“You fool!” he shouted. “You addlepated . . . What have you done? Now both of us are trapped! And you talk about sense! You haven’t . . .”
Eilonwy smiled at him and waited until he ran out of breath. “Now,” she said, “if you’ve quite finished, let me explain something very simple to you. If there’s a tunnel, it has to go someplace. And wherever it goes, there’s a very good chance it will be better than where we are now.”
In 1985, Disney released the film that would nearly signal its death knell, a movie which basically led to the creation of Don Bluth Productions (thank goodness), a movie which only made half as much as it cost and was altogether a disaster, but it was also a movie that sparked my imagination enough to find the source. That movie was The Black Cauldron. Tricked you. The Black Cauldron is book two of Lloyd Alexander’s epic children’s fantasy series, The Chronicles of Prydain. The Book of Three is the start of that journey.
I think we’re all quite well aware of the farm boy trope of Fantasy, and Taran, our protagonist, quite perfectly fits into this rather expected tale. At the start of the adventure, he’s promoted to Assistant Pig Keeper, a title of which he’s actually quite proud by the end of the story, though it chafes a bit for a boy who wants to grow up to be a hero like the stories he’s heard told by the old wizard Dallben, and Coll, Head Pig Keeper. However, the pig Taran assists in the keeping of, Hen Wen, is an oracular pig, and therefore quite important to the forces of good that Taran joins over the course of the book. When Hen Wen is scared away from Caer Dallben, the farm that Taran calls home, he’s forced on a quest to find her to keep her away from the forces of evil, led by King Arawn, Death Lord of Annuvin, and his war lord, the Horned King. On his journey he’s joined by Prince Gwydion (though not for long); a curious creature, Gurgi; a sorceress in training, Princess Eilonwy; a former king turned hapless bard, Fflewddur Fflam; and their reluctant guide, the dwarf Doli. These companions must both save Hen Wen and warn the Children of Don at Caer Dathyll of the impending attack by Arawn’s forces.
If this is sounding somewhat familiar, that’s probably because it is. The characters are exactly what you would expect of them, except, somehow, Alexander’s simple narrative, illustrated by oddly sumptuous language, manages to subvert their development. Taran, though stubbornly stupid through most of the book, is almost recklessly compassionate and finds relatively quickly that being a hero might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Eilonwy is delightfully pragmatic and the most sensible of the group, despite Taran’s obnoxious tendency to use “girl” as an insult throughout. Gurgi, the seemingly cowardly half-man, half-beast, is probably the greatest hero in the end, and Fflewddur and Doli manage to leave impressions far beyond their roles as foolish bard and grumpy dwarf.
As an adult reader, the only real misgiving I had was how conveniently everything falls into place, how easily the characters move from one adventure to the next. Eilonwy’s quote, “If there’s a tunnel, it has to go someplace. And wherever it goes, there’s a very good chance it will be better than where we are now,” seems to apply on more than just the specific level of the story. She might as well be referring to the story itself, actually, and the fact that there’s bound to be a logical progression of events if one merely follows it. Though there’s an oracular pig who tells the future via letter sticks, The Book of Three’s plot is no more complicated than a picture book. However, that’s part of its charm and appeal to younger readers. Because you’re not forced to worry overmuch if our band of heroes will make it to the end, you can, instead, focus on the band of heroes itself. It’s an oddly refreshing quality in a fantasy book.
That said, the worldbuilding is a rich tapestry that one can either revel in or mostly ignore, depending on your reading level. Prydain is absolutely steeped in Welsh mythology, specifically those stories collected in the Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest. I would even hazard the guess that the series has inspired as much of the last thirty years of euro-centric fantasy series as Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. That might be a little bit of a stretch on my part, but the five books of the Chronicles of Prydain (and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising) were some of the most popular and readily available Welsh based children’s fiction in the United States, at the very least. By my own experience, these stories weren’t exactly widespread as folklore outside of these well-regarded and much beloved books.
The Book of Three is not unlike The Hobbit in that it’s a perfect introduction to epic fantasy for younger children. The series spans the entirety of Taran’s youth, including all of his missteps, and his growth from precocious Assistant Pig-Keeper to High King (spoilers!). Throw in a grounding in Welsh mythology and a compelling cast of characters, and you’re in for quite an adventure.
The Book of Three
Written by Lloyd Alexander
Originally published in 1964