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

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!