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

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The High King, Chapter 12 – The Red Fallows

The morning after the battle, Caer Dathyl is in ruins. In the hills to the east, where the surviving defenders have made a temporary camp, the companions find one another again. Taran, Eilonwy, Coll, Gurgi, Fflewddur, Llassar, Hevydd and Glew are all okay, but Llonio didn’t make it (sob!). Taliesin sings a lament for those who have died. Then, everyone hails Gwydion as the new High King.

Gwydion says that Pryderi has given them “one choice and one hope.” Since Arawn has sent so many Cauldron-Born out to battle, Annuvin must be minimally protected, with only mortal men and Huntsmen guarding it. Gwydion says they must attack immediately and also keep the Cauldron-Born from reaching Annuvin again. It’s time to separate into two parties (again, only this time it makes strategic sense). Gwydion will lead the march to the secret harbor where the ships that first brought the Sons of Don to Prydain have been hidden and kept seaworthy all these years. He asks Taran to lead the group that will run interference on the Cauldron-Born. Taran accepts, and asks how to get word to Gwydion if they fail in their quest. Gwydion says they can’t afford to fail; they will all die if they do. So no pressure, then!

The Commot folk choose to go with Taran, as do Eilonwy, Gurgi, Fflewddur and – sigh – Glew (so we get more of his complaining, and then more of Fflewddur’s complaining about Glew’s complaining). Gurgi laments that the Banner of the White Pig is in tatters. Eilonwy says she’ll sew a new one, “as soon as…” Then she stops short, as Taran reflects that they might all be going to their deaths and he may never see Caer Dallben again.

They journey for several days, and when they catch up with the Cauldron-Born, Taran is about to attack, but Coll cautions him to wait and watch for a bit first. They follow the Cauldron-Born for another day to a bleak place called the Red Fallows. Coll exposits that this used to be “the fairest realm in Prydain,” but so many lords fought over it that their horses trampled all the fields and their blood stained the land red. Taran wonders if it will ever flourish again. Coll says perhaps, but right now Taran must choose which path to take to Annuvin. The easier but longer path is to continue across the Red Fallows, while a harsher shortcut would be to go through the mountains of Bran-Galedd, topped by Mount Dragon. Taran decides they must drive the Cauldron-Born into the hills.

Taran leads the Commot folk, armed with makeshift spears made from branches, against the Cauldron-Born and Huntsmen. They succeed in driving most of their enemies toward the passage to the hills. But a band of Cauldron-Born breaks off and breaches the walled boundary of the Red Fallows. Coll saves the day, single-handedly fighting back the warriors, and is seriously wounded in the process. Get out your hankies, folks, because now we have to say goodbye to Coll, who was introduced in the very first sentence of the series. All he wanted was to get back to his garden, but instead he dies right there on that beach in Vietnam – that is, in the Red Fallows – and his last words are, “See to our plantings, my boy.”

Taran buries Coll, and stays by the grave for a long time. Like me, he’s probably wondering when these books got so incredibly sad, and whether he has the strength to go on to the next chapter. Finally he says farewell – “Sleep well, grower of turnips and gatherer of apples” – and rides off to join the companions.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The High King, Chapter 11 – The Fortress

Taran responds to Pryderi’s words in his typical fashion – by jumping up and whipping out his sword. Others do the same. Pryderi’s lords surround him in a circle, swords drawn. Gwydion demands silence. The High King Math tells Pryderi it’s not funny to joke about treachery. Pryderi says he’s neither joking nor a traitor – Arawn will bring peace to Prydain. Gwydion counters that Arawn’s peace is the prison of death and slavery. Pryderi looks around him and says that the cantrev lords deserve what they get, but if everyone surrenders now, Caer Dathyl will be spared. Gwydion tells him to GTFO, and he leaves.

Expecting Pryderi to attack at dawn, the war leaders prepare the fortress for the impending siege. In the morning, they see that Pryderi is preparing to attack with his full host rather than in skirmishes. Gwydion – looking, as always, like a wolf – calls Pryderi arrogant (causing me to chuckle, since that’s my long-held impression of Gwyddie himself). He decides that, rather than wait for the attack, they will go on the offensive.

Taran and Coll lead one troop, Llassar another. Gwydion bids Taran farewell, then rides off to command the larger group of fighters. The battle begins, and a bunch of stuff happens quickly: Taran sees Llonio, Hevydd and Fflewddur each caught up in the fray. Then he sees Pryderi and tries to challenge him, but Pryderi dismisses him scornfully, in a nice upending of the trope of hero-meets-villain on the battlefield. Eilonwy, who was supposed to be confined to the castle, rides by, her hair tucked up under a helmet. A group of warriors surround Taran, and Coll pulls him free, saving his life.

As the sun starts to set, “when the sky itself seemed streaked with blood,” a new threat appears: the Cauldron-Born. Behind them are more of Pryderi’s men, and Taran realizes with dawning horror that this was Pryderi’s plan all along. The deathless warriors slaughter everyone in their path, then use a battering ram to breach the fortress. High King Math stands behind the broken gates, wearing a white wool cloak, his sword in his ancient hand. The Cauldron-Born pause for a moment as if remembering something, then continue mutely on. They slay the high king, and we hear the echoing sound of a hunting horn. Pryderi’s men take Caer Dathyl and raise the red banner of Pryderi and the black banner of Arawn (of course it’s black). And we have to wait until the next chapter to find out the fate of our companions!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The High King, Chapter 10 – The Coming of Pryderi

The companions finally arrive at Caer Dathyl, which is busy with war preparations. There are a few women there who have not been sent away for safety, but Eilonwy refuses to join in their spinning and weaving, or to put on a dress: “I’m comfortable just as I am.” Taran is summoned to the throne room, where Gwydion is conversing with the High King Math, who has aged greatly since Taran last saw him.

Math greets Taran and tells him not to be afraid – he knows that Gwyn the Hunter is summoning him and he won’t live much longer. “What grives me is not my death,” he says, “but at the end of my life to see blood spilled in the land where I sought only peace.” Gwydion says that they will defeat Arawn, thanks to the forces Taran brought from the Commots, as well as Lord Pryderi’s battle host, which is only a few days away from arriving. The bad news is that King Smoit is busy fighting the southern traitors in the Valley of Ystrad and cannot make it to Caer Dathyl, and the northern kings are delayed by the harsh winter.

Taran and Coll admire the treasures of Caer Dathyl, but Coll still longs for his garden back home. They meet Taliesin, Chief Bard of Prydain and father of Adaon. Fflewddur proudly reminds everyone that Taliesin gave him his harp, and Taliesin says he feels guilty for doing so, having known about the harp’s power and suspecting that Fflewddur has had “some small trouble with the strings.” Fflewddur denies having ever had any trouble, causing two harp strings to break instantly – har de har! Then he says that it’s been good for him to tell the truth more often, and that doing so has “harmed no one, least of all myself.” Taliesin says that Fflewddur has learned a good lesson and been a good sport, and offers him his choice of any of the harps in Caer Dathyl. Fflewddur, of course, opts to stick with his “old pot”: “It sits well against my shoulder.” Awwww. They talk a little about the different types of wisdom, and Taran mentions Adaon’s brooch. Taliesin says that Taran’s path to wisdom may be the hardest type – enduring loss and grief on the journey to becoming a vessel that can pass that wisdom on to others.

