitality, while Doli demands Gwystyl get them something to eat and drink. Gwystyl asks, “When did you say you were leaving?” Hee. Eilonwy, ever the animal-lover, delightedly spots Gwystyl’s tame crow on a perch. She compliments it, although its feathers are a mess: “They’re unusual, but very handsome once you get used to them.” Petting the crow, Taran thinks sadly about the gwythaint he rescued and wonders how she’s doing. Eilonwy asks the bird’s name, and Gwystyl says it’s Kaw, because of the sound it makes. Fflewddur is like, wow, how clever, I would never have thought of that! I can't tell if he's just being nice or if he's legitimately impressed.

Adaon treats Ellidyr’s wound, though Ellidyr peevishly protests that he isn’t troubled by it and won’t slow them down. Gwystyl wonders if Adaon has anything for his “condition,” and complains about the dampness and drafts, which he’s certain will outlast him. Doli tells him to knock it off and start thinking of a way to help them escape the Huntsmen. Gwystyl has another attack of shivering and moaning, and tells Doli and Taran it was inconsiderate of them to involve him in their “mad schemes.” Adaon starts to say that he would rather not tell Gwystyl the reason for their plight, but then Taran goes and blurts out that they were on a quest from Gwydion to steal the cauldron from Arawn. Adaon doesn’t reprove Taran for speaking out of turn (as I bet Gwydion would have) but merely tells Gwystyl the rest of their story. Gwystyl sighs that it’s a very unfortunate business and they should never have gotten mixed up with the cauldron. Taran says they aren’t mixed up with it, because someone has already taken it from Annuvin. And Gwystyl’s surprising response? “Yes… yes, I know.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 5 – The Huntsmen of Annuvin

As the sun begins to rise, Taran can see the attacking Huntsmen – of which there are about a dozen. They wear clothing made from animal skins, and each has a crimson brand on his forehead. Guessing that the symbol is a mark of Arawn’s power, Taran is chilled with fear. The Huntsmen are pretty terrifying, I guess, but somehow I never found them as frightening as the Cauldron-Born. Deathless zombie warriors > fur-clad, branded, Hydra-type warriors for sheer horror in my book. Plus, I would like to know where the Huntsmen came from. The Cauldron-Born have no choice but to serve Arawn, being drafted in death into his service, but what about the Huntsmen – are they volunteers? Does Arawn kidnap them and put a spell on them? I can't remember whether this gets explained later. And lastly, I would think that Cauldron-Born, which presumably never have to eat or sleep, would be a better investment for Arawn than human armies that require resources to maintain. Unless the Huntsmen are much better at strategy or fighting – like special forces – it seems like Arawn is just diversifying for the sake of not having all his eggs in one cauldron. (Rimshot.)

Anyway, they fight, and Taran is pulled from Melynlas and pinned by a Huntsman. Things look bleak for a second, until Ellidyr kills the Huntsman from behind. (That’s two you owe me, junior.) A sigh ripples through the remaining Huntsmen, and then they renew their attack with superhuman ferocity. Taran shouts at the others not to kill any Huntsmen: “Defend yourself but do not slay them!” Like, how exactly would you do that, unless you were in a cartoon? Speaking of which, the Huntsmen start falling all over the place as invisible fists pound them and grab their weapons away. It’s Doli, of course. He creates enough of a distraction for Adaon to grab Gurgi, shout “Follow me!” and ride off on Lluagor (presumably to victorious music on the soundtrack, whenever they get around to making the live-action movie version). Taran mounts Melynlas, grabs Eilonwy and gallops after him. They all flee to the relative concealment of a riverbed, where they lose the Huntsmen, then keep galloping west into the forest.

Adaon says they can stop for a brief rest. There’s some squabbling over whether they should make a stand or shun the Huntsmen. Taran thanks Ellidyr for saving him, and Ellidyr is predictably scornful in response. They set off again, as the day turns cold and damp. Suddenly Doli draws up and says there are Fair Folk around. Taran asks how he knows, and Doli says, “How do you know how to swallow your dinner?” which gave me a chuckle. Sometimes Doli’s not a total drag. He dismounts, runs to a hollow oak and starts yelling down into it. No one answers, but Doli is sure he calculated correctly. He kicks at the tree and says he’ll report this mismanagement to King Eiddileg himself! Eilonwy gets in on the hollering-into-the-tree action, and finally there’s a faint response: “Go away.” Strap in, folks: we’re about to meet yet another charming and fun representative of the Fair Folk.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 4 – In the Shadow of Dark Gate

Halfway through the night, there’s a bustle in the hedgerow, or rather a rustling in the shrubbery, and Taran, Adaon, and Ellidyr leap to attention. The light of a glowing bauble reveals it’s Eilonwy and Gurgi! Taran starts yelling at Eilonwy immediately, calling her foolish and scatterbrained. (I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he only does this when he’s under great stress. If he’s been berating her like this for the whole year she’s been working in the scullery – you can do better, Eilonwy. Just sayin’.)

Adaon echoes Aslan as he wearily chides, “Princess, Princess, you should not have followed us.” (Intentional on Alexander’s part? I wonder.) Then Ellidyr calls Eilonwy a “little fool” and Taran rounds on him, saying it’s one thing when Ellidyr insults Taran, but another when he insults his friend. But, weren’t you just insulting her yourself? Swords are drawn, and Adaon has to intervene once again. Ellidyr asks mockingly if Gurgi is the black beast from Adaon’s vision. Adaon sadly says no. Then Eilonwy explains that they had initially followed on horseback, but the horses got spooked being so close to Dark Gate and ran off in the direction of Caer Dallben. Taran says Eilonwy will be going back herself, but she asserts herself: if he can go on a quest, so can she. “Fair is fair!” You go, Billie Jean!

Adaon offers them refreshments, and Eilonwy says admiringly that he’s very kind and thoughtful. (Back off, Eilonwy. Yeah, I know I just said you deserved better, but I’m next in line behind Arianllyn.) She says that they brought along Gurgi’s magical wallet full of food, but that those mysterious provisions are “rather tasteless.” So I was right! Lembas and jerky.

Eilonwy’s impressed that Taran was “ready to smite” Ellidyr to defend her honor. Awww. As she’s effusing, Fflewddur rides in breathlessly, yelling that they need to pack up and flee. Doli, astride his pony, snaps back into being visible and complains that his ears are buzzing. Fflewddur says Gwydion wants them to fall back. Taran asks if the plan failed. No, says Fflewddur, it was perfect, except that they didn’t find the cauldron! Doli relates how he slipped into the Hall of Warriors unseen but saw only an empty platform, and then he heard two of Arawn’s guards talking about how the cauldron went missing a few days ago. Eilonwy and Taran are like, hooray! Arawn doesn’t have it anymore. The adults, less naïve, correct them that the cauldron is dangerous in and of itself, so no one is safe until it is found. They must go to Caer Cadarn, where Gwydion will plan the search. Eilonwy and Gurgi will ride with Taran and Adaon, respectively, since Ellidyr sneers that Islimach is trained to accept no other riders but him. As they’re mounting up, arrows hiss through the woods. The Huntsmen of Annuvin are attacking!

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 3 – Adaon

The company sets out at dawn, and Taran, astride Melylas, waves goodbye to Eilonwy, Gurgi, and Dallben. As they enter the forest, Ellidyr’s horse Islimach nips at Melynlas, almost unseating Taran. Ellidyr laughs, “She bites. We are much alike, Islimach and I.” Adaon solemnly agrees that both horse and rider carry “a difficult burden.” He tells them that he dreamed a dream in time gone by – or rather, the night before – in which he saw Ellidyr with a black beast on his shoulders. Ellidyr snorts, “Spare me from pig-boys and dreamers!” but Taran wants to know more. He asks what Adaon dreamed about him, and Adaon hesitates, then says Taran was filled with grief. Taran is surprised, since he's totes happy, and says that serving Lord Gwydion is more honorable than “washing pigs and weeding gardens!” Does Dallben have more than one pig? If not, I’d take umbrage at the “washing pigs” comment if I were Hen Wen. Adaon says he’s fought in battles and tended fields, and there is more honor in the latter. Not only has he been a farmer, but he’s worked as a sailor, a potter, a fisherman, a weaver and a blacksmith. He’s pretty dang awesome. I think even Taran is starting to crush on him (that is, if anyone could rival pompous old Gwydion for Taran’s affections). Adaon must suspect Taran’s and my growing ardor, because he mentions that he’s anxious to return to his betrothed, Arianllyn, when their quest is done – sorry girls, he’s engaged!

