Another adventure in the Chronicles of Prydain series. This time, Taran embarks on a quest to discover who he is and where he’s from.
This installment picks up shortly after The Castle of Llyr. Eilonwy is still on the Isle of Mona learning to be a lady but Taran is back at Caer Dallben. He misses Eilonwy and wants to be worthy of her hand so he begins to inquire about his origins. He first sets out for the Marshes of Morva because who better to tell him who he is if not Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch.
But lack of a fair trade leaves Taran more puzzled about his origins than before. The witches try to help by telling him of another way he can get the answers he wants. Apparently, there is a magic mirror in the Free Commots, a land in where people govern themselves, that could possibly give Taran the answers he seeks. Taran and Gurgi set off for the magic mirror and have several adventures along the way. They traverse King Smoit’s land for some time, where they find Fflewddur, who decides to accompany them on their quest since he’s not yet ready to return to his own lands. While in King Smoit’s kingdom, Taran helps him resolve a grievance between two troublesome lords that almost lead to war. Taran’s show of wisdom makes King Smoit respect him even more.
After leaving King Smoit’s land, they find Doli, who was unfortunately turned into a frog by an evil wizard. The wizard draws his power from a gem that belonged to Eilonwy’s mother, who received it as a wedding gift from the Fair Folk. With the help of his friends, Taran wrests the gem from the wizard and returns it to the Fairfolk, which make them indebted to him. From that entanglement, they fall into another when they run into Dorath, a sellsword and thief who reminded me of a pirate the entire time I read. Taran and his friends barely escaped unscathed.
After a break from his quest during which he learned about the value of family, Taran finally makes it to the Free Commots, where he picks up various skills, faces who he is, and accepts his identity.
My thoughts: (spoilers)
This one was okay. I guess I loved it upon completing it because back then (early June) I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads and placed it on my Favorites list, but now that I’ve calmed down, I dropped it to 4 stars and removed it from my Favorites.
“If I do find pride, I’ll not find it in what I was or what I am, but what I may become. Not in my birth, but in myself.”
The story is good. It is an improvement from The Castle of Llyr, which is probably why I rated it so high after completing it. I guess it is worth such a high score because Taran improves in this installment and we get a glimpse at the kind of leader he will become. But I was disappointed that we do not learn his origin. Sure it’s great and jolly that he accepts himself, faults and all, but I really wanted to know who his parents were and if they’re still alive and what part of the kingdom is he from and why they gave him up in the first place. I guess it doesn’t matter but since the beginning of the series, I’ve wanted to know. Why couldn’t Dallben just tell him? Anyways, this is becoming too ranty.
Apart from Taran’s adventures, I like that Alexander allowed Taran to find his own way in this installment. In the previous books, Taran is accompanied by an adult for part of his adventures, usually at the beginning. The adult’s function is to offer guidance and advice that will help Taran later when he’s placed in a tough situation. The adult — Gwydion or Adaon — stands apart from other older characters Taran encounters, such as Fflewddur, because they’re leaders that Taran reveres. Not that Taran does not respect Fflewddur, but it seems that Fflewddur is presented more as Taran’s equal when compared to Gwydion or Adaon. Also, whenever such adults are included in the story, you can hear the adult speaking through them to advise Taran. I often view them as Alexander placing himself in the story to help Taran along but in this installment, Taran has only the wisdom he has gained to guide him along.
For the majority of the quest, Taran is accompanied by only Gurgi. I think Alexander nicked Fflewddur from much of the adventure to be fair to Taran that he truly finds his own way (and also to keep the focus on Taran’s struggle). However, helpful adult figures aren’t totally removed from the story. Instead of having an adult to lead him, he receives teachers to instruct him instead. And I appreciate this change, especially since identity is of utmost importance. Although we may admire many figures, it’s those who we look to for instruction who influence how we interpret the world and see ourselves in it. When Taran reaches the Free Commots, he becomes an apprentice to various skill masters. Along with teaching him a skill, each master passes on their metaphor for what life is. They help Taran to better navigate his own life.
I also like that he gets to spend time with the common folk. I believe that Taran will become king of something in the next installment since that one’s titled The High King and from the start of the series Taran has been much respected by high officials throughout Prydain though he’s just an pig-keeper, an assistant pig-keeper at that, and has been given much responsibilities. It’s good that he gets to know the people he will someday govern, as well as the rapscallions who will try to undermine his rule.
Another positive for this installment is how relatable Taran has become. I couldn’t help sympathizing with Taran as he questions his existence and his identity. How can you define yourself if you don’t know from where you’ve come? When Taran finds the magic mirror, he’s solaced by an answer that suits him. I wish it had suited me too because I was none too happy with that resolution (as I’ve stated above) but outside the story, I do agree. Instead of agonizing about his origin, Taran sees himself as he truly is, accepts it, and looks forward to who he will become.
“True kinship has naught to do with blood ties, however strong they may be. I think we are all kin, brothers and sisters one to the other, all children of all parents.”
Another aspect of Taran that I found relatable is when he realizes that what he says he’s searching for wasn’t what he hoped to find. With this quest, Taran intended to find his family and learn who he is but when he found a family—Craddoc—he’s upset because it’s not how he wanted to be defined. As we know from the previous books, Taran longs to be of nobility but to learn that he’s just a peasant was a disappointment. I sympathized with him there as well, especially when he felt trapped by his discovery (well, he felt trapped by who his father is but I read it as him being trapped by the knowledge). Ah, to seek and find what you’re looking for only to realize you don’t want it and wish you didn’t know about it. Still, Taran has grown much because if it was me who was tricked and made to work on some dude’s land to fulfill his selfish deeds, I’d want to kill him again if he died before I could knock him out. Just saying.
I enjoyed the flow of the story, Taran’s character development, and all the little adventures Taran finds himself in. The side characters are enjoyable though they are one-dimensional but I doubt that will sour anyone’s enjoyment. It’s a simple story and a quick read and even if you are an adult reading this middle-grade novel, you too can benefit from the lessons Taran learns.
Quotes from the book:
“…the further from the deed, the greater it grows, and the most glorious battle is the one longest past. So it’s hardly surprising how many heroes you run into.”
“You need only sharpen your eyes to see your luck when it comes, and sharpen your wits to use what falls into your hands…Trust your luck, Taran Wanderer. But don’t forget to put out your nets.”
“Life is a forge! Yes, and hammer and anvil, too! You’ll be roasted, smelted, and pounded, and you’ll scarce know what’s happening to you. But stand boldly to it! Metal’s worthless till it’s shaped and tempered.”
“Face the pounding; don’t fear the proving; and you’ll stand well against any hammer and anvil.”
“[Life is] a loom, rather, where lives and days intertwine; and wise he is who can learn to see the pattern.”
“Stale water is a poor drink. Stale skill is worse. And the man who walks in his own footsteps only ends where he began.”