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, 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.”


  1. I've long thought the people who made Animaniacs were on to something when they made the Warners the way they were. Yakko (like Orddu) did the most talking for the group. Dot (Orwen) liked cute things. Wakko (Orgoch) liked to eat things.

    Stepping away from the ridiculous, the thing I've pondered the most from this chapter over the years is when the companions learn how Arawn got the cauldron, and Eilonwy questions why he was allowed to use it, knowing what he was capable of doing with it. They reply that even though they knew he might do great harm, he still had to be allowed to make that choice. I think of it a lot when I hear about real people doing harmful things, and how so many react by wanting to take away the ability to make the same choice from everyone else. I don't have any easy answers to the problem of balancing liberty and security, of course, but I love the way these books bring up such weighty issues.

    1. Not ridiculous at all – quite insightful! I went to to see if there were more groups of three that fall into these same archetypes. One could argue that the Warners are either a Freudian Trio or "Beauty, Brains, and Brawn" – both of which could apply to the enchantresses as well. Then there's the Maiden/Mother/Crone trio that pops up throughout the series, as Sunrise pointed out.

      I like your take on the moral issue of giving Arawn a choice – I wondered if Orddu just was covering up her mercenary motives by laying it on thick about "destiny" when really it was all about getting paid!