King Pryderi arrives! Everyone gathers in the Great Hall to greet him. Nervous Gurgi bears the banner of the White Pig, alongside all the actual, fancy banners. Eilonwy says she thinks it looks better than most of the others. (I can see this making a really cute scene in the film version.) Pryderi, who has golden hair that’s shinier than a helmet, and “high, jutting cheekbones” – uh oh, that’s a bad sign – strides in with his sword unsheathed and addresses the assembly scornfully. He’s come not to join them, but to demand they surrender. Because he’s bad, you see! It’s King Morgant all over again!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The High King, Chapter 9 – The Banner

Warning: There’s really not much to make light of in this chapter. It’s packed full of pretty serious stuff, which I’m afraid will be the case for most of the remaining chapters in the story. But, like Taran, I’m committed to pressing on, so here goes!

Taran and company bear the banner of the White Pig, through snow and icy conditions, from King Smoit’s castle to the Free Commots. In Cenarth, they meet a group of Commot residents, including Hevydd the smith. Taran tells the men about Arawn’s mounting forces and asks them to give “the strength of your hands and the courage of your hearts, and, if it must be, even your lives.” Hevydd vows to support Taran, “not in obligation but in friendship,” and says he and all the other smiths in the Commots will labor to create armor for the warriors. Next, Llonio shows up, gives Taran advice on how to make weapons out of farming implements, and says his growing family will have to spare him while he follows Taran, “if there is ever to be safety in Prydain.”

They continue to travel through the Commots, amassing followers. Taran puts Eilonwy, who is armed and dressed in men’s clothing, to work tending the pack animals, and she humphs and says she’s not speaking to him. We once again meet Dwyvach, who says she will rally all the weavers in the Commots to make cloaks for the warriors, and then Llassar, who is proud to ride and fight with Taran. (This whole chapter feels very rushed, like it’s laboring to cram in all the characters who made an appearance in Taran Wanderer.)

I'm feeling some déjà vu.
Riding beside Coll, Taran calls him a true friend and a true warrior. Coll says that, as compliments go, he’d prefer to be called a “true grower of turnips.” He longs to be back at Caer Dallben tending the garden he left unready for winter. Taran agrees he will be glad to be an Assistant Pig-Keeper again.

Finally they arrive at Commot Merin, where, just like last time, Taran meets Annlaw pretty much immediately. Annlaw asks if Taran remembers what he learned about making pottery, and invites Taran to demonstrate his skills. Taran sits at the wheel for a little bit, forgetting his troubles like he used to, but says his focus has to be on war right now. Then Coll calls out that a band of marauders are approaching, and advises Taran to send out his bowmen, while Coll and Llassar try to draw off the attackers.

The plan works, and Taran is chuffed to have won the battle and lost none of his men … until he sees the the village, including Annlaw’s hut, in flames. He finds Annlaw dead on the floor, surrounded by his shattered wares and toppled wheel. Taran is, of course, devastated, and blames himself, saying “the blood of Merin is on my hands.” I’m not really sure how this is his fault, considering that armed ruffians were invading the Commots in the previous book, even before Taran started rallying the folk to his side? And in terms of character motivation, I think it would have been better to have Taran fighting to keep Prydain safe for Annlaw’s beautiful craftsmanship to thrive in, rather than killing off Annlaw and making it about some sort of guilt and/or revenge.

Oh well. They continue to ride, dispatching groups of warriors to Caer Dathyl ahead of them as they travel through the Eagle Mountains and eventually meet up with Fflewddur and his battle host. With them is Glew, whom Fflewddur says he felt sorry for and allowed to tag along despite his incessant complaining. Fflewddur plays his harp, and Taran is momentarily cheered, but then he remembers the deaths of Rhun and Annlaw, and clutches a shard of pottery he took from Annlaw’s hut.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The High King, Chapter 8 – The Messengers

Yet another POV shift! This time we catch up with Kaw on his scouting mission. He stays focused as he journeys from Caer Dallben toward Annuvin, flying all day and only stopping to rest when the evening shadows grow too dark for him to search out warriors. He eventually spots a band of Huntsmen, perches in a nearby tree to eavesdrop on their conversation, and learns their destination is Caer Dathyl.

One of the Huntsmen spots the crow and tries to shoot him with an arrow. Dodging the arrow (and jabbering “neener-neener” at the Huntsman), Kaw is suddenly set upon by a pack of gwythaints. He escapes them by flying into the thick brush of the forest, but his wing is wounded in the process. The next morning, in terrible pain, he realizes he must change course in order to survive. Almost at the point of death, he finally arrives in the valley of Medwyn.

Medwyn treats Kaw’s wound, and tells him it will be a while before he can fly again. He recognizes Kaw, of course, having known his father Kadwyr, “when he was a spindly-legged fledgling.” Medwyn has forgotten Taran’s name, although he remembers Melynlas, which is humorous and fitting – he remembers the names and lineages of all the animals in Prydain, but human names escape him. He recalls that the Pig-Keeper has a good heart, though, and tells Kaw to serve him well.

Kaw tells Medwyn – in his own language, since apparently Medwyn’s command of Crowish is better than Kaw’s of English – about his quest, and that he’s seen warriors gathering and heading for Caer Dathyl. Medwyn is troubled and tells the eagle, Edyrnion, and the wolves, Brynach and Briavael, to spread the alarm across the animal kingdom. As the “one who built a ship when the dark waters flooded Prydain” and bore the ancestors of all the animals to safety, he calls them now to battle: “Let every creature turn tooth, beak, and claw against all who serve Arawn Death-Lord.”

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The High King, Chapter 7 – The King of Mona

Eilonwy rescues Taran, Gurgi, Gwydion, Coll and Smoit from their captivity in the larder. She hurriedly fills them in on the uses of the mushrooms, eggs and powder, and tells them “Fflewddur’s trapped in the courtyard. Everything’s gone wrong. Our plan has failed!” I’d say she’s selling herself a little short, considering she’s just managed to free the five of them. Plus, it irritates me that no one even thanks her for this; they all just spring into action in a very manly fashion. The Eilonwy of a few books ago would have called them out on their ingratitude with a “Humph!”

The courtyard is filled with smoke and dotted with columns of fire. Taran runs into an armed guard, but is able to blind him with a handful of powder. Smoit tries to rally his men with his war cry, “A Smoit!” Coll and Taran fight off a pack of swordsmen and save Fflewddur. Fflewddur says he doesn’t know what’s become of Rhun. The heroes fight their way to the stables, where a phalanx of warriors seems ready to finish them off for good. But suddenly, Rhun rides in on his horse, swinging his sword and shouting orders to an unseen army of bowmen and swordsmen. The ruse succeeds in confusing Magg’s warriors, and then Llyan enters the fray, allowing Smoit’s men to gain the advantage. Gwydion, Coll and Smoit pursue the retreating enemy.

Taran is heading to the stables to free Melynlas, when Eilonwy calls to him: “Rhun is badly hurt!” Rhun has been wounded by an arrow, and greets Taran for the last time, with a whispered “Hullo, hullo!” He tells Taran he’s sure that his seawall plan will work well: “And I think – I think I shall be glad to be home.” And then he dies. It’s so completely unexpected (unlike most of the good-guy deaths in the series, which are foreshadowed more heavily) that I barely have time to be sad about it … and I suspect that was exactly Alexander’s intent. Gwydion even says as much: “Arawn Death-Lord gives us little time for grief.” And you know that things have gotten serious when Gwydion is speaking for me, you guys.

The companions – including Gurgi, Gwystyl and Glew, who are all unharmed – bury Rhun. Taran vows that the seawall will be finished if he has to build it himself. After Gwystyl departs for King Eiddileg’s realm, Gwydion announces that the gathering of Arawn’s hosts are a more pressing danger than Arawn’s possession of Dyrnwyn. So, change of plans: instead of going to Annuvin, he will ride to Caer Dathyl to rally the Sons of Don. Taran asks if there’s a way to do both. Gwydion tells him going to Annuvin now will mean wasted lives and wasted time, and they need to focus on raising the largest army they can. He says he will send word to King Pryderi in the West, and asks Fflewddur to rally the Northern realms, including his own subjects (conveniently remembering that Fflewddur is a king). He then tells Taran to journey to the Free Commots and recruit as many men as he can. Gurgi, Coll and Eilonwy will go with Taran, since it’s too dangerous to send Eilonwy back to Caer Dallben.

