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, 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!”