They camp at nightfall, and Fflewddur hands his harp to Adaon, who plays a song of “peacefulness and deep joy.” Taran can hardly sleep for his excitement over the journey, but remembers Adaon’s dream and feels “a shadow like the flutter of a dark wing.” (Sometimes I absolutely have to quote Alexander verbatim because his prose is so poetic, and this is one of those times.) The next day they split up, with King Smoit (grumble, grumble) branching off to his realm to gather his forces for backup. The rest of the party rides single-file up trails through narrow cliffs, and Ellidyr once again bullies Taran, forcing his way past Melynlas and causing Taran to fall from the saddle and nearly off the cliff. Adaon tries to reach him, but Ellidyr, in an unexpected show of heroism, heaves Taran bodily back onto the trail, then puts his shoulder under Melynlas and helps him climb back up as well. Taran is amazed at Ellidyr’s strength. Ellidyr appears uncertain and vulnerable for the first time as he says he didn’t mean for Taran to fall. Then he remembers that he’s supposed to be a stone-cold bastard, and laughs that he was only concerned about the horse, not Taran. Adaon snaps that he can see the black beast in the saddle with Ellidyr.

Gwydion, alerted by one of Morgant’s men, strides up ready to do some scolding. Ellidyr accuses Taran of trying to force his way ahead. Gwydion asks Taran if it is true, and Taran bites his tongue and nods that it is. That’s pretty tough of him, I must say. Even at my age, I don’t know if I could stand falsely accused in front of my hero and take the blame. Gwydion says if it happens again he’ll send them both back to Caer Dallben. Morgant chooses this opening to say he thinks they should take the cauldron back to his realm, not to Caer Dallben, and that three of his horsemen should trade their places with Adaon, Ellidyr, and Taran. Oh, butt out, Morgant! Gwydion basically says as much, and Morgant hisses “as you command, Lord Gwydion.” He’s extremely Snape-like. Fflewddur whispers to Taran that he’s sure Ellidyr was really to blame. I love Fflewddur. He’s such a good friend.

The next day, they see gwythaints, but no Cauldron-Born. Gwydion exposits that Arawn has even more helpers, in the form of roving war bands called the Huntsmen of Annuvin. They are mortal, but magic: when you kill one of them, the others get even stronger. Once again, I’m reminded of a video game; I think there was something very similar in The Legend of Zelda. That night, they ready for their attack on Dark Gate. Doli turns invisible and goes ahead to scout. Coll puts a helmet on his bald head, and Taran has a moment of love and concern for him. Morgant tells a flattered Taran that he would have been honored to ride with him. Then Taran begs Gwydion to come with him, but Gwydion says no, and the riders depart. Adaon says he will share the watch with Taran first and Ellidyr second, and tells Ellidyr to sleep, “or at least keep silent.” Ellidyr pouts. Adaon’s eyes are lit bright by the stars as he keeps watch (swoon). Taran rhapsodizes about how great Gwydion and Morgant are. Adaon says he’s worried for Morgant, because he dreamed that Morgant’s sword was broken and bloody and warriors were circling him slowly. Taran’s like, hey, dreamer, don’t be so upset! And by the way, what did you dream about all the others – Coll, Fflewddur, “good old Doli”… or yourself? Come on, Taran, you have to have caught on by now that there was nothing good in this dream. Adaon doesn’t answer, just watches Dark Gate, and the chapter ends on that quiet but tense note.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 2 – The Naming of the Tasks

Gwydion’s announcement provokes amazed reactions in everyone except the cool-as-a-cucumber King Morgant. Gwydion says that anyone who wishes to leave is welcome to do so. King Smoit tries to bluster that any cowards will have him to deal with, but Gwydion firmly but gently says they must each make their own decision. Of course no one leaves, and Gwydion says that’s good because he has tasks for each of them. Fflewddur excitedly says his task must be to compose the epic song of their adventure, but Gwydion wants him for his sword, not his harp. Fflewddur is disappointed, but rallies, saying “a Fflam is always valiant!”

The plan is to journey from Caer Dallben to the Dark Gate, the “back door” of Annuvin, and divide into three bands. Doli is to turn invisible and break into the Hall of Warriors where the Black Cauldron is kept. Then he, Fflewddur, Coll, and Dallben will steal the cauldron, backed up by King Morgant and his warriors, who will attack the Dark Gate to create a diversion. King Smoit and his army will stand at the edge of Smoit’s kingdom to fight off pursuers and, if necessary, give shelter at Smoit’s stronghold, Caer Cadarn. (Smoit, of course, makes it loudly known that he is none too happy about being excluded from the front line that goes to Annuvin. ) The third band, made up of Adaon, Ellidyr, and Taran, will guard the pack animals at the Dark Gate and “serve as the need demands.” That sounds like a pretty crummy job to me, and Ellidyr agrees, crying out that he’s being treated as “no better than a pig-boy [who] is untried, a green apple!” Taran once again gets hot and bothered by Ellidyr’s insults, countering that he has stood with Gwydion against the Cauldron-Born, and that he has more experience than “Prince Patchcloak” (hee). Gwydion tells them both to cut it out and ends the meeting. They will ride for Annuvin at dawn.

As they leave the council, Taran tries to be the bigger man and offers his hand to Ellidyr to shake, but Ellidyr spurns him. Adaon intervenes with a “Gently, friends,” staving off another altercation. Then Dallben calls to Taran. He has something to give him: a sword! Taran is like, “Whoa, cool, what are its powers?” Dallben says it “is a bit of metal hammered into a rather unattractive shape,” and its only powers are those of the wielder. Then he bids Taran farewell and tells him to go get “the Princess Eilonwy” to gird the sword on him. Everyone’s so formal with her title – well, except Taran, who runs to the scullery and demands her girding services, saying please only as an afterthought. Eilonwy is flushed and flattered, and then Taran wrecks things, in his usual way, by pointing out that she’s the only girl around to do it. At that, she gets her ire up and refuses, but relents when Taran promises to tell her what happened in the council. When he gets to the part about riding for Annuvin at dawn, Eilonwy says she’ll barely have time to pack! Taran is all, um, no, by “we” I meant Gwydion and me and the other dudes. No girls allowed! Eilonwy squeals that even if he has a hundred swords, he’s still just an Assistant Pig-Keeper, and she has as much right to be included as he. She flings crockery at him as he flees the scullery. Boo, sexism. And yet I have a feeling Eilonwy will find some way to be part of this adventure (especially since Alexander says as much in the Author’s Note)!

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Black Cauldron, Chapter 1 – The Council at Caer Dallben

I'm back, folks! And excited to dive into recapping Prydain once more. Book Two begins much like Book One, with Taran engaged in the business of Assistant Pig-Keeping. It’s early autumn at Caer Dallben, and Taran is grudgingly starting to give Hen Wen a bath, when a horseman rides up and addresses Taran as “Pig-boy!” Oh no he didn’t! The rider is described as “a youth only a few years older than Taran” with tawny hair and black eyes. His garments are high-quality but worn and patched, and his roan mare looks as ill-tempered as he does. Taran asserts that he is not a “pig-boy” but an “Assistant Pig-Keeper,” but the rider is like, tomato, to-mah-to. He tells Taran to run and tell Dallben that Prince Ellidyr is here. Taran, busy trying to keep Hen Wen from rolling in the mud, retorts that Ellidyr should find Dallben himself, or wait until Taran is done with his own work. Things escalate quickly, and Ellidyr scoops Taran up by the jacket and urges his horse to a gallop, shaking Taran violently and then flinging him roughly to the ground. So we're only three pages in, and Taran has already gotten hurt. Gonna be another bumpy ride.