Before dawn the next day, they all set out. Taran has a nice little moment with Aeddan, who only has a rusted sword but says he will follow Taran anywhere. I think the Taran of a few books ago would have wanted as many men in his host as he could get, so it’s a sign of his growing maturity when he tells Aeddan he should ride with his king instead. Eilonwy attaches her needlework of Hen Wen to a spear to make a banner for their little war party, and they ride out into the frosty morning. Winter is coming, y’all.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The High King, Chapter 6 – A Clutch of Eggs

Sure enough, this chapter picks up right where the last one left off (meaning we still haven’t shifted back to Taran’s POV). Gwystyl explains that each egg is filled with smoke that, when the shell is cracked, will come out “in considerable quantity.” He tells the companions to keep them as a gift, then tries to take his leave. Eilonwy thinks Gwystyl’s hiding more than eggs and threatens to squeeze him. He reveals that he also has mushrooms that “make a handsome puff of flame, if you should ever need such a thing.” And finally, he gives them a powder that can be used to cover their tracks or to blind an enemy for a short time. This chapter is starting to feel like we’re in Super Mario World, not Prydain.

A chuffed Fflewddur immediately starts making plans to storm the castle under cloak of smoke and fire. Rhun very sensibly points out that the smoke and fire would blind them just as much as their opponents. Eilonwy agrees with him and says they need a better plan. Rhun, pumped up with pride from her validation, confidently suggests they attack the castle from different directions, with the others creating a diversion from the far wall while he rides through the gate. Eilonwy says it’s too risky and that now that he’s King of Mona he has an obligation to his people to keep himself out of the fighting and stay safe. I guess no one cares about Fflewddur’s duty to his subjects?

Near dawn, they set their plan in motion, deciding that Gwystyl will create a mushroom fire at the rear of the courtyard, and while the guards are distracted by the fire, Eilonwy and Rhun will force the gates open and Fflewddur will release the prisoners. One by one, they scale the castle wall using fishing hooks and line. Eilonwy and Rhun wait for Gwystyl’s fire signal. But then they see a fire in the Great Hall, and Magg’s warriors are headed to that fire instead of to Gwystyl’s diversion! Rhun runs off to open the gates. A bowman tries to shoot Eilonwy, so she throws a flaming mushroom at him. Then she’s off to save Taran! Even though I’ve complained about sexism in these books more than once, it’s cool that Eilonwy gets to rescue her man here instead of the other way around. It’s a pity the rest of the book isn’t told from her perspective, but alas, dear friends, we’re back to Taran’s POV in the next chapter.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The High King, Chapter 5 – The Watcher

You. Guys. I am thunderstruck by the unprecedented liberty that Alexander takes in this chapter: He shifts the action to Fflewddur, Eilonwy, Rhun, and Glew as they leave Avren Harbor to rejoin the rest of the party. For the first time in the series, we follow events that happen without Taran. Great Belin! Imagine if we’d known (or remembered) this was possible all along. I probably would have spent most of these recaps complaining about why we’re always stuck in Taran’s POV and never get to witness the action that takes place during his frequent lapses in consciousness.

So, what happened to delay Fflewddur and company? Not much, as it turns out. A series of mundane mishaps, mostly involving Rhun’s clumsiness, caused them to miss the scheduled rendezvous with Taran and the others. They stop to camp for the night, and the next day brings them within sight of Caer Cadarn. Eilonwy notices that the castle is flying “Smoit’s jolly old bear” banner, when it should be flying the standard of the Sons of Don, since Gwydion is there. Fflewddur says that’s likely because Gwydion wants to keep a low profile. Next Eilonwy notices that the gates are shut, instead of open to greet them, and Fflewddur mansplains that that’s how things are always done on secret missions. Finally, Eilonwy points out the party of bowmen on the walls, and Fflewddur finally agrees that perhaps something might be amiss. You think? He leaves Llyan with the others and goes forward alone on foot to check things out.

When Fflewddur is not back by nightfall, Eilonwy is alarmed. Finally the bard appears in the thicket where they have taken cover. He tells them that he went into the castle as a wandering bard to sing for his supper, and learned that Magg had taken their companions captive. Eilonwy tries to think of a plan to save them, and suddenly notices someone else is lurking among the trees, watching them. It’s Gwystyl! He does his usual schtick, saying, “It’s been delightful running into you. Of course I’ll be glad to help. But perhaps another time. When we’re not feeling so upset.” Ah, Gwystyl, how I’ve missed your passive-aggressive, clinically depressed self. You’re not as much fun as Eiddileg, but you’re much less tedious than Glew.

Eilonwy wrings out of Gwystyl the knowledge that the Cauldron-Born and the Huntsmen of Annuvin are gathering in great numbers, along with the war leaders of the cantrev lords who are loyal to Arawn. He’s on his way to tell King Eiddileg what’s afoot. He tries to leave with a large bundle, but Fflewddur stops him and starts to go through its contents, revealing a bird’s nest, water flasks, some camping equipment, and a small sack full of eggs. Fflewddur gets excited about the eggs, declaring he’s hungry enough to eat one raw. Gwystyl anxiously stops him and says they aren’t really eggs, they’re smoke. It’s an odd end to the chapter, but I’d bet my bottom dollar we’ll learn more about these smoky eggs in the next chapter.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The High King, Chapter 4 – King Smoit’s Castle

In the morning, the party splits up, with Rhun, Fflewddur, Glew, and Eilonwy detouring to the harbor: Rhun to let his shipmaster know of the change in plans, Fflewddur as a guide, Glew so Fflewddur can watch him, and Eilonwy because she’s left some things on the ship she needs to get. Fflewddur says they will catch up with the others by midday. This seems like a forced plot point to me – why don’t they all just go together, then? – and sure enough, the group fails to reach the rendezvous at the appointed time. (They clearly have not heard that you never split the party.) So, Gwydion, Taran, Coll and Gurgi continue on, and reach Caer Cadarn the following morning.

When they arrive in the Great Hall, eager to greet King Smoit, they instead see Magg on the throne! Guards disarm and restrain the companions, while Magg boasts that he now serves Arawn himself. After escaping the Castle of Llyr, he went to Annuvin and told Arawn how to regain Dyrnwyn. In gratitude, Arawn made him second in command and named him successor to his throne. Gwydion says Magg is deluded if he thinks Arawn will keep his promises. (Seriously, did Magg learn nothing from when Achren promised him the exact same thing?) Gwydion asks if Smoit is dead. Magg says no, he kept Smoit alive so that he could rally his liegemen to serve Arawn, but Smoit has proved resistant. Magg then throws the companions into the chamber where Smoit is being held, so they can reason with him: “Your lives hang on it.”

