February 14, 2004

The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander

The plot of this, the second of the Chronicles of Prydain, is simple. Arawn, Dark Lord of Annuvin, has a black cauldron which he uses to turn the bodies of his slain enemies into deathless, fearless, pitiless warriors known as the Cauldron-Born. Recently he's been gone even farther--he's been sending his servants out to catch and slay the living, and bring their corpses back to Annuvin and the cauldron. This clearly cannot be allowed to continue, and so Gwydion Prince of Don plans to steal the cauldron and destroy it, gathering a team of men to help him--a team that includes our hero Taran of Caer Dallben and his friends. And naturally, it's Taran who will succeed (with the help of his friends) in finding the cauldron.

So much for the plot. As with the previous volume, the real story is the story of Taran's own moral growth, the mistakes he makes, the lessons he learns, and the hard choices he makes. And most of the characters in the book are there as moral exemplars of one kind or another.

Several of the characters return from the previous book. Gwydion, Prince of Don, represents the ideal man--that which Taran most admires. Princess Eilonwy, with her matter-of-fact analysis and her resourcefulness, is common sense. Fflewddur Fflam, whose accomplishments so often fall short of the desires of his great heart, represents perseverance in the face of human frailty.

But it's the new characters who provide most of the interest. Ellidyr, youngest son of the King of Pen-Llarcau, is haughty, thirsty for honor, and hag-ridden by envious pride, and not much older than Taran. Taran and Ellidyr clash badly at their first meeting, and at regular intervals thereafter--and the conflict forces Taran to confront his own pride and thirst for honor.

And then there's King Morgant, who stands to Gwydion much as Ellidyr stands to Taran, except that he's older, wiser, and sneakier, and knows how to bide his time.

But the book isn't entirely, or even mostly, filled with somber morality and growthfulness. It's also graced by considerable good humor, and nowhere more than in Taran and Co.'s encounter with Orrdu, Orwen, and Orgoch, as merry (and terrifying) a group of Fates as I've yet seen. I'd completely forgotten how much fun they were.

Posted by Will Duquette at February 14, 2004 08:25 PM