This is the version I own,
with the Disney movie cover art.
Don't judge.
Dallben, Coll, and Eilonwy hear the noise and come outside – Eilonwy’s wearing an apron and holding the pot she was scrubbing. Ellidyr calls to Dallben that Taran ought to be beaten for his insolence. Dallben tuts him and tells him to go water his horse and his temper, and that he’ll be called when he’s wanted. Game, set, match, Dallben! Princess Eilonwy (referred to by Coll as “the Princess Eilonwy” … so formal, Coll!) helps patch Taran up. Gurgi climbs through the window with tidings of the “mightiest of princes” arriving. Taran says he can’t mean Gwydion, but of course he does, and then we get the exact same single-sentence paragraph we got at the end of The Book of Three: “Gwydion stood in the doorway.” OK, Gwydion, once is dramatic, but twice is pushing it. You better not go for a third.

Taran, Eilonwy, and Gurgi are happier to see Gwydion than I am and don’t notice the redundancy. Gwydion still has Dyrnwyn, but he’s dressed plainly, in travel clothes. He tells them he has summoned others to Caer Dallben for a council. Taran gets excited and says he’s old enough to join the men. Gwydion basically tells him to chill out but then assures him that he’ll have a seat. And in short order, we get the equivalent of the Rivendell arrival scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” as a bunch of warriors show up, including Fflewddur (yay!) and Doli (sigh). Fflewddur is happy to get away from his damp, drafty castle. Doli is miserable because his recently granted power of invisibility leaves his ears ringing and he gets bumped into all the time. Oh, Doli, will you ever win?

Fflewddur points out one of the new arrivals as the son of Chief Bard Taliesin. Oh boy, you guys. Heartthrob alert. His name is Adaon, and I had the most enormous crush on him when I first read these books at age 10. He is tall, with long straight black hair and deep, clear gray eyes, he wears a “curiously shaped iron brooch” on his collar, and he greets Taran and Doli by name, saying “Well met,” like all absolutely fabulous fantasy heroes do. He’s not a bard yet, saying he feels he still has too much to learn before presenting himself to the board (so he’s humble), and he ribs Fflewddur in a friendly way about the enchanted harp he got from his dad (so he’s got a sense of humor). If that’s not enough, after he leaves to go find Gwydion, Fflewddur tells Taran that Adaon is one of the bravest men he knows. He's the total package! Whew! I'm swooning already.

The council convenes, and we meet two more key players – King Smoit, who is huge, loud, and red, and King Morgant, who is dark, icy, and Snape-like. They get right down to business. Dallben exposits that it’s been a little over a year since the defeat of the Horned King. “But in Prydain evil is never distant,” he says. Gwydion takes the floor and explains that Arawn has been making a bunch more Cauldron-Born warriors, and that he’s no longer just robbing graves but actually killing people to stick in his cauldron and swell his ranks. Taran is properly horrified, and I feel bad for having sort of suggested that tactic myself. Gwydion says he plans to attack Annuvin and destroy the cauldron. Aaaand scene!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

What I’m Reading: Paper Towns

As I take a brief hiatus from my Prydain recaps, reading John Green's “Paper Towns” seemed like a no-brainer, given my love for “The Fault in Our Stars,” plus the recent media coverage of the movie adaptation that drew me in with its high-school-road-trip-themed trailer. And I learned from watching the infamous Cara Delevingne interview that the book has been included on school reading lists, so I hoped that I’d not only enjoy it but get some exposure to what “these kids today” are reading.

I did enjoy it; I found the narrator, Quentin, very engaging, and I really liked how he and his friends are characterized through dialogue (especially that of Ben, the dorky yet social-climbing best friend who uses phrases like “bagging that honeybunny” to mean hooking up with a girl). But parts of it didn’t work for me. The book’s theme is that it’s dangerous to see a person as an idea or an ideal; it’s important to see people as complete human beings, nuanced and flawed. This theme is stated directly, by Quentin, several times in the book. The problem is, I didn’t feel it was borne out by the text. The person Quentin idealizes is his neighbor, Margo, with whom he’s in love. The first part of the book details a wild adventure the two of them go on. The rest is about Quentin trying to find Margo after she vanishes, via a series of clues she’s left behind. I didn’t like Margo as a character – I found her selfish and mean, and I had trouble understanding what Quentin sees in her, other than her physical beauty. If the story had been told from Margo’s point of view instead, it might have been more effective in terms of making her relatable. The heroine of my current read, Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” is also a complicated character: she’s stubborn, self-destructive, and difficult to sympathize with. But because it’s a first-person narrative, I’m in her head, so I find myself rooting for her despite myself.

If you’ve read “Paper Towns,” I’m dying to know: Did you like Margo? Did you find the repeated statements of the theme a little much? Was my bar just set too high from “The Fault in Our Stars”? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 20 – Welcomes

Chapter 19 wraps up with Taran – once he’s up and walking around – and the other companions getting first an audience with King Math, who is described as being as old as Dallben and as long-winded as Eilonwy, and then some gifts from Gwydion in recognition of their valor. Fflewddur gets a harp string that will never break, no matter how many “gallant extravangances” he uses. Doli gets his much-longed-for power to become invisible (can’t see that backfiring on him at all). Gurgi gets the best present ever: a wallet of food that never runs out. Of course Gwydion doesn’t say what kind of food it holds (lembas and beef jerky, no doubt). Eilonwy gets a gold ring set with a jewel carved by the Fair Folk. That’s pretty lame compared to the other gifts. But not as lame as what Taran gets, which is… nothing. Gwydion couldn’t decide what to get him, so he literally didn’t get him anything. Not even a Cracker Barrel gift card. Taran graciously says that he asks for no reward, but Gwydion is all like, no, seriously, I’ll give you whatever you want, except I can’t make you a hero, so what else would you like? Taran, like Dorothy, just says there’s no place like home. And so that’s what he’ll receive.

So just as I’m getting outraged that everyone else got a present, and all Taran gets is to go home, it’s mentioned that Taran did in fact get an awesome gift – a gray stallion named Melynlas. But each of the other companions got a horse too, so in my opinion, Taran is still down one present from everyone else. Oh well. They all journey to Caer Dallben together, unhindered by the lords of the southern cantrevs, who have slunk away to their own lands after the defeat of the Horned King. Coll gives everybody bear hugs, and Taran is thrilled that “such a hero” would deign to remember him, which is a little much, I think, but it shows how childlike Taran still is. He still thinks a hero must be some kind of demigod and can’t fathom that Coll is the same person he always was, regardless of his past deeds.

They have a feast, and afterwards Dallben and Gwydion hang out in private for a while. Gurgi goes to sleep in the barn, Fflewddur and Doli go off exploring, and Taran shows Hen Wen’s pen to Eilonwy, who very nicely says that Caer Dallben is lovely and asks if Taran will go back to “Assistant Pig-Keeping” now. Taran hesitantly starts to ask her something, but is interrupted by the arrival of Coll, who says that Dallben wants to see Taran privately. Taran enters Dallben’s chamber to find the old man writing with a quill in The Book of Three! (Is he writing the story we just read?) Dallben closes the book quickly and asks Taran how he likes being a hero. Taran says he has no reason to be proud, that he didn’t do anything. Gwydion defeated the Horned King with Hen Wen’s help, Gurgi found Hen Wen, Eilonwy found Dyrnwyn, and Fflewddur and Doli fought valiantly. “As for me, what I mostly did was make mistakes,” he says ruefully. Dallben says all that may be true, but it was Taran who held the companions together and who fulfilled his quest of bringing Hen Wen safely home – and does it really matter who did what, “since all shared the same goal and the same danger?” He reminds Taran that a part of each of us is in everyone else, and that Taran has been at times as impetuous as Fflewddur, as self-pitying as Gurgi and as stubborn as Doli. Taran agrees, but says he feels different since coming home to Caer Dallben. He loves Dallben and Coll and he’s glad to be back, but everything feels smaller now. Dallben says it’s Taran who has grown bigger.

Finally, Taran asks what’s been on his mind – what will happen to Eilonwy? Could she possibly stay at Caer Dallben with them? Dallben says “the Princess Eilonwy” really should go home to her people – “yes, she is a princess. Did she not tell you?” – but that there’s no rush, and maybe she would consent to stay if Taran asked her. Taran races out to the barnyard and shouts “You’re to stay! I’ve asked Dallben!” Eilonwy humphs that it didn’t occur to him to ask her. Seriously, Taran, you had one job. Dallben just told you to ask her, and you blew it. But no matter, Coll is already fixing up a room for Eilonwy. But how did he know? How did Eilonwy know? All she says is “Humph!” ... and Hen Wen chimes in with a “Hwoinch!”