Smoit embraces them all heartily, calling Taran “the Pig-Keeper,” which seems a little formal after he was all set to adopt Taran in the last book. Smoit explains that Magg’s warriors ambushed him the day before, on his way to moderate yet another cow-stealing dispute between Goryon and Gast. Oh, those two! After Taran’s last visit, Smoit says, he walled up all of his dungeons, so the cell they are in is actually a spare larder, but unfortunately not stocked with provisions. Smoit says the two days since he’s eaten feel more like two years. Gwydion grimly says the larder may prove to be a tomb for them as well as for Fflewddur and the others, who are on their way.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The High King, Chapter 3 – The Prophecy

Taran urges Gwydion to let him ride after Achren, who has departed on one of Rhun’s horses. Gwydion doesn’t really say no, but says that he can’t delay his own quest to protect Achren, though there is “no safety for her beyond Caer Dallben.” He then asks Dallben to reveal Hen Wen’s prophecy. Dallben says the prophecy says a Gelfling will heal the Dark Crystal at the time of the Great Conjunction. No, actually, he asked how to recover Dyrnwyn and the first letter stick’s prophecy was “Ask, sooner, mute stone and voiceless rock to speak.” Pretty eloquent symbols they have on those letter sticks. Did it include the punctuation and all? Even better is the second letter stick’s prophecy, which is a whole five-line poem referencing the quenching of Dyrnwyn’s flame, night turning to noon, and rivers that “burn with frozen fire.” I really want to know how a pig’s snout pointing to a few symbols on an ash rod resulted in this narrative. Do the symbols stand for words or for concepts? Is there a symbol that means “Dyrnwyn”? Or are they actual letters/phonetic symbols, and if so, wouldn’t that poem have taken a really long time to spell out and write down, like Ralphie’s Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring message?

Anyway. The companions briefly discuss how disheartening the prophecies are, and how impossible it is that rivers can burn or stones can speak. I have a feeling we’ll learn that it’s not at all impossible, before all is said and done. Gwydion prepares to ride to Annuvin, and says he must go alone. Taran suggests sending Kaw ahead first as a scout. Gwydion approves of this plan and says that he will wait for Kaw at King Smoit’s realm, which is on the way to Annuvin. Taran says they will all go with him as far as Cantrev Cadiffor. Glew grumbles about the inconvenience, while Eilonwy uses a technique she learned from Queen Teleria to bargain her way into going along: “A lady doesn’t insist on having her own way. Then, next thing you know, it all works out somehow, without one’s even trying.” Hee.

Kaw departs for Annuvin, while Taran reflects on the gwythaint he helped years ago. They saddle their horses, and Fflewddur mounts Llyan, who growls at the sight of her former captor, Glew. Coll outfits them with old weapons from the tool shed. Sparrows are using his leather helmet as a nest, he says: “I shall not disturb them. But my own old pate is as tough as leather.” Coll is good people, y’all. Because everyone is reminiscing today, he recalls when Taran would have wanted nothing more than to ride for glory with Lord Gwydion. But now, Taran is fearful for Gwydion’s chances against Arawn.

That night, having traveled far from Caer Dallben, they make camp and share some lembas and jerky from Gurgi’s wallet. Taran helps Rhun revise his plans for the seawall at Mona, until Gwydion warns them to be quiet in case the Huntsmen are nearby. Taran muses on the prophecy some more, and says that he doesn’t think Arawn could even draw Dyrnwyn to be able to quench its flame. Gwydion says that if Dyrnwyn is locked in a treasure hoard, it would be as good as vanquished. Glew’s ears perk up at the mention of treasure. He says that he forgives them all for mistreating him and that, instead of waiting on Rhun’s ship as planned, he intends to journey with them. Gwydion throws Glew a sharp look, then thinks about it and then says quietly, “Perhaps you shall.”

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The High King, Chapter 2 – The Letter Sticks

Achren says that Arawn can’t leave Annuvin in his true form, but fortunately for him, he has the ability to assume any form he wishes, such as appearing as Taran in order to entrap Gwydion. Well, that’s convenient! There’s a catch, though – when he’s in the shape of something else, he loses his power of invincibility and can be killed. Also, he hates incurring roaming charges, so most of the time he stays home.

Eilonwy says she wouldn’t have been fooled by no phony Assistant Pig-Keeper. Achren scoffs at her and says only she, Achren, can see through Arawn’s disguises. Because she taught him everything he knows, back when they used to boff, you see. Before there were any Sons of Don or Lord Gwydions or Math the High Kings, Achren ruled Annuvin with Arawn as her consort. Then, he betrayed her and stole her throne, but still she can always recognize his true colors, shining through. Achren says she bears Gwydion no ill will, and that she’ll watch over him during the night. Eilonwy is like, no, I’ll watch over him. Dallben says, chill out, you can both watch him. They take Gwydion to Dallben’s room.

Fflewddur says he had a feeling there was something different about the fake Taran, and a harp string snaps. Rhun talks about his attempts to put up a seawall at Mona, which didn’t meet in the middle after the crews started the work at both ends. Womp womp. Glew complains about not being respected now that he’s not a giant and says he wants to go back to Mona. Taran decides that with everything going on, he won’t try proposing to Eilonwy “until all hearts were at peace again,” then he falls asleep. Later, Eilonwy wakes him and says Gwydion is up and wants to talk to them.

Gwydion, looking haggard and wolflike (drink!), says he will ride to Annuvin immediately to recover Dyrnwyn. He’s learned more about the sword, enough to know that in Arawn’s possession, “it can bring doom upon Prydain.” Eilonwy remembers the inscription on the scabbard said only one of “noble blood” could draw Dyrnwyn, and Gwydion says a closer translation would be “noble worth”: “The enchantment forbade the sword to all but those who would use it wisely and well.” Taran asks if Arawn can draw it, then, if he intends to do evil with it. Gwydion says he doesn’t know, but maybe Arawn has found a way to break the sword’s spell. Achren says she’ll go after Dyrnwyn in Gwydion’s stead, and thus have her vengeance on Arawn. But Gwydion says Achren is better off staying under Dallben’s protection, since Arawn would recognize her and kill her before she got close to the sword.

Dallben tells Coll: “Fetch the letter sticks.” YASSSS! The so-called oracular pig we’ve been hearing about for four books is finally going to prophesy something! Everyone – except for Gurgi, Glew and Achren – goes out to the pig pen to see what Hen Wen has to say. But, it’s a big letdown, because Hen Wen is cowering in the corner and won’t move. Taran scratches her chin soothingly and manages to persuade her to point reluctantly to several symbols on the letter sticks. Suddenly, the sticks shatter into pieces. Dallben says the prophesy is unfinished, and the first part of it was way dark, yo. Taran tries to calm Hen Wen down. Then, Gurgi runs out of the cottage shouting, “Wicked Queen is gone!” Oh, Achren, you minx, you!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The High King, Chapter 1 – Homecomings

This is it, friends – the final book in the Prydain series! The High King opens pretty much right where Taran Wanderer leaves off, with Taran and Gurgi traveling home to Caer Dallben from Commot Merin. They’ve stopped to camp for the night, when suddenly, Kaw comes swooping down to announce “Eilonwy! Princess! Home!” This is enough to make Taran and Gurgi jump up, break camp and gallop day and night – poor Melynlas and Nameless Pony! – until they arrive at Caer Dallben.

They’re greeted by Coll, Dallben, and Eilonwy, who chides Taran affectionately for not having been home to welcome her. She complains about palace life at Mona, then breaks off to observe that there is something different about Taran. He’s like, yeah, I’ve totally been a smith, a weaver and a potter since you last saw me, and he gives her the bowl he made at Annlaw’s. Eilonwy asks if he found his parents, having heard from Dallben that “you met someone you thought was your father but wasn’t.” Taran says he found what he sought, but it wasn’t what he hoped. Prince Rhun appears – “Hullo! Hullo!” – and says he’s now King Rhun, his father having passed away. As king, he decided to bring Eilonwy back to Caer Dallben, along with the former giant Glew, who is sitting by the fireside grumbling about being ignored. Taran says he wishes Fflewddur, Doli, and Gwydion were there, too. Coll says Doli sends his best – but won’t budge from the Fair Folk realm – and that Fflewddur is on his way. Dallben says Gwydion is coming as well: “He and I have matters to discuss.”

