Some thoughts on “The Book Of Three” and “The Black Cauldron”

So recently I picked up a used set of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain cycle. I’d loved them as a kid, and found them to still have something to say to me when I re-read them in my early twenties, unlike Narnia. I wanted to find out if they still worked at the age of forty-mumble.

I had to stop halfway through The Book Of Three (the first one) to marvel at how dense it was. In something like three pages, Alexander manages to establish that Taran is a young man of uncertain parentage, living a boring life and longing for Adventure; by the end of the first chapter a mere ten pages, we’ve gotten a brief lecture on the fantasy-Wales he lives in, been warned of the dark spectre of war looming over it, and seen him rudely kicked out of his boring, safe life to chase down an oracular pig in the middle of war. The whole thing moves at what feels like a breakneck pace compared to the adult fantasy and sf I’ve been reading lately and yet it never feels rushed; it just has absolutely no fat on its narrative bones. But it has a lot of muscle and sinew. I have this suspicion there may have been like a half dozen drafts of this that got shorter and shorter, resulting in this this astoundingly potent book. There’s not a single excess word.

Overall the theme I really resonated with in Three that I didn’t really notice beforehand was the longing for home. In the middle of his quest, Taran briefly grapples with starting to miss the safe, boring existence he had before the story started, and this comes up again when he returns home with a few new friends. I was still living with my mother when I last read these books; now, I’ve lived away from the city I grew up in for nearly half my life, both parents are gone, and I’m thinking of moving back there for a few years to sort some things out in my head, and to remind my body of the downsides of living in the tropics after fifteen years of living in places that have Actual Winter. I sighed at Taran’s youthful desire for Adventure! right alongside the older ex-warriors who shook their heads, and knew they could do as little to dissuade him from that path as their elders could in their youth.

Today I went to the park with my hammock and The Black Cauldron (the second book) and sat in one of them reading the other.

Cauldron not as amazingly lean as The Book Of Three; it kinda feels like it wanders here and there, though I’m not sure I could put my finger on where given how intricately each chapter dovetails into the overall structure of the book.

I am really impressed with the dance Alexander had to do with regards to Prince Ellidir, so that the reader is okay with his noble self-sacrifice at the climax of the book. He’s got to make him distasteful enough that nobody’s really sad that he’s gone, but make it clear that he’s distasteful for pretty sad reasons.

I do find it interesting that his Noble Self-Sacrifice did not act on me like such a thing normally does; I’m usually a sucker for that, but I read it without any real emotion. I knew it was coming what with having read the book before, but I don’t think that was the whole of it – maybe this book could have done with something more to make Ellidir a little more sympathetic somewhere along the line? Or maybe it’s just a no-holds-barred tragedy. Behold, o faithful reader, the tragedy of Prince Ellidir, a man driven by envy, fear, and the need to live up to the expectations of his rich-ass parents. Watch what lows he will sink to for the satisfaction of those needs, cheer for his heel-face turn at the last possible moment but know that he wouldn’t have needed to perform his Heroic Ultimate Sacrifice if he hadn’t been such a jerk. Close with a happy ending for reader-standin Taran and his friends, with a reminder that this whole book is about how little honor and glory there is to be found in war – Taran seems to have learnt this lesson, have you, Dear Reader?

(Alexander set things up so that someone was going to have to climb into the Cauldron to destroy it [at the price of their life, and they have to know exactly what’s going to happen too] sooner or later. From a cold plot-weaving viewpoint this is the entire reason Ellidir exists in the narrative.)

Still, it’s impressive how few punches Alexander pulls in this series. In book 1 he is quite explicit that the dark lord Arawn is at *war*, we see people getting stuck in cages and burnt as soon as chapter 3 or 4 of that one. He doesn’t dwell on the horrors of war but every single adult is quite emphatic that there is little honor or glory to be found in it. This book carries that theme more strongly; multiple adults reiterate that, and Ellidir’s major obsession is Attaining Honor And Glory At Any Price. Even if he has to act extremely dishonorably to do so.

(According to Wikipedia, he served in WWII out of a desire for Adventure, but never saw any action – he ended up being a staff sergeant in the counterintelligence division.)

The one thing that keeps sticking in my craw about these books is how much of a cipher Princess Eilonwy is. There’s a moment in the beginning of Cauldron where Taran has received his first sword, and runs to her to ask her to ceremonially put it on her “because she’s the only girl in Caer Dallben”. Which she rightly takes offense at, because this is definitely a story about boys doing boy things and dreaming of doing man things. I am pretty sure Alexander realized this, though, because the next book focused on her as a main character…

(Also I cannot spell “Prydain” without checking on the books. I keep wanting to spell it “Prydian”. I am pretty sure this is due to the fact that my English-speaking brain has no earthly idea how to spell the pseudo-Welsh used for the names of everything rather than due to Them editing history.)

  1. Back when Disney had the rights to The Lord of the Rings, they produced The Black Cauldron as a way of testing the waters for an animated heroic fantasy. It was not well received, because they did such a vapid second-rate job on it, botching the story and its presentation.

    It’s a shame, ’cause they could have done wonders with LOTR—but considering the questionable value of things the studio produced during that period, it’s probably good they did not make the attempt. (But could they really have done any worse than Bakshi?)

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