And that, my friends, is the end of the book! If you’ve read this far, thank you so much for accompanying me on this adventure. I’m going to take a little break to read some more recent YA (currently on John Green’s “Paper Towns”) and then I’ll be back with book 2 of the Prydain series, “The Black Cauldron.” Witches! Ellidyr! Adaon! There will be swooning … and sobbing. Can’t wait!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 19 – The Secret

Taran comes to in a sunlit chamber. His injured arm is bandaged and smarts painfully, as does his poor tender head. Hen Wen is there, and he hears Eilonwy’s “silvery laugh” – she’s been watching over him, waiting for him to wake up. He’s looking much better, she says, but is still the color of a boiled leek (hee). Taran asks if they are in Annuvin, but Eilonwy says, ew, no, they’re in Caer Dathyl and it’s lovely. Taran suddenly remembers the Horned King and asks where he is, to which Eilonwy replies “in a barrow, most likely, I should think,” being that he’s quite dead and all. She explains that after Taran grabbed Dyrnwyn away from her “rather roughly” and burned his arm trying to draw it, he passed out and missed “the earthquake, and the Horned King burning until he just, well broke apart. It wasn’t pleasant.” But then the Sons of Don arrived on the scene, and they were so handsome that even Eilonwy is at a loss for a simile to describe them.

The chamber door opens, and in come Flewddur, Gurgi, and Doli – suddenly it’s the end of “Return of the King” in there with everyone jumping on the bed. (Well, OK, the beginning of the end – if you’re talking Extended Edition, I think there are about 30 minutes of movie left at that point, but I digress.) Gurgi was wounded in action and is very proud to have been a brave warrior in his own right. Fflewddur describes the thrilling battle with nary a harp string breaking – that is, until he says he wasn’t scared. Eilonwy flies into nurse mode and shoos them all out, saying Taran needs rest and no one is to come back until she says they can. Right on cue, we hear a deep, sexy, wolfman voice: “Not even I?”

It’s Gwydion, y’all! And he's finally looking like a prince in some clean clothes and a gold disk pendant. (It's a great dramatic surprise, but somehow I feel like Eilonwy, in her breathless recounting of the events, would not have left out the very pertinent fact that he didn’t die.) Taran gets up from his couch and drops to one knee, but Gwydion raises him and says that’s no way to greet a friend: “It gives me more pleasure to remember an Assistant Pig-Keeper who feared I would poison him in the forest” (heh). Gwydion has Dyrnwyn at his side; Eilonwy gave it to him, recognizing that he was the right one to have it – and indeed, he’s able to draw it without any of that pesky fire stuff shooting out. Taran is all, how are you not dead, and Gwydion explains that he wasn’t in Spiral Castle when it fell – Achren had already taken him off to a castle called Oeth-Anoeth, which apparently is a place she and Arawn have just for torturing and killing people, like a lakehouse of doom.

Achren had tried once again to tempt Gwydion to the dark side, telling him that she ruled Prydain before Arawn, and that it was she who made Arawn ruler of Annuvin. Arawn then betrayed her (she didn’t say how), but she suggested that she and Gwydion together would have the power to depose Arawn and rule instead. Rule Annuvin, or rule Prydain? It’s not clear. Maybe first one and then the other. But it’s moot, because Gwydion is noble, and so naturally he told her to go to hell, prompting her to torture the heck out of him. Very close to death, he nonetheless clung to hope, and finally he got to some sort of state of enlightenment, beyond life and death. At that point, the prison walls melted away – like, literally? How did that happen exactly? Did he melt them with the power of his mind? I don’t know why this is hard for me to accept, given that we’ve seen several instances of magic in the book, but somehow it sounds less like magic and more like some sort of religious ecstasy or nirvana. Anyway, he was free. He hung out in the woods for a few days healing from his wounds, went to Spiral Castle to look for Taran but found it in ruins, and then set out for Caer Dathyl again. A few days later, a gwythaint flew out of the sky and spoke to him (after his ordeal/enlightenment, Gwydion can now understand the speech of all living creatures. Bonus!), saying that a band of travelers and a white pig were nearby. It was totally the fledgling that Taran helped out of the thornbush! Awww.

Next, Gwydion ran into Hen Wen, who told him the Horned King’s secret name. What the eff? I don’t remember anything about a secret name from when I read these books the first time. But apparently it’s the one thing that could destroy the Horned King, and that’s why he wanted to get Hen Wen so badly, before she could reveal it. Gwydion tells Taran that when you can look evil in the face and call it by its true name, it loses its power. OK… but maybe this plot point could have been introduced a little earlier in the story? And then, to make things even more confusing, Gwydion won’t tell Taran and Eilonwy the secret name, saying that it must remain a secret. But… I thought the secrecy was what made it powerful? So confused. At least now we know that it was the unintelligible word, spoken by Gwydion, that set the Horned King on fire. And it’s cute (if a little condescending) when Gwydion tells Eilonwy the name “was not half as pretty as your own.” Taran asks where the gwythaint went, and Gwydion says he doesn’t know – come on dude, I thought you knew everything now – but that she(!) won’t return to Annuvin for fear of Arawn’s retaliation. Will we ever see her again? Perhaps.

This is a jam-packed chapter, so I’m going to end here even though there are a couple of pages left. Next week: we conclude The Book of Three!

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 18 – The Flame of Dyrnwyn

We’re getting near the end, folks! This climactic chapter is short but action-packed. A scouting group of four of the Horned King’s warriors spot our heroes and spur their mounts in pursuit. Taran pulls out his sword, but Fflewddur wisely tells him “Arrows first.” They unsling their bows and shoot at the horsemen. Gurgi hits one in the throat, which, good job, Gurgi, but has he ever used a bow and arrow before? Archery is hard. And sure enough, the remaining arrows they fire glance off the horsemen’s shields, except one from Doli, which takes down a second attacker. The two remaining scouts head back the way they came, and Fflewddur says they’d better run before the Horned King sends a war band. Taran doesn’t want to leave Hen Wen but realizes he has no choice; he has to return to his quest of heading to Caer Dathyl to warn the Sons of Don. But can they get there in time? Doli thinks there’s a chance.

They travel all day and into the night, at one point hiding from a group of horsemen with torches, but as dawn breaks, Taran sees the valley is filled with the Horned King’s warriors. “Too late. We have failed,” he says. Fflewddur says that Caer Dathyl is straight ahead, and they should make a last stand. Taran tells Doli to take Eilonwy and Gurgi to safety, because that always works so well! This time it’s Doli who protests that he won’t be sent away. Not that he cares about them, but he “can’t stand a botched job” and won’t watch them get hacked to bits. Just then an arrow flies past his head, and a group of warriors on foot spring out from the woods. Fflewddur throws Taran and Eilonwy in the direction of Melyngar and tells them to “Ride as fast as you can, or it will be death for all of us!” I like how Fflewddur is finally acting like the adult here and taking charge. (Plus I’m a sucker for anyone described as “eyes blazing” as he makes a heroic last stand.)

Taran pulls Eilonwy into the saddle behind him and Melyngar takes off. Taran looks back to see that the Horned King himself is pursuing them on his black steed. Seems a little unlikely to me that he would give chase himself, but oh well. The Horned King’s horse pulls side by side with Melyngar, who rears to strike at it, throwing Taran and Eilonwy off. They flee into the woods, and the Horned King dismounts and follows them. Taran raises his sword, but the Horned King shatters it with one strike of his weapon. Then he pauses dramatically before dealing the death blow, giving Taran enough time to remember that Eilonwy has Dyrnwyn and to tear the scabbard from her shoulder. The Horned King pauses again, this time “as if in fear.” Taran tries to unsheath Dyrnwyn, but it won’t come free. He pulls on it with all his might, and then there’s a “blinding flash” and it tears loose from his grip, throwing him to the ground. Brave Eilonwy throws herself at the Horned King, but he tosses her aside. He looms ominously over Taran, sword raised to strike… but then! A tall figure behind the Horned King shouts out a word Taran can’t make out. And the Horned King starts to burn! He roars in rage and pain as his skull mask melts like iron. Taran covers his eyes, and the ground seems to open beneath him. “Then there was nothing.”