Eilonwy gives Taran an embroidered cloth with a blue-eyed pig “meant to be Hen Wen.” Taran teases her that “Hen’s eyes are really brown.” Then he gets serious and says he had hoped his quest “would prove noble, and give me the right to ask what I dared not ask before. My hope was mistaken. Yet even without it –” He’s totally about to propose, y’all! But just then, Fflewddur crashes in with a body thrown over his shoulder. It’s Prince Gwydion! At first, they think he’s dead, but it turns out he’s only mostly dead. Taran orders Gurgi to fetch Miracle Max. No, actually he says to fetch the healing herbs Adaon gave him. Wow, remember that? Then Taran apologizes to Dallben for overstepping his area of expertise. Dallben is like, I don’t have anything better than those herbs, so have at it: “I trust your skill as I see you trust it.” Aww! Taran’s all grows’d up.

Fflewddur asks Taran how he escaped from the Huntsmen of Annuvin that struck Gwydion down. Taran says, “Your words have no meaning, Fflewddur.” Fflewddur is baffled, having seen Taran with his own eyes an hour before. He says Taran cried out for help and Gwydion rode against the Huntsmen to save him, but the Huntsmen dragged Gwydion from his saddle, stole Dyrnwyn from his belt and barely left him alive. They all wonder if Fflewddur is feverish or has lost his mind, since Taran was nowhere near the battle. Then Achren enters and says that Fflewddur’s memory is fine: “You saw what was meant for you to see.” It was someone else who appeared in Taran’s form. And who has the ability to create such illusions? Only one person: her ex-boo, Arawn!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I Couldn't Wait Until New Year's to Share This!

I’ll be back next week with a new Prydain recap – the first chapter of “The High King” – but in the meantime, I'm excited to announce I've just published a new story, “Up, Up and Hooray!”

If you’ve read “Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself (and Spiders),” you might have wondered whatever happened to Stan and Macy, the loving young couple who, when we last saw them, were struggling to deal with job market upheaval and the loss of a pet while also trying – with mixed results – to get into the Halloween spirit. In “Up, Up and Hooray,” we check in with Macy and Stan just a few months later, on New Year’s Eve, as they get ready to celebrate the new year – and new beginnings – with a special tradition. It’s a short, fun, and uplifting read, available now in Kindle ebook form. I can't wait to hear what you think!

And if you haven’t read “Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself (and Spiders)” yet, check this out – it’s totally free on Amazon now through Sunday, May 14! Both stories are also permanently free to read with a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

Join my mailing list to get blog updates and be the first to know when future new stories are released!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

What I’m Reading: Let It Bleed

I’ve been a huge fan of Pamela Des Barres since I read “I’m With the Band” at age 15, and in recent years, I’ve had the good fortune to meet her in person and participate in her writing workshops. So I was excited when I heard that she was putting out a “how-to” book based on her workshops. My pre-ordered copy of “Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin' Memoir” arrived April 18, and it’s classic Pamela, written in her typically effervescent, to-the-point, girl-to-girl-talk style. She uses juicy snippets from her own memoirs to illustrate, for example, how to write a passage that recalls all five senses and engages the reader’s imagination. She also includes pieces from many of her students from past classes – such as Jessi, who sat next to me at the first workshop I attended in Nashville – so a variety of voices are represented. (I’m not in the book, alas… maybe next time!)

It’s a fun read even if you’ve never thought of writing a memoir, but it also contains dozens of writing prompts to help you start creating one. Pamela’s method of writing practice is pretty straightforward – given a prompt, you set a timer for 12 minutes, then write with no restrictions, no crossing out, no self-editing. It’s like writing in a journal, but more focused. The result is wonderfully freeing, even if you’re like me and need several rounds of editing before you’re close to happy with a piece. (And if you don’t want to write a memoir, the exercises are still a great way to break through writer’s block, get the creative juices flowing and get in touch with your true self!) If the divine Miss Pamela comes to a city near you, I highly recommend signing up for her workshop, but if you don’t have that opportunity, then reading “Let It Bleed” is the next best thing.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Story So Far...

(Or: How to Recap Four Books in Only Two Years)

When I started this blog back in 2013, one of my challenges was finding topics to write about on a regular basis. Obviously, blogs are only worthwhile if they’re being updated frequently, and any writer with a day job knows what a struggle that can be. Carving out time in the day is tough enough, and time spent casting about for topics is time that’s not being used to write.

At first, I tried writing some book reviews, but soon realized that I do my best writing when I’m writing something I enjoy reading – and book reviews, though useful, just aren’t that entertaining for me to read or write. I thought about what kinds of blogs and podcasts I find the most fun to binge on, the ones that keep me coming back over and over. I realized I really enjoy humorous recaps of books and TV shows I enjoyed in my youth, like “Flowers in the Attic” and “Saved by the Bell.” And since I have an abiding love for Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, I decided to re-read them and recap one chapter per week (give or take – occasionally I’ll combine two chapters or split one chapter into two posts, and I’ve gone on hiatus a few times). It started out as mainly an exercise in showing up to make words on a regular basis, but I’ve also received a few friendly comments from fellow fans of the series – Thanks, you guys! Please keep commenting! – that have helped motivate me to stick with it.

It’s really been a win-win: for the past two years, I’ve gotten to enjoy re-reading a series of books I adored as a child, and I always know what next week’s topic will be. That has helped free up some time for me to spend on my other project – rewriting and editing my novel, “The Freedom Dreamers,” which is a coming-of-age story set in 1968 (incidentally, the same year that “The High King” was published). The main character, Jill, starts out much like Taran – sheltered, naïve, and maybe a bit bratty. But when she loses her mom, her small-town world is shattered, so she leaves it behind, hopping a bus to New York. There, she plunges into the unknown, meeting strange new companions and having exhilarating adventures. Ultimately, she learns a lot about the value of friendship and standing up for what’s good and true in the face of violence and injustice.

I get that it may feel like a stretch to compare a middle-grade fantasy series to a YA historical novel about sex, drugs and rock and roll in the hippie era. But, considering the frightening events that are happening right now in the world, and the volatile political situation here in the U.S., to me it’s never felt more important to be reading and writing about love, compassion and the struggle between good and evil, in its various forms. So, if you’re a fan of Prydain, I hope you’re enjoying the recaps, and if “The Freedom Dreamers” sounds interesting to you, I hope you’ll sign up for my mailing list to be the first to know when it comes out! Thanks for reading. Peace!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Taran Wanderer, Chapter 20 – The Spoilers – and Chapter 21 – The Mirror

The next day, Taran and Gurgi travel to the neighboring commot, with Annlaw’s wares loaded on Melynlas and Gurgi’s pony. (Does Gurgi’s pony have a name?) Arriving at Commot Isav, they see a group of men with tight faces, one of whom – Drudwas – warns them that a band of outlaws is threatening to plunder their herds and lands. Drudwas says the leader of the outlaws is a “yellow-haired ruffian,” who Taran guesses must be Dorath. Taran asks what they're going to do, and Drudwas says they will fight: they number seven against twelve if you count his son, Llassar, who is “scarcely older than Taran had been when Coll first dubbed him Assistant Pig-Keeper.” Awww, the nostalgia!

Taran says he and Gurgi will stand with the men, making it nine against twelve, but since they are going up against Dorath’s skill the element of surprise will be critical. He suggests that two men lie hidden in the sheepfold and attack the enemy when they least expect it. Dorath says those men will be risking their lives for the others. Taran volunteers to be one, and Llassar insists on being the other. I have a bad feeling about this. Night falls, and Taran and Llassar talk quietly while they wait for Dorath’s band to attack. Llassar asks what Taran is seeking, and Taran says since he can’t be a smith, a weaver or a potter, his destiny must be to “wander without seeking.” So, other than farming or fighting, those are all the professions that exist in Prydain, I guess? Llassar says he’s content to live in Commot Isav and he doesn’t envy Taran; Taran says, “No, it is I who envy you.”

