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, 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!