I got curious about whether there was a trope named after the young hero who passes out right as the Big Bad is defeated, and wakes up later to have the events explained to him in a denouement chapter (spoiler alert: Taran’s gonna be OK). It feels like familiar territory; I'm certain J.K. Rowling used it in the Harry Potter series at least once. TV Tropes led me to the Thwarted Coup de Grace, which definitely describes the Horned King’s pausing, just as he’s about to finish off Taran, long enough for an unseen attacker to finish him off instead. But I can’t find anything that seems to specifically fit Taran’s role in the almost anti-climactic defeat of the Horned King. Anyone have thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 17 – The Fledgling

The gwythaint is young, injured and can’t free itself from the thornbush. It hisses at the companions, but is clearly helpless. Gurgi and Melyngar are nervous. Fflewddur says it’s lucky the parents aren’t around, or they would tear the companions to shreds protecting their offspring. Eilonwy says the fledgling looks like Achren, particularly “around the eyes, on days when she was in a bad temper” (or hung over, I'm thinking), and Doli pulls his axe out, intending to dispatch it. Taran, however, won’t let him, saying the creature is in pain and needs their help. Doli warns that if they help the gwythaint, it will rip them apart as soon as it’s strong enough, then fly directly to Arawn. But Taran is still high off of the peace-love-and-understanding vibe from Medwyn’s hidden valley, and says that all creatures deserve kindness and respect. He lifts the gwythaint out of the thornbush and makes a poultice for its wounds and a “healing brew” to feed it.

Fledgling bald eagle in nest vintage old historical photo

Doli is all, don’t know how you’re going to carry it, and don’t expect me to make a cage for you, humph! Taran tries to make a cage himself and fails miserably, so naturally Doli steps in and makes it the right way. They put the gwythaint in the cage and resume their march, feeding and medicating the bird each time they stop to rest. During the day it seems to become more friendly to Taran and Eilonwy, but the following morning they find it has torn through the cage and escaped. Doli says he warned them, and that the gwythaint is probably halfway to Annuvin by now: “Spare me from fools and Assistant Pig-Keepers!” Poor Taran is stricken and says he’s “done the wrong thing again, as usual.” Eilonwy says that’s probably true (hee!) but she hates when people say “I told you so.” Nonetheless, she thinks Doli isn’t nearly “as disagreeable as he pretends to be.” I feel like it's Taran's turn to “humph” at this.

They begin to descend toward the plains. The weather turns gray and windy. Doli goes ahead to scout, and leads them to a hill crest where they can look down onto the valley. They see the Horned King’s host, and Taran imagines that the Horned King himself is looking right at him, though he stays close to the ground and tries not to be visible. Doli says they’ve been overtaken because of the time lost when Taran tried to help the gwythaint. They arm themselves with the Fair Folk weapons; Gurgi is excited to have a small sword and be a “mighty warrior” in his own right. Hen Wen is terrified and has to be urged forward. She keeps lagging behind, so Taran and Doli finally decide she must be tied up and put on Melyngar. But they turn around to find that Hen Wen has vanished! A mournful hunting horn and the cries of a dog pack are heard from the hills: Gwyn the Hunter again. Where he rides, Fflewddur reminds us bleakly, “death rides close behind.”

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 16 – Doli

Taran accuses King Eiddileg of hiding the truth about Hen Wen; Eiddileg retorts that Taran didn’t ask him. Eilonwy thinks Eiddileg should be ashamed of himself. The king says that the Fair Folk rescued Hen Wen, who was being pursued by the Horned King’s warriors, and brought her there via underground tunnels, which is why her tracks disappeared. He doesn’t intend to give her up, until Taran says it is a “question of honesty and honor,” to which Eiddileg reacts much as Marty McFly does to being called chicken. He says they can leave, and take Hen Wen with them, and agrees (albeit with much agitated blustering) to supply them with weapons, provisions, and a guide to take them to Caer Dathyl. Eilonwy kisses the top of his head and calls him a “perfectly lovely king.” He hollers at them to get the eff out, but then Taran looks back and sees him “fondling his head and beaming happily.” It’s pretty cute.

They follow the armed guard out of the throne room and into a vaulted dome space, with gems glittering above them as bright as sunlight. The landscape is one of blue lakes and green lichens and dotted with small houses, making the companions feel as if they are outside. Fflewddur wonders if Hen Wen might not be safer to remain here until they can return for her, but Taran says he doesn’t think Eiddileg would make it easy for them to come back, and that he doesn’t want to let Hen Wen out of his sight again. At that there is a “Hwoinch!” from one of the pens, and Taran is reunited with his snuffling, wriggling pig, who is clearly overjoyed to see him. Gurgi reminds everyone that he found her, and Taran assures him that “there’s no chance we’ll forget it.”

They meet their guide, Doli, who has red hair and eyes and carries an axe, a sword, and a bow, so he’s like a third of the Fellowship of the Ring all in one, though of course the character he most resembles is Gimli. In greeting, Doli holds his breath until his face turns bright red, then releases it with a snort. Taran asks him what’s wrong, and Doli says, “You can still see me, can’t you?” Taran is like, of course, why wouldn’t I, and Doli just humphs. The guards bring Melyngar to them, laden with provisions and weapons. Doli leads them up a dark, steep passage and they exit the Fair Folk realm through a waterfall.

Doli has two running gags: he’s grumpy and insults everyone, and he keeps trying to turn invisible by holding his breath. He was always my least favorite of the companions. But he turns out to be an expert guide, leading them much farther than Taran would have thought before night falls and they make camp. Gurgi is now the “official cook and firemaker,” and he proudly serves dinner without even saving “a private share for his own crunchings and munchings later on.” Hen Wen sleeps snuggled up to Taran, snoring and wheezing in his ear. Taran is somehow able to sleep through this cacophony, although I have trouble sleeping when my Boston Terrier puppy snores so I can’t imagine the noise level of a full-grown pig.

In the morning, they resume their travel, and Taran and Fflewddur wonder if they can get Hen Wen to prophesy for them. Eilonwy tries whispering a spell to her, but Hen Wen just grins and “Hwoinch!”es. Taran says they need letter sticks, and hopes that they have some in Caer Dathyl, although he’s learning that “Whatever Dallben has, it seems to be the only one of its kind in all Prydain.” A little later on, they hear a high-pitched shriek coming from a nearby thornbush, which upon investigation turns out to be coming from a gwythaint!

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 15 - King Eiddileg

Don’t worry, kids, Taran doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time – that is to say, he doesn’t drown. Instead, he comes to on a flat stone surface lit by a pale blue light from above. He’s holding on to Fflewddur’s harp (which means we can look forward to more broken strings), and the bard himself calls out from nearby. Eilonwy, Gurgi, and Melyngar are there too, but their food and supplies were all washed away, though they still have their swords. Before they can explore their surroundings (an embankment near a wide canal), they are seized from behind and sacks are thrown over their heads. Taran’s sack smells strongly of onions, which is a great detail. The companions are hustled to a chamber and the bags are removed. Gurgi has somehow gone missing in the interval. Their captors are revealed to be dwarfish warriors; Eilonwy has given one of them a black eye for trying to disarm her.

A yellow-bearded dwarf wearing a red and green robe and glittering rings shouts at the other dwarves for disturbing him. This is revealed to be King Eiddileg, who speaks in tones varying from sarcastic scorn to put-upon exasperation to utter outrage. He’s like a combination of Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Christian Bale doing his “ohhhh, good for you!” rant. This scene from the Disney animated film portrays him as much more benevolent and fails to milk his comic potential, IMHO:

The king tells the captives they’re in the heart of the kingdom of “the Fair Folk, the Happy Family, the Little People, or whatever other insipid, irritating names you’ve put on us.” I like how dwarves, fairies, lake sprites and the “Children of Evening” are all like departments of a large magical corporation in the Prydain world, and Eiddileg is a frustrated administrator trying to keep everything running smoothly just so that the “long-legged gawks” (unappreciative humans) “can enjoy a little charm and beauty in the world above.” Eilonwy says she appreciates it, and the king thanks her for being the rare human to acknowledge all his hard work. Taran, it should be noted, does not express appreciation, though he does compliment the song that the Children of Evening are rehearsing. He asks the king to show them passage to Caer Dathyl. But Eiddileg says he put the whirlpool in place to trap those who get too close, and that now they’re in, they’ll have to stay.