Dorath’s band attacks! Taran and Llassar spring up as planned, and Taran finds himself battling with Gloff, Dorath’s very unpleasant henchman. Llassar jumps between them to save Taran. Gloff stabs Llassar (oh no!); then Drudwas kills Gloff. The women and girls of Isav strike a blow for feminism, joining the fight and driving off the bandits with rakes, hoes and pitchforks. In a flash of brilliance, Gurgi jumps on the back of a bull and charges Dorath and the remnants of his band, driving them away. Llassar’s wound is not serious, it turns out; he’ll live. The commot folk celebrate their victory and thank Taran for saving their lives and their flocks. Even though you’d think he’d be tired after traveling all day and staying up all night, Taran refuses their offer to stay and instead heads straight back to Commot Merin.

Taran laments to Annlaw that, despite having just won the eternal gratitude of a whole bunch of people, he feels of no use to anyone. Annlaw suggests maybe he should try antidepressants. No, actually he suggests the Mirror of Llunet. Taran is like, whoa, I almost forgot about my whole quest! He tells Annlaw the story of his journey so far. But now, he concludes, he’s almost afraid of what the Mirror would tell him. Annlaw’s like, I can’t help you with that, but I can tell you where the Mirror is; it’s a pool of water in a cave at the head of the Lake of Llunet, about two days’ journey away. And so, without further ado, Taran (and Gurgi, of course!) go to find the Mirror.

The journey is uneventful, and they find the cave Annlaw spoke of, near the Lake of Llunet at the foot of Mount Meledin. The Mirror is a glistening pool just a few inches deep, fed by moisture trickling down the walls of the cave. Taran kneels at the edge, looks deeply into the Mirror and sees something that makes him “cry out in disbelief.” Before we can find out what that is, that asshole Dorath is back! Somehow he managed to follow Taran, still believing that his quest was for treasure. Because he’s a total dick, he stamps in the Mirror, splashing all the water out of it, and then he attacks Taran. Gurgi tries to defend Taran and is thrown against the cave wall. Dorath and Taran fight, and the ugly sword that Taran made in Hevydd’s forge holds up, shattering the sword that Dorath stole from Taran.

Dorath runs away. Taran patches up the wounded Gurgi and takes him back to Annlaw’s hut. The potter asks Taran what he saw in the mirror. Taran says – ready for this? – he saw himself: “myself and none other. I am Taran.” Seriously? That’s what made him “cry out in disbelief”? I felt so incredibly ripped off when I read this as a child, and I’m afraid my relative maturity doesn’t help much. Taran says there was no enchantment in the Mirror at all; it was just a pool of water, and Orddu must have known that when she sent him on the quest. So now he doesn’t care about finding his parents, because “kinship has naught to do with blood ties,” and having friends is more important. He makes a little speech about how “Llonio said life was a net for luck; to Hevydd the Smith life was a forge; to Dwyvach the Weaver-Woman a loom” and says he has learned from Annlaw that life is also “clay to be shaped.” So Taran plans to shape his own life by heading home to Caer Dallben … and that, my friends, is the end to this fourth installment in the Prydain series!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Taran Wanderer, Chapter 19 – The Potter’s Wheel

The friendly old man invites Taran and Gurgi to come back to his home for some horse brutality – hospitality, that is. Taran offers to carry his buckets of clay for him, but soon finds the yoke unbearably heavy, and the old man has to take it back. When they arrive at his hut, the man pours the clay into a large vat. Upon entering the hut, Taran sees an assortment of beautiful pottery, and he instantly recognizes the craftsmanship from the pieces Lord Gast was bragging about. He tells the man, “If this is your work, I have seen some of it before, and I know you: Annlaw Clay-Shaper.” Wow, what are the odds? The one potter in Prydain we know by name, and Taran ends up at his house.

Taran fanboys to Annlaw that he’s so talented, he’s even heard that the potter uses enchantment to create his wares. Annlaw says there used to be some enchanted implements, but Arawn stole them all, along with some trade secrets that Annlaw would prize higher than magic, if he could get his hands on them. Taran laments that he has no trade, and tells about his brief internships with Hevydd and Dwyvach. Annlaw says, “Have you considered piracy? You’d make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts.” No, actually he says “What of the potter’s wheel?” Taran is game to try. Annlaw demonstrates how to make a bowl of clay, then invites Taran to take a turn at the wheel. Taran practically has an orgasm as soon as he touches the clay. He’s so excited by how fun it is to make a pot that he begs Annlaw to take him on as apprentice. Annlaw, of course, is like, sure, we’ll start tomorrow. I love how no one ever tells Taran, “Forget it kid, hit the road.” They’re very hospitable, these Commot folks.

Much like Hevydd and Dwyvach did, Annlaw makes Taran start from the beginning, learning about finding and sifting the earth, etc., before he finally gets to try the wheel again. This takes all summer, and then throughout autumn Taran practices making vessels. None of them match his expectations, though, and he finally cries, “Is the gift forbidden me?” Annlaw’s response is pretty much, yeah, you’re never going to be a potter. I would protest it would take more than a few months to know that, but apparently Annlaw is the pottery equivalent of a judge on “The Voice.”

Taran is devastated. Annlaw tries to cheer him up by saying he can still stay there and help with various tasks. For instance, he needs someone to carry his wares to Commot Isav, a day’s journey away. Taran agrees to go, but thinks of his happiness as “a flawed vessel shattered in the firing.” Poor kid. He was pretty good at being a smith and a weaver, but didn’t want to be those things, and now he really wants to be a potter, and the master potter is telling him he’ll never be good at it. This is pretty much every artist’s worst fear – that our skills are not equivalent to our passion. And on that downer note, I’m going to go have a beer (it’s St. Patrick’s Day, after all)!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Taran Wanderer, Chapter 18 – The Free Commots

Taran and Gurgi journey on into the Free Commots, where Taran continues to introduce himself only as “Taran Wanderer” and is glad that no one presses him for more information. He finds a smith named Hevydd laboring at his forge, and asks to be taught the craft in exchange for free labor. Hevydd at first says he doesn’t have time, but Taran baits him a little bit – “I’ve heard it said that a man must be a true master of his craft if he would teach it” – and of course Hevydd takes umbrage and demonstrates his art by hammering a perfect blossom out of metal. He then challenges Taran to smooth it out again, and Taran’s attempt, though inexpert, demonstrates that he knows the basics. Hevydd agrees to train Taran, and says they’ll start by making him a sword. Just like Taran wanted Coll to teach him back at the beginning of the series!

Taran finally learns to make a sword!
Taran labors for several days making a sword from beginning to end. When it’s finally done, he’s proud of his work, admiring its shape. But then Hevydd challenges him to strike a wooden block with it. Taran does, and the sword shatters. Womp womp! He has to start all over. After several more attempts, he finishes a sword that’s not nearly as pretty as the first one. But this time, it splits the wooden block in two. Hevydd says, “That's a blade worth bearing.” He invites Taran to stay on as his apprentice, and says he’ll teach him everything he knows. But Taran’s heart is telling him to move on, that this is not his destiny. Hevydd tells him to keep the sword, and bids him farewell, reminding him that life is a forge, shaping and tempering us all. For some reason, I remembered Taran’s time with Hevydd as lasting for a significant portion of the book – maybe because, like the Morda scene, it’s been immortalized in cover art. I was surprised when I got to it this week and saw that it’s only half of one chapter!

