Taran’s adventures continue in The Black Cauldron, the second installment of Lloyd Alexander’s the Chronicles of Prydain series. In The Book of Three, first of the series, we learn of Arawn’s fearsome, undead warriors—the cauldron-born—that are brewed from the belly of his huge, black cauldron. Now, in The Black Cauldron it is up to Taran and friends, along with some new companions, to destroy the cauldron and prevent Arawn from growing his army.
It’s hard to tell how much time has transpired between the events in the first novel and the beginning of this one but I assume it is a few months. After returning to their respective abodes (Eilonwy and Gurgi remained at Caer Dallben with Taran), they are rounded up by Prince Gwydion to embark on a quest to steal and destroy the black cauldron. Along with Taran and his friends, Gwydion calls upon various warriors and kings from across the land to congregate at Caer Dallben for a council before embarking on the quest.
They travel to Annuvin, Arawn’s lair in the north, where they believe the cauldron is housed. Taran makes some new friends on the journey such as the poetic Adaon, who is both a warrior and a bard, while gaining the ire of others, specifically Ellidyr, a lowly prince from a small kingdom. While Doli and Fflewddur accompany Gwydion and his company in infiltrating Annuvin, Taran remains without the fortress with Adaon and Ellidyr, serving as rear guard. The plan goes smoothly except there is no cauldron steal. Plus, Eilonwy and Gurgi, who were both left behind at Caer Dallben, pop up unexpectedly and the groups—both front and rear guards—are attacked by Arawn’s ferocious Huntsmen. It’s an unfortunate situation but with Adaon and Doli’s help, Taran and his party are able to escape the Huntsmen and seek refuge at a Fair Folk waypost. They had to part from Gwydion’s party while escaping the Huntsmen.
At the waypost, they learn that the cauldron was stolen by three odd beings—Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch—that reside in the Marshes of Morva. Determined to destroy the cauldron and rid the world of its evil, Taran decides to brave the marshes than travel south to regroup with Gwydion. Ellidyr, whose nasty attitude makes him ill company, breaks from the group to acquire the cauldron on his own. The group continues without him but is attacked by the Huntsmen again, which proves fateful. Those who remain make it to the hut of Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, where they have to trade something of high value to acquire the cauldron. The company also learns that to destroy the cauldron, a person must willingly climb in to it knowing that he will never climb out. Disappointed by this revelation, they decide to carry the cauldron to Dallben to see if he can devise a better solution. But the cauldron doesn’t make it that far. The company is first thwarted by Ellidyr, whose pride drives him to rob them of the cauldron, and then captured by a rogue member of Gwydion’s selected questers. In the end, a sacrifice is made to prevent the spread of the cauldron’s evil influence.
Another great story. Simple and easy to read though a bit predictable. It’s the predictability that sours my enjoyment of this book. Not so much so that I would dislike the story, but enough that I liked it less than I did The Book of Three. First, the various foreshadowing alluding to a potential death, and second, the darkness lurking about Ellidyr waiting to engulf him. Then there’s Ellidyr himself who serves as a foil to Taran. From the moment we meet him riding his high horse we know that he will be pitted against Taran. If this novel was written today and geared more toward teens than middle graders, a love triangle would be included. I’m glad there isn’t one. It’s silly that such things affected my reading experience negatively since they are to be expected, especially since I read the first book, but I couldn’t help being put off by them.
Apart from that, I enjoyed the story because it reminded me of other timeless texts/characters. It’s as if Alexander’s story was calling out to the other texts, praising them for their influence. I couldn’t help thinking of The Hobbit while reading because of the allure of the cauldron, the fact that its possessor can easily lose it, and how it seeks evil and attracts it. The allure of the cauldron, especially when it causes a person’s greed to consume him, reminds me of the power the Ring held over Bilbo and Gollum. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised at the similarities since the stories are influenced by mythologies from northwestern Europe. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series has some Celtic influence and Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain is based in Welsh mythology. Both mythologies are similar and influence each other.
The Hunstmen are familiar as well. They reminded me of the Nazgûl because they are connected to Arawn’s power and have committed themselves (their souls) to him. When a Hunstman dies, his comrades become more powerful and ferocious thus making them all difficult to defeat. It’s not impossible that Alexander read The Hobbit at some point and that certain aspects of the story influenced this one. After all, The Hobbit was published in 1937 and The Book of Three in 1964.
“There is a destiny laid on us to do what we must do, though it is not always given to us to see it.” –Adaon
Another similarity is seen in Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, whom seem to be the oldest beings in Prydain next to Medwyn from The Book of Three (he reminded me of Noah from the Bible when I read his part). Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch are the Fates but are not referred to as such in the story though there are many signs that suggest this. They come across as three silly but powerful old hags but at night when they think no one is watching they turn into beautiful maidens carding, spinning, and weaving wool. There’s also the clue that they live in a marsh called “Morva” and the Fates are sometimes referred to as moirai (or maybe I’m reaching with that one). The appearance of the Fates makes obvious Alexander’s intention for this installment. While the first book touches on responsibility and independence, this one focuses on destiny and fate; more so one’s inability to change one’s fate.
(Spoiler in this paragraph!) This message is hinted at with Adaon’s death. Because of his brooch, he knew he would die if he went into the marshes but he didn’t try to prevent it because that was his fate. I thought it odd that the adult in the group left the decision on how to progress (regroup with Gwydion or pursue the cauldron) to a kid but Adaon did not want to shy away from his fate plus Taran is obviously destined for greater things so this is a necessary lesson I guess. By revealing that everyone, even the evil Arawn, is allowed a chance with the cauldron, the Fates hint at the axiom, “What will be, will be.” It’s an unsettling proverb that. All things have their time and even evil is given a chance though fate doesn’t view things/people in such stark terms.
Next is Ellidyr. Ellidyr craves greatness. Unfortunately his sour attitude and the fact that he’s the last of his line with no inheritance except his name and title makes it difficult for him to acquire what he craves. His pride and want for recognition and greatness manifests into a black beast that haunts him. As Taran’s foil, Ellidyr makes it easy for the reader to see that Taran craves the same things as Ellidyr and to the same extent, though Taran tries to deny this at first. Apart from the sour attitude, the other thing that separates the boys is Ellidyr’s title. It’s that title that makes it seem that Taran’s dreams are impossible. How can a lowly assistant pig keeper ever become a great warrior? However the boys’ fates also distinguish them. Though Ellidyr is of noble birth, he is not destined for material wealth or greatness, as he imagines it. But Taran, who comes from nothing and has nothing, is fated to gain everything.
“You chose to be a hero not through enchantment but through your own manhood.” –Gwydion
Of course, I don’t know that for sure. After all, I am only on book two of the series. But judging how he is treated by nobles such as Gwydion and Morgant King of Madoc and that he is raised by Dallben, it can be inferred that this kid has big shit coming. Anyways, good book and I highly recommend the series. I have way more to say—stuff on how good intentions sometimes lead to corruption and how annoying Eilonwy is but I admire her efforts to speak out against the male dominance of her world—but this reflection is already very long. It’s a quick read though so you can pick it up to read over the Christmas holiday.
Quotes from the book:
“There is much to be known…and above all much to be loved, be it the turn of the seasons or the shape of a river pebble. Indeed, the more we find to love, the more we add to the measure of our hearts.” –Adaon
“There is truth in all things, if you understand them well.” – Adaon
“You should know there is adventure in simply being among those we love and the things we love, and beauty, too.” –Adaon
“It is easy to judge evil unmixed…But, alas, in most of us good and bad are closely woven as the threads on a loom.” –Gwydion