Taran and Fflewddur draw their swords, intending to fight their way out. King Eiddileg simply wiggles his fingers at them and freezes their arms in place, then says to give him a decent reason why he should let them go “in a year or two.” Taran tells the story of their quest so far. The king is unmoved, saying that humans stole Prydain from the Fair Folk in the first place and they’ll have to sort out their own problems, but Taran warns that if the Horned King is successful, the kingdom of the Fair Folk will also fall to Arawn. Eiddileg takes a very Treebeard-like tack, saying that he owes no allegiance to any side, and Eilonwy cries that he’s conceited and selfish. At that, Eiddileg explodes, throwing off his rings and cloak and having a “Go ahead! Take it all!” temper tantrum. At that moment, in a plot twist that I’d totally forgotten (I literally got chills!), Gurgi bursts in, swinging two hapless dwarf guards hither and thither, and exclaiming that he knows where Hen Wen is: “Here, mighty lord… the piggy is here!”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 14 - The Black Lake

That evening, the group dines on veggie-venison with Medwyn – “You wouldn’t expect him to cook his guests, would you?” quips Eilonwy when Fflewddur is surprised to learn it’s not meat he’s eating – and then retires to the byre, but Taran can’t sleep. He gets up and walks around the valley. Medwyn appears and says “A restless night is no way to begin a journey,” which is very true (and yet it seems I can never sleep the night before I’m scheduled to travel somewhere). Taran says he wishes his journey were finished and he fears he won’t see Caer Dallben again, but that staying in Medwyn’s valley would be the next best thing. Medwyn says Taran is one of the few people he would allow to stay in his valley, and invites him to give up his quest. Taran has a Gethsemane/Rivendell moment where he’s tempted to do just that, but of course, being the hero of the saga, he resists, saying his decision was made long before now. Medwyn puts a hand on Taran’s forehead and says he’ll grant him a good night’s sleep, since that’s all Taran will accept.

Next morning, Taran arises, refreshed, to find that Gurgi is all better – well enough to turn somersaults, in fact! – and that Medwyn’s given him a bath so he’s only “half as twiggy and leafy as usual.” Medwyn provides them with cloaks and food and makes them a little 3D rendering in the earth, showing the mountain passes they can take to regain their lost time and get ahead of the Horned King’s host. He escorts them from the valley, as Taran observes that he’ll never be able to find the path back (my kingdom for a GPS!), and bids them farewell.

Taran leads the way through the mountains following Medwyn’s recommended paths, and at the end of the first day they stop to rest and build a fire. Eilonwy lights her bauble and sets it in a rock crevice, which is a nice detail, I always thought. She asks Fflewddur to play his harp, so he does: a mournful song that makes Taran homesick for Caer Dallben all over again. Eilonwy reminisces about the sea in a beautiful little passage, describing the white crests of the waves that are known as the White Horses of Llyr. The bard says he’s even thinking of giving up wandering and returning to his little castle. Gurgi howls that he doesn’t have a home, and that when their quest is over, “it will be the fearful forest again for poor Gurgi.” Taran says that if it’s all right with Dallben, Gurgi can come home with him and stay as long as he wants. Gurgi is ecstatic. Sloth love Chunk!

They go to sleep, but during the night it begins to pour rain, and the morning’s travel is miserable and slippery. They come to a lake that looks black beneath the clouds. Medwyn’s directions would take them around in a half-circle along the mountains, but Taran thinks they should go straight across on the lake shore. There’s a brief difference of opinion – “For an Assistant Pig-Keeper who’s done very little traveling, you suddenly know all about it,” Eilonwy snarks – but Taran reminds her that he found the way out of the barrow and says it’s decided. They descend to the lake, which, up close, turns out to be truly black and not just shadowed. Taran still thinks he’s made the right choice as they start to wade through the shallows, but an undertow quickly pulls them to the center of the lake, where a whirlpool swallows them up. The chapter ends in another patented Alexander cliffhanger, as Taran feels himself drowning! Oh noes!

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 13 - The Hidden Valley

The wolf knocks Taran down and grabs him by the arm when he reaches for his sword, though it doesn’t sink its teeth into him. He sees that Fflewddur has been pinned by another wolf while a third has cornered Eilonwy. A robed man appears, with Melyngar behind him, and speaks to the wolf holding Taran, which backs off “as obediently as a dog.” (Alexander must have had better-behaved dogs than I do.) Taran thanks the stranger, who has long white hair and a beard to his waist, for saving their lives. The stranger corrects him that their lives were not in danger from the wolves, but that they must leave the valley, which is “not an abode for the race of men.” Taran says they were following their horse, and the man says “Melyngar brought me four of you?” He had thought “young Gurgi was alone.” Once again, Taran remembers something Gwydion told him back in Chapter 4 (I’m impressed as his retention, considering that he must have been under a lot of stress at the time, having just been attacked by gwythaints and all), and correctly guesses that the man is Medwyn. Taran introduces himself, and Medwyn says there are visitors from Caer Dallben. Taran cries, “Hen Wen!” but no, she’s not there. Medwyn says he’ll try to help Gurgi, and leads them through the ravine into a sunny green valley.

The visitors from Caer Dallben turn out to be the chickens and bees that flew off in Chapter 1. The valley is filled with all sorts of animals: cattle, birds, and a fawn – which Eilonwy wastes no time in befriending. In the background, behind some cottages, Taran sees what looks like the remnants of a large ship. Medwyn takes Gurgi into one of the cottages and invites the other travelers to rest in the byre – he would invite them in, but “there were bears at breakfast, and you can imagine the state of things.” Fflewddur and Eilonwy go to sleep in the straw, but Taran doesn’t feel tired, and instead walks around the lake and garden, reminiscing about the weeding and hoeing that he once detested back home. Medwyn finds Taran and tells him that Gurgi will recover. Taran tells the story of their journey so far, and says that he’s begun to like Gurgi, and maybe it would be safer to leave him with Medwyn. But Medwyn says that it would hurt Gurgi terribly to be left behind and that it means so much to him to be useful, given that he “is neither one thing nor the other” without the wisdom of animals or of men. I wish Taran would ask: What is Gurgi? Is he the only one of his kind? Is he some sort of mutant or missing link? But he doesn’t, and we don’t find out, unfortunately.

Medwyn says that all animals deserve respect (even the gwythaints, who were tortured by Arawn and now serve him out of terror). He tells a little parable about a lame ant who saved the day by providing a hero with a crucial flax seed at the last minute. The race of men, he says, are all lame ants that must learn to help one another. Taran says he speaks of the race of men as if he were not one, and that Dallben taught him of an ancient flood and how “Nevvid Nav Neivion” built a ship and gathered the animals two by two. (Think there were rock monsters in Dallben’s version of the story?) Medwyn says his name is not important – so I guess we can just call him Radagast the Brown, because he seems like his long-lost twin, maybe with a little less bird poop on his head – and that he’s concerned about Hen Wen. If Hen Wen ran away from Caer Dallben, the valley would have been the first place she came, unless something befell her. Both Medwyn and Taran are afraid that the piggy isn’t with us any longer.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 12 - The Wolves

Late that afternoon, Taran thinks that they must have finally outrun the Cauldron-Born, only to see them reappear in the distance. He decides that they can’t run any further and must try to make a stand long enough for Gurgi and Eilonwy to escape. Gurgi howls in protest, and Eilonwy jumps down from Melyngar and grabs a bow and arrows. Taran cries to her to stop, that the Cauldron-Born can’t be killed, but she runs to the top of a hill and strings the bow. The next passage was the front excerpt in my Dell Laurel-Leaf edition, starting with “Taran seized the girl by the waist and tried to pull her away. He received a sharp kick in the shins.” (I remember spending hours as a young girl puzzling over whose job it was to pick out those passages and what criteria they used to select them. I really wished – still do, come to think of it – that was my job!)