Next, Taran visits a weaver named Dwyvach and asks her to teach him the craft of weaving. She calls him “Taran Threadbare” and says that he can start by weaving himself a new cloak. As Hevydd did with the sword, she makes him start at the very beginning, first teasing burrs and thorns out of the wool, then spinning it to thread. Gurgi protests that spinning is woman’s work – what the hell, Gurgi? Now you’re sexist too? – but Dwyvach just snorts that the work doesn’t complain about who does it. After spinning the thread and dyeing it, Taran threads the loom and begins to weave his cloak. After a long day of work, he realizes that he doesn’t like the pattern he picked. Dwyvach says he has a choice: “Either finish a cloak you’ll be ill-content to wear, or unravel it and start anew.” Taran sighs and decides to start over. Once again, he tries over and over before he gets it right, and when he finally does, he decides it’s time to move on. Dwyvach is sad, because she thinks he has the skill to be a great weaver, but she understands the restlessness of a young heart. As they say farewell, she reminds him that life’s patterns are “not so easily unraveled.”

The chapter really should end here, but instead there are asterisks followed by a two-page section that feels kind of tacked-on, in which they journey to the next commot, the fairest one Taran has seen. He feels a “strange excitement” and is certain they should stop there. They see a man digging by a stream, who tells them that they are in Commot Merin, and that’s the end of the chapter. I gotta say, Alexander (and/or his editor) made some odd choices with the chapter breaks in this book. First we had the stay with Llonio split awkwardly over two chapters, and now two commots and the beginning of a third are crammed into one chapter. Oh well. What matters is that we’re very nearly to the climax and the resolution of Taran’s quest!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Taran Wanderer, Chapter 17 – The Weir

Were you waiting with bated breath to find out if Taran goes to the river with Llonio to check his nets? Well, the answer is yes. Yes, he does. Whew, I’m glad that tense cliffhanger is resolved!

Lloyd Alexander taught me about osiers in “The Castle of Llyr,” and in “Taran Wanderer” I learned another new term. Weir means a barrier across a river (in addition to being the surname of the family in “Freaks and Geeks”).

A weir is usually constructed to alter the flow of a river, but in this case, as Taran observes, Llonio has set one up to sift the water and catch things floating in the current. Today he’s caught an old horse’s bridle, which Taran thinks is a piece of crap but Llonio is all excited about. They continue foraging, and find some mushrooms, herbs and roots for dinner. Taran bruises his shins on a large rock and curses his luck, but Llonio points out that the large, flat, smooth stone could be useful, and insists on bearing it home with them.

Taran and Gurgi stay the night with Llonio and his family, and in the morning a sack of wheat is discovered in the weir. They all take turns grinding it into meal, and Llonio urges Taran to stay another night. Taran is happy to do so, and over the next few days, he notices how everything the family needs seems to “appear from nowhere.” Taran says he envies Llonio’s luck, and Llonio winks and says he’ll tell him the secret behind it one day.

Next, Taran uses the large stone he tripped over, along with a second one of the same size and some pieces from the bridle, to fashion a labor-saving windmill to grind wheat for the family. He should change his last name from Wanderer to Engineer! After that achievement, he decides it’s time to move on. As he and Gurgi say goodbye to Llonio, Taran asks about the secret of Llonio’s luck. Llonio is like, duh, I have the same luck as everyone else. To be as lucky as he is, he explains, “You need only sharpen your eyes to see your luck when it comes, and sharpen your wits to use what falls into your hands.” Good advice!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Taran Wanderer, Chapter 16 – Taran Wanderer

Taran is sick with a fever for about two weeks, during which time Gurgi tends to him, and Fflewddur and Kaw return to Craddoc’s cottage. Fflewddur explains that when he got to Caer Dallben, Dallben told him that Taran was not Craddoc’s son, so Fflewddur rode straight back, but got lost and had to shelter from the snowstorms in a cave for a while. Taran beats himself up about his moment of hesitation while Craddoc lay on the ledge, and Fflewddur tries to console him, saying that he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t feel fear: “Count the deed, not the thought.” Taran, who can’t give himself an ounce of credit about this, says he held back not out of fear, but out of shame at being the son of a herdsman. “Now my shame is for myself.”

We jump ahead to the end of winter. Taran has recovered his strength, and Fflewddur says the passes should soon be clear of ice so that they can journey to the Lake of Llunet. Taran, however, has changed his mind and says he wants to give up his quest. He’s disgusted by how badly he wanted to be of noble birth, when those he deemed beneath him – like Craddoc and Aeddan – were the truly noble ones. Fflewddur suggests returning to Caer Dallben, but Taran can’t face Dallben or Coll until he’s learned to stand on his own. He remembers Orddu’s saying that “the robin must scratch for his own worms” and feels like he now understands what that meant. Fflewddur responds with the wonderful observation: “Scratching for worms is unappetizing… But it’s true, everyone should have a skill.” Then he snaps a harp string by praising his own talent as a bard. Poor Fflewddur.

Taran decides he will journey to the Free Commots and try to find an apprenticeship there. Fflewddur has to return to his own kingdom, and Kaw goes with him, but Gurgi once again insists on staying with Taran. They head east the next morning, with Craddoc’s flock tagging along. After several days, they arrive at a farm, with an empty but well-maintained sheep pasture and a river with nets and fishing lines in it. A bunch of children see the sheep and rush out of the farmhouse, laughing and shouting “They’re here!” (not in a Poltergeist-y kind of way, one hopes). Their dad, a skinny man with patched garments, introduces himself to Taran as “Llonio Son of Llonwen.” Taran says his name is “Taran.” Llonio says that’s a pretty short name; who does Taran think he is, Madonna? Taran says he’s a wanderer, and so Llonio dubs him “Taran Wanderer.”

The sheep are put to graze in the pasture, because it turns out, Llonio doesn’t have a flock of his own. Taran is like, why’d you waste your time creating a pasture then, and Llonio says if he hadn’t, Taran wouldn’t be offering him a flock right now, would he? Llonio is the kind of guy who believes in being ready for miracles. He sends his little daughter, Gwenlliant (which is my second favorite name in the series, after Arianllyn), to get an egg from the henhouse. She returns with a single egg, which, when mixed with a number of other ingredients, becomes a cake that feeds the whole family. Taran is blown away by this, which is kind of silly given that he’s been eating an endless supply of lembas and jerky from Gurgi’s magically restocking wallet for several books now. But there you have it. They all eat their fill, and then Llonio says he’s going to check on his nets and invites Taran to come along. Will Taran accept? We’ll have to wait until the next chapter to find out!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Taran Wanderer, Chapter 15 – The Open Cage

Taran, Gurgi and Craddoc finish mending the cottage in time for the first snow of winter. Taran is pleased with his handiwork, in a depressed kind of way. Craddoc says that it is no longer his cottage, but both of theirs. They spend the long winter evenings talking by the fire, but Taran is overcome by emotion and has to stop talking whenever he thinks of Eilonwy. One day, Craddoc remarks that Taran has never called him Father. Taran bites his lip and can’t answer. Craddoc doesn’t press him and just says, “Perhaps … perhaps one day you shall.”

A fierce snowstorm comes, and Taran is reinforcing the cottage windows when Gurgi rushes in, crying for help. Craddoc has fallen into a gorge! When they get there, he’s lying twisted and motionless at the bottom, and Taran has a brief moment of exhilaration that he’s finally free. Then Craddoc moves; he’s still alive! Taran says they can’t leave him to die, but wonders how they can possibly lift him out of the gorge without breaking their own necks in the process. Once again, he thinks that this could be his chance at freedom, if there’s no way of saving Craddoc. Then, furious with himself, he cries, “What man am I?”

