It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Mea culpa.
Taran longs to be a hero, but he seems destined to be merely an Assistant Pig-Keeper. However, even that’s a pretty big responsibility when the pig in question can tell the future, and when the evil Horned King, agent of the Death Lord Arawn, has his eye on her. With a ragtag bunch of companions, including the spirited Princess Eilonwy, the bumbling bard Fflewddur Flam, the loyal beast of indeterminate species Gurgi, the grumpy dwarf Doli, and more, Taran must fight first the Horned King, then Arawn himself – and discover who he is and what he really wants to be in the process.
My first exposure to Prydain was while leafing through The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters, an enormous and wonderful book by John Grant. Although Grant was complimentary towards Disney’s 80s flop The Black Cauldron, an amalgam of the first two Prydain books, he did admit that it couldn’t hold a candle to the books. I saw the movie a couple of years later, and it was pretty dreadful, but I was assured by pretty much everyone that the books were wonderful, fantastic, some of the best fantasy ever, on par with Tolkien and Lewis, etc, etc, etc.
When I finally got around to reading The Book of Three (the first book, followed by The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King, I was…disappointed. It was…well, kind of boring. Not much really happened, the protagonist was unlikable, and the end was deeply anticlimactic. It took me another few years (God, I’m old) to get around to reading the rest of the series, and I’m sorry to say my reaction is about the same. I really wanted to love The Chronicles of Prydain, but…well, let’s take a look.
First off, Taran is, as I mentioned, completely unlikeable for the first two books, and completely forgettable for the last, with sort of a transition period in the third and fourth where he is by turns both unlikeable and forgettable. He’s your typical orphan boy raised on a farm by a mysterious sage but full of dreams of glory – pretty standard in fantasy. Of course, this standard was somewhat less standard when Alexander was writing, so I’m not going to blame him for the fact that countless writers have followed in his footsteps. However, Taran is also whiny, selfish, and stupidly impetuous. He spends pretty much all his time in the first couple of books insulting people, flying off the handle, and spouting elaborate speeches that sound like he memorized them out of ballads, particularly since no one else in the series talks like that. As he grows to manhood, he loses those qualities (for the most part – not entirely), but since those were his only qualities, he ends up as something of a nonentity.
Then there’s the climax problem. See, early in his adventure Taran teams up with Prince Gwydion, the most celebrated hero in Prydain, but due to a complicated series of circumstances, when they are separated, Taran (and the reader) believes Gwydion dead. When Taran finally comes up against the Horned King, he tries to fight him with an enchanted sword he’s been repeatedly told not to touch. It burns his hand when he tries to draw it and leaves him barely conscious, totally at the Horned King’s mercy – until Gwydion arrives, an army behind him, to defeat the Horned King by the expedient method of saying his secret name. Gwydion then tells us he was totally fine this whole time, that he escaped via a rather vague method that involved him learning all the secrets of the universe through meditation, or something, and that even though Taran and his companions were wandering pathetically around all this time and accomplishing nothing, it’s cool, Gwydion took care of both his own and Taran’s missions. So the hero is semi-conscious during the climax, the villain is defeated by someone else’s hand, and it turns out nothing the hero did during the entire book mattered. Are you kidding me, Lloyd?
The second and third books also end with someone else saving Taran’s bacon and defeating the bad guy, usually working in concert with Gwydion, which is why I got into the habit of looking up from the last chapter of each book and exclaiming “Gwydion ruins everything!” In the fourth book, Taran does actually face off against the villain – but after the villain’s sword breaks, he runs away, only to be eaten by wolves in the last book. Seek your narrative unity elsewhere, Aristotelians! And even when Taran faces Arawn himself in the last book, there’s a sense of anticlimax to it all – Taran stumbles upon the magic sword they’ve been seeking all book long, the one that knocked him out in the first book, and it basically does all the work with two sword thrusts. There was no moment of catharsis anywhere.
On the other hand, there were some very good aspects to the series as well. First and foremost in that category is Eilonwy. She’s smart, tough, and far more capable than Taran pretty much throughout the entire series, and yet she feels far more genuine than he does. She’s a princess, yes, and a budding enchantress, but more important she’s spirited and brave. I completely adored her, and thus was disappointed by the relatively small, passive role she plays in the third book, her absence from the fourth, and the end of her story in the fifth. She gives up her magic so she can stay with Taran, which is fine, but the wise old enchanted who raised Taran then declares: “Yet you shall always keep the magic and mystery all women share. And I fear that Taran, like all men, shall be often baffled by it.” At which point I lifted my head, tear-streaked from the moving end of the series, and said “Oh, Lloyd, you broke your book!” Still, when weighing the series as a whole, Eilonwy is pretty spectacular.
The other supporting characters (minus Gwydion) are pretty great, too. I loved Gurgi and Flewddur, and found myself unexpectedly sobbing when characters I’d hated at their introduction died. The language is beautiful and the world building is excellent. If The Chronicles of Prydain had a different story and a different hero, they’d be perfect.
In the end, The Chronicles of Prydain get three and a half cupcakes. A respectable enough showing, but I expected more from a legend. Oh, well. They can’t all live up to the hype, can they?