Eilonwy snaps at Taran not to interfere. She looses her arrow and it creates a large silvery spider web in the air as it flies toward the Cauldron-Born. Taran and Fflewddur are amazed, but the Cauldron-Born pay the web no mind, and it melts away as they ride through it. Eilonwy is crushed that her spell, which she learned by listening at the door while Achren practiced and which was supposed to be a “big, sticky rope,” didn’t work. Taran prepares himself to face down the Cauldron-Born, but, at the last minute, they suddenly turn their horses and head back the way they came. Taran tells Fflewddur and Eilonwy what Gwydion said about the Cauldron-Born losing their power as they get farther from Annuvin, and surmises that they have run out of strength and are returning to Arawn. Then he compliments Eilonwy on her spider web. She blushes and says that’s the first nice thing he’s said to her, then harrumphs that he wasn’t worried she was in danger and flounces off. Taran says he “can’t make sense of that girl,” and Fflewddur says “We aren’t really expected to.”

That night, they keep watch in shifts. Taran wakes up before Eilonwy’s watch is over, and tells her quietly that in fact he was worried about her, but that the web was so amazing he forgot to mention it. Eilonwy is mollified, until Taran makes another blunder by saying “It is a good destiny that brings me such brave companions,” and she bristles at him all over again – he doesn’t care about her, he’s just happy to have helpers on his journey. She says she’s not speaking to him, pulls a cloak over her head and pretends to sleep while Taran sighs that at Caer Dallben, “nothing ever happened. Now, everything happens.” But he can’t seem to “make it come out right.” Poor Taran. The battle of the sexes never did run fair.

In the morning, Gurgi’s leg is much worse. Taran makes a poultice of herbs (Kingsfoil? That’s a weed!) for him. Fflewddur says the Cauldron-Born have forced them off-course to the point where they will lose two days if they return to the original plan. They agree to cross the river Ystrad and head on through the hills. When they make camp for the evening, they’re on the other side of the river and approaching the Eagle Mountains. But Gurgi is suffering terribly with fever and not even interested in his crunchings and munchings. Fflewddur says “Caer Dathyl is not far away… but our friend, I fear, may not live to see it.”

By Juan José González Vega, via Wikimedia Commons

And just when we’ve almost forgotten the title of the chapter, they hear wolves howling beyond their campfire. The wolves follow them all the next day, making everyone uneasy. Fflewddur worries that they won’t find a pass over the mountains. Taran suggests letting Melyngar pick the path, an idea which Fflewddur seconds heartily: “Every horse knows its way home!” Eilonwy, who apparently is speaking to Taran again, agrees it’s an interesting idea. Melyngar leads them swiftly along the ridges – right into a ravine where a wolf is waiting. (A real wolf, apparently – not a dude that looks like a wolf). The wolf pounces on Taran!

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 11 - Flight Through the Hills

The little band of heroes sets off to Caer Dathyl. Fflewddur scratches out a map in the dirt to show Taran his proposed route, one that takes the high ground, avoiding the valley where the Horned King and his hosts are riding, but also avoids coming too close to Annuvin. Taran does the old tried-and-true manager’s trick of saying “that sounds very reasonable” though he understands none of it. Everything goes smoothly at first, but then Taran turns to look back at the ruin of Spiral Castle and spots two Cauldron-Born pursuing them on horseback. They begin to run through the forest. The sun goes down, and they keep running. Everyone starts to get very fatigued, except Gurgi. Eilonwy at first refuses to ride on Melyngar, but when she’s literally falling asleep while running, Taran puts her on the horse despite her protests.

It’s dawn when they finally risk stopping for a short rest. Taran tries to liberate Eilonwy of her heavy sword, but she wakes up enough to pull it away from him and say he never understands things the first time she says them, “but I imagine Assistant Pig-Keepers are all alike.” Then she goes back to sleep, cradling the scabbard in her arms. Gurgi climbs a tree to see if they’ve given the Cauldron-Born the slip.

There isn’t enough food in the saddlebags to split, so Fflewddur and Taran decide to give Eilonwy what’s left. Gurgi comes down the tree sniffing for a “small crunching,” but Taran says there is no more food. Gurgi’s seen the Cauldron-Born some distance away, and says there’s time for him to “find munchings” for the “great noble lords.” Fflewddur nearly breaks another harp string bragging about his foraging prowess before admitting he “can’t tell a mushroom from a toadstool.” He stays with Eilonwy while Gurgi and Taran go to search for food. Taran is gathering mushrooms when he hears Gurgi yelp, and finds him pinned under a tree branch, next to a honeycomb that he was climbing to get when the branch broke under his weight. Poor Gurgi’s leg is badly injured, though not broken. He begs Taran to chop off his head so that they won’t be slowed down and all end up being killed by the Cauldron-Born. “Gurgi will squeeze up his eyes so as not to see hurtful slashings,” he insists, but of course, Taran, not being a monster, can’t bring himself to kill Gurgi. He says Gurgi can ride on Melyngar along with Eilonwy, and he carefully helps him back to the camp.

Taran divides up the honeycomb, but Gurgi says his portion is for Taran: “Gurgi is not hungry for crunchings and munchings today.” And my eyes fill with tears as Taran insists Gurgi eat to keep up his strength, they smile at each other and Taran puts his hand on Gurgi’s shoulder. He remarks that Gurgi’s odor doesn’t seem as bad as before. I remember reading this scene for the first time 30 years ago, and it cemented my abiding love for Gurgi. It’s still totally heartwarming, but re-reading it as an adult, I can't help but remark that Taran has been journeying for four days straight, got dunked in a river, slept in a stinky dungeon and just ran all night through the forest, all in the same clothes he was wearing while making horseshoes and tending Hen Wen. So he probably doesn’t smell too great himself. Just sayin’!

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 10 - The Sword Dyrnwyn

Taran wakes the next morning to find Gurgi sniffing hungrily around the saddlebags. He shares out the mysterious “provisions,” which are variously referred to in this section as “food,” “scant portions” and a “meager breakfast” but still with no specifics as to what the heck they are, exactly. (So I’m going to guess lembas bread and beef jerky.) Eilonwy is more interested in studying her sword than in eating. When Taran tries to look at it, she says she dare not let him. There is a “symbol of power” on it that she recognizes from some of Achren’s most forbidden items, along with an inscription in the “Old Writing” that she can’t quite translate. Taran suggests Fflewddur, being a bard, might be able to understand it. Fflewddur takes a peek and says the inscription says “something like ‘Beware My Wrath’ – the usual sentiments.” Immediately, one of his harp strings snaps, and he goes off to fix it.

Eilonwy says Fflewddur was totally wrong, and she can read the inscription better now. It says the sword, Dyrnwyn, can only be drawn by someone of royal blood, which, she guesses, doesn’t include Assistant Pig-Keepers. Taran points out that he could very well be a prince, since he doesn’t know who his father was, and that sort of thing “happens all the time in The Book of Three.” Eilonwy says she’s never heard of The Book of Three – burn! – but that she’s pretty sure having royal relatives isn’t enough, that you have to have “something very special” to be able to draw the sword.

Taran is peeved that she thinks him so ordinary, though she tries to soften the blow by saying he’s the nicest person she’s ever met. She clearly hasn’t met too many people, because he’s been mostly a jerk to her, a trend which he continues now, by scoffing that she ought to be carrying a doll, not a sword. She’s about to slap him when Fflewddur comes back. She snaps at the bard for not being able to read the inscription, and he confesses that he’s not really a bard, but actually a king. Taran instantly calls him “Sire” and drops to one knee, which is hilarious. Fflewddur says he doesn’t bother with all that anymore. He says his kingdom is vast (breaking two harp strings) and he did quite well on his bard examinations (another string). In case we haven’t caught on to the harp gimmick yet, he then explains that the Chief Bard Taliesin presented the harp to him as a gift, but he wonders sometimes if Taliesin was really doing him a favor. You see, the strings always seem to break when he – ahem – readjusts the facts for dramatic effect. But he keeps it because it has such a beautiful tone. Eilonwy suggests he might stop readjusting the facts so much, and he laments that he got into the habit of it as a king and now finds it hard to stop.