He scrambles down the slope, getting stabbed by a sharp rock on the way. Gurgi follows. They free Craddoc from the fallen rocks and carry him between them to the cliff, where there is a narrow passage that leads almost straight up. They try several times to bear Craddoc to the passage but he’s too seriously wounded, and the wind is too strong. Finally Craddoc tells them to leave him and save themselves. Taran replies, “You are my father. I stay.” And then – holy cow, you guys – Craddoc tells him that there is no bond of blood between them. Turns out that Dallben did pass through the valley, but he never took Craddoc’s son away – because the son died, along with his mother, the day he was born. Craddoc says he was ashamed of lying to Taran and hoped that, given the option, Taran would have left with Fflewddur, but Taran chose to stay. He adds that “no father came to love a son more dearly.” Then he falls back and tells Taran again to go.

Taran remembers the Fair Folk horn, and without hesitation, blows the three notes: Hot … Cross … Buns! Then “whirling shadows” come, and he is only half-conscious as a party of dwarves arrives with ropes, rescuing them. He wakes in the cottage, with his chest wound bandaged and Gurgi at his side. Taran asks how Craddoc is, but Gurgi just sadly bows his head. Taran cries out in anguish, as another sad chapter draws to a close.

When I first read this book, at age eleven or so, I remember being absolutely livid with Craddoc for lying to Taran and – although glad that Taran nobly tried to rescue him anyway – even more furious that the battle horn’s single call was wasted, since Craddoc did not survive. As an adult, having enjoyed many morally complex stories with protagonists who lie all the time – “Mad Men,” “Dexter,” and “Breaking Bad,” to name a few – I’m not nearly so outraged at Craddoc’s deception, but I’m still totally bummed about the horn. I wonder, if Taran had remembered it and sounded it before climbing down the cliff himself, would the dwarves have come sooner and been able to save Craddoc’s life? Would Craddoc then have told Taran the truth in gratitude, or would he have been too ashamed? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Taran Wanderer, Chapter 14 – The End of Summer

Fflewddur and Gurgi are joyful that Taran has found his father at last. Taran and Craddoc embrace uncertainly, then sit quietly in thought while the others celebrate late into the night and Fflewddur rings the rafters of the cottage with his exuberant singing and harp music. The next morning, Taran confides in Fflewddur that while he believes Craddoc is telling the truth, he wishes that it weren’t so. He admits to having dreamed that his parents might have had noble lineage, making him worthy of Eilonwy. Craddoc, meanwhile, is all pumped that his son will help him make his crappy farm great again. Taran suggests that instead Craddoc come with them to Caer Dallben, but Craddoc won’t hear of it. He tells Taran to leave if he wants to, but that he himself will stay on his land. Fflewddur’s like, I can see where you get your stubbornness from, dude.

Taran, miserable, feels he has no choice but to stay with Craddoc. He asks Fflewddur to ride to Caer Dallben and tell Dallben and Coll the news, but begs him not to tell Eilonwy: “She and I must never meet again. It were better the Princess forget the shepherd boy, better that all of you forget me.” (Now, I understand he’s brokenhearted and being a bit dramatic here, but why does everyone have to forget him? Is “herdsman’s son” so much worse than Assistant Pig-Keeper?) He even scolds poor Gurgi for calling him “master” – “No master am I, but a low-born churl” – and tells him to leave the valley and go with Fflewddur. Gurgi emphatically refuses; he will stay as Taran, as he promised. Fflewddur himself leaves “with many a backward glance,” to take the news to Dallben.

Taran feels duty-bound to toil for his long-lost father but feels as trapped as he would have been had Morda turned him into a worm. He works his ass off all summer: He mends Craddoc’s cottage, unblocks the spring and makes a stream to water the sheep, even catches himself on fire during a controlled burn of the fields. Craddoc saves him by putting out the flames with his own body, since Taran apparently never learned “stop, drop and roll.” Taran muses that it seems like Craddoc is two people, one he hates and one he loves. And for a spot of comic relief in this otherwise total bummer of a chapter, Gurgi dons a fleece jacket, dubs himself “Assistant Sheep-Keeper” and becomes devoted to tending the sheep, who follow him around worshipfully like he's some kind of cult leader. Baa-Ram-Ewe!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Taran Wanderer, Chapter 12 – The Wager – and Chapter 13 – The Lost Lamb

Happy New Year, folks! Let’s get back into recapping the Prydain series, shall we? Some tough times are ahead for Taran, but we’ll get through them together.

After thwarting Taran’s attempt to sneak off, Dorath alleges that he and his men are owed a fee for feeding and sheltering the companions, and for guiding them to the Lake of Llunet. Taran says they’ll reimburse Dorath's company for the food and shelter, but when it comes to “your protection on our journey, we neither ask it nor want it.” Dorath says that Taran has broken their bargain, and demands Taran’s sword as payment. Taran says no way, the sword was a gift from Dallben and girded on him by Eilonwy. Dorath, scoffing at Taran’s sentimentality, challenges him to an unarmed fight, and the winner will keep the sword. Taran can’t see a way to get out of it, given that the companions are outnumbered, so he agrees.

The two men start fighting. Taran begins to get an advantage, so naturally Dorath cheats, pulling a dagger from his boot. Once again, Taran considers sounding the Fair Folk horn, but instead he uses his cloak to defend against the dagger, ripping it from Dorath’s hand. Dorath cheats again, throwing a handful of dirt and pebbles into Taran’s face. He then kicks Taran in the ribs, laughs at him, and leaves with Taran’s sword. All things considered, I think it’s safe to conclude Dorath is not very nice.

The only cover art to feature Craddoc.
Guess he's not as photogenic as Morda.
Gurgi bandages Taran’s wounds, and the companions ride deeper into the Hill Cantrevs. Taran is smarting from the loss of his sword, but Fflewddur and Gurgi agree he was wise not to play "Hot Cross Buns" and waste the battle horn’s single call. Llyan spots a lost lamb trapped in a bramble bush. Fflewddur distracts by playing his harp, while Gurgi and Taran free the lamb. A scarred, weathered-looking herdsman appears, leaning on a crutch, and says the lamb is his. Taran immediately gives it to him, and the man, who was expecting a fight, is surprised and grateful. He introduces himself as Craddoc and invites the companions to his home to share a meal.

Gurgi carries the lamb, while Taran helps the limping Craddoc up the steep path. They come to his humble cottage, which is full of weeds and showing signs of various half-done repairs. He needs the “House Crashers” TV crew! Taran notices that a spinning wheel, abandoned in a corner, “betokened a woman’s tasks” but that there is clearly no woman living with Craddoc anymore. I can’t tell if it’s Taran or Alexander being sexist here, but either way, why does spinning have to be women’s work? Ah well.

Craddoc says that the land used to be much fairer and that “certain lords” tried to claim it for themselves. He and his friends fought to defend what was theirs. Many of them died, and Craddoc’s leg was maimed, but he was too proud to leave his land and go into service somewhere else. Taran tells Craddoc of his quest to find his parents. Craddoc seems about to respond, then abruptly goes out to check on his sheep. Taran tells Fflewddur he wishes he could help Craddoc, but “he needs more than I can give.”

Craddoc returns and urges the companions to stay the night. They eat some lembas and jerky from Gurgi’s magical wallet, then Craddoc tells a story of another “lost lamb.” Years ago, his wife died in childbirth, and he felt guilty for insisting they stay on the land, instead of taking her somewhere she could have had an easier birth. Her dying wish was for him to take the baby elsewhere, but he was too stubborn. In a few months, his son became sickly, and Craddoc was sure the boy was going to die. Then a passing stranger came along and, with Craddoc’s consent, took the boy away for a chance at a better life. And the stranger’s name… wait for it… was Dallben! Boom! Craddoc is totally Taran’s dad!