Taran asks Fflewddur for a boon, and explains that he is giving up on his search for Hen Wen and instead will take up Gwydion’s quest to journey to Caer Dathyl and warn the Sons of Don about the Horned King and the cantrevs that have joined him. He thinks Gwydion is surely dead, and that it’s his fault, so now he has to do what Gwydion would have done. (Sorry, Hen Wen!) Fflewddur points out that Taran had no way of knowing Gwydion wasn’t in the other dungeon, but Taran has his mind made up. He wants Fflewddur to tell him how to reach Caer Dathyl and to take Eilonwy back to her people. Eilonwy is having none of that and says “If you’ve made your decision, I’ve made my own” and she’s not going back to her “mean, stupid kinsmen” who will be just as dreary as Achren. She’s going to Caer Dathyl too, just try to stop her! You go, girl!

Taran wearily admits that there is safety in numbers and perhaps they should all go to Caer Dathyl together. But he warns Eilonwy and Gurgi not to be hindrances. Fflewddur says he would prefer to be in charge of the expedition, but agrees to accept Taran as the leader since Taran is, after all, standing in for Gwydion. Then his excitement gets the better of him and he boasts that he’s carved through “walls of spearmen,” causing six harp strings to break at once, which I’m pretty sure sets the record for the entire series – oh yes, readers, this harp thing goes on and on (and on), so better settle in for it. Hope you all have enough provisions for the journey. Off to Caer Dathyl we go!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 9 - Fflewddur Fflam

Taran’s immediate reaction to seeing an unarmed stranger is to pull out the sword he’s just acquired and start slashing away. Fortunately, he’s terrible at sword fighting, so the newcomer is able to avoid getting hacked to bits by hiding behind a tree. Taran shouts, “You’re not Gwydion!” and the guy is like, duh, I never claimed to be, and also I’m unarmed, so can you please stop trying to kill me? Eilonwy grabs Taran’s arm and tries to get him to stop, but he turns on her and accuses her of betraying him to Achren and leaving Gwydion to die. He even raises his sword to her! Not cool, Taran. Not cool. Eilonwy runs off crying. Taran feels bad and puts down his sword.

The new guy pokes his head out from behind the tree and is all “Truce?” He introduces himself as Fflewddur Fflam, and let me tell you, my fingers don’t want to type those two Fs in a row; thank goodness for copy-paste. Fflewddur is “a bard of the harp” with allegiance to the House of Don, and he’s flattered that Taran mistook him for Prince Gwydion. Taran says Gwydion is dead, and that it’s all Eilonwy’s fault. Fflewddur says that A: that’s a hard judgment to pass on a “winsome lass” who isn’t here to defend herself, and B: if she’s that much of a traitor and liar, why is Taran letting her escape into the forest? Taran grimly agrees, and goes after Eilonwy. He finds her sitting on a boulder, crying. She tells him that he’s hurt her feelings, and over something that was his own fault to begin with. Taran is confused, and Eilonwy points out that he never said “Go and rescue a man named Gwydion.” Instead he assumed the man in the other cell was his companion, and gave her no other details to go on. So she rescued the man in the other cell, who turned out to be Fflewddur. She puts her chin in the air and won’t look at him. Taran is ashamed and apologizes for accusing her of treachery. He says he can’t expect her to help him find Gwydion, but of course she quickly gets over the whole chin-in-the-air act and slides off the boulder and goes with him. Love that girl!

Now we get a description of Fflewddur Fflam – lanky, with a pointed nose and “bright yellow hair,” which is kind of hard to picture on a grown man (but I bet he looks a lot like this guy). He has a beautiful harp, but his clothes are worn and patched, and he looks nothing like “the bards Taran had learned about from The Book of Three.” I guess those bards were fat and had brown hair and nice clothes? Taran explains that Fflewddur was rescued by mistake, and Fflewddur says he should have figured as much, because who would care if he were “languishing in a dungeon or not?” Poor Fflewddur! Taran wants to go back to the ruins and look for Gwydion, in case he miraculously survived having a castle fall on him. Fflewddur is all for storming the castle, but disappointed to hear “there’s not much of it left to storm.”

They arrive at the ruin of Spiral Castle, see some dead guards sprawled around, try to move a couple of heavy rocks and then Taran, in his typical melodramatic fashion, pronounces Gwydion good and dead and turns his face away. He announces, “I am impatient to be gone from here” – a phrase which I absolutely love and plan to use the next time I’m waiting in line somewhere. Eilonwy points out that the rest of them aren’t having a splendid time either. I love how this whole chapter is just Eilonwy pointing out what an insensitive dunce Taran is. They pick up some extra weapons, travel a safe distance away from the ruins, and then stop to rest. Taran takes the first watch, and before long, who should appear but poor humble Gurgi! He greets Taran: “Crunchings and munchings?”

Eilonwy and Fflewddur are intrigued by the new arrival. But Taran calls him a “miserable, sneaking wretch who deserted us as soon as we were attacked.” Because he hasn’t learned anything from when he threw Eilonwy under the bus in similar fashion a few hours ago and was totally wrong about it. Gurgi protests that he ran off to find help. Eilonwy takes his part and says it was probably sensible for him to do so, and Gurgi throws himself at the feet of the “noble lady.” Taran is having none of it, so Gurgi goes to crawl sadly away, but not without first dropping a hint about what he’s seen. Taran agrees to share some “crunchings” in return for the information, which is that many more hosts have joined the Horned King. Fflewddur does his whole delusions-of-grandeur thing again and says they should ride out and attack, but Taran wisely acknowledges that it would be foolish to go up against such numbers without help. He tries to go to sleep, but is tormented by the vision of those burning wicker baskets – you’re not the only one, Taran! – and can’t decide whether his next move should be to continue pursuing Hen Wen or to carry out Gwydion’s mission of warning the Sons of Don at Caer Dathyl. Things have “ceased to be simple,” and now he wishes he were back home at Caer Dallben pulling weeds and making those boring old horseshoes again. Poor kid. I know I pick on him a lot, but I really do feel for him in this scene. What would you do, readers?

If you keep looking for Hen Wen, turn to page 118.
If you go to Caer Dathyl to warn the Sons of Don, turn to page 95.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Book of Three, Chapter 7 - The Trap - and Chapter 8 - The Barrow

These are two of the less interesting chapters in the book, in my opinion, so I’m going to breeze through them so we can get back to the real action. Eilonwy comes back (yay!) and tells Taran his companion and Melyngar are free. She didn’t find weapons, though, because she didn’t have time to look and “you can’t expect me to do everything, can you?” So she and Taran escape the cell through the tunnel under the flagstone and flee through the twisty underground passages. Taran loses his footing and falls into a sunken chamber. He tells Eilonwy to go on without him. Taran takes himself way seriously, y’all. Instead of leaving him there, Eilonwy sensibly tosses him her bauble so he can look around, and he notes that there is another passageway on his level. Moments later, Eilonwy drops down into the chamber with him. He’s furious at her and goes on a rant, calling her addlepated and foolish, but she just smiles at him until he runs out of breath, because she is awesome, and then says “if there’s a tunnel, it has to go someplace” and that they should follow it together.

They follow the tunnel until it ends, sealed off with boulders, and then investigate a side passage, which leads them to a chamber full of jewels, weapons and the withered corpses of warriors, encircling a stone slab on which another skeleton lies in state. Taran feels a gust of wind and finds a tunnel in the far wall. He takes a sword from one of the warriors, and he and Eilonwy crawl through the tunnel. They exit to fresh air just in time to find that Spiral Castle is aflame and collapsing. Eilonwy gets stuck in the tunnel, and Taran pulls her free. She thanks him for saving her life, then laughs about how Achren will be furious to find they’ve escaped. Taran somberly says that “if Achren is under those stones, she’ll never punish anyone again.” Eilonwy had gotten stuck in the tunnel because she took the sword and scabbard that the dead king was holding, and it was too big for her to wear at her waist, so she slung it from her shoulder, which sounds really uncomfortable. Taran is surprised that she took the king’s sword, but she simply says “It should be the best one, shouldn’t it?” (So awesome.) They see the shadowy figures of a man and a white horse. Taran cries out “Gwydion!” but, oh snap! It’s not Gwydion at all, but a man Taran’s never seen before. Dun dun DUN!