In The High King, Lloyd Alexander drew his five volume children’s fantasy to a magnificent end, bringing together nearly every character with a speaking part in previous books for a final confrontation between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. Doom stalks over nearly page, and for the first time, as if to let us know that things are very very serious, Alexander starts killing off characters. Just the minor ones, but still, the death of characters from previous books—and characters decidedly on the good side—ups the stakes immediately for Taran and his companions, giving an added emotional depth. That depth is echoed in the language, which is less lighthearted, and more, for want of a better word, “mythic.”
Not that things start off on quite this high or exciting a note. Taran is returning home (from his travels in Taran Wanderer) when he hears that Eilonwy is also headed there. He and Gurgi forget how tired they are and rush home for a joyful reunion. Not incidentally, Eilonwy’s Princess Training classes appear to have taught her nothing except for How to Do Bad Embroidery and Wow, Ladies in Waiting Are Awful, convincing me that the only real point of her whole princess training was to get her out of Taran’s way for a book, with negative results for her future, which apparently will be including a lot of Ladies in Waiting and Bad Embroidery, but I digress.
Taran, having finally figured out that Eilonwy is really not going to care who his parents are, finally starts to ask her to marry him—only to be interrupted by the dramatic entrance of Fflewddur Fflam and a badly wounded Gwydion. Living in a mythic world certainly has its disadvantages. Gwydion has bad news, apart from his wound: the end times are upon them, and they need to summon the armies of Prydain for one final battle against Arawn, Death-Lord, who in this book has picked up the inconvenient habit of disguising himself as one or another of the characters. In appearances only; Arawn is not a very good actor. Still, it’s enough to add another touch of fear to the book, and the characters are soon off running around Prydain to gather up the armies, taking a moment to free the kingdom of King Smoit from Magg, the former Chief Steward and Relatively Minor Villain now turned Serious Bad Guy, and gather up nearly every person who helped teach Taran useful things in the various books. And at least one character who didn’t teach Taran much at all: Glew, still whining about the selfishness of everyone else even after he nearly gets everyone else killed.
As it turns out their plan to summon the armies of Prydain against Arawn has one tiny, tiny little flaw: one of the main war leaders, King Pryderi, is convinced that while Arawn might be evil, he can also end the endless wars throughout the land, and therefore switched sides. This is a bit of an inconvenience, especially since Pryderi has the Cauldron-Born behind him, and is easily able to conquer the main castle. On the other hand, they have one tiny, tiny, advantage: the evil enchantress Achren wants Arawn dead even more than they do, and if they can trust her, she might be able to help. Also, they have a prophecy (nice to remind us just why Hen Wen is important) but like all prophecies, it’s of fairly limited use until the events it prophesizes are mostly over.
For the first time in the series, we get a point of view that isn’t Taran’s: Eilonwy. But somehow Eilonwy in her point of view chapters doesn’t quite feel like Eilonwy, oddly enough. She’s still brave enough, and direct enough, but she seems less inclined to chatter, and somehow more tactful. Or perhaps this is Alexander’s way of letting us know that Eilonwy only babbles and chatters when she’s around Taran; something about that young man has an effect on her. I don’t know. And to be fair, Eilonwy becomes quieter later in the book in a Taran viewpoint chapter, although her silence there stems more from grief than any real character change.
From a plot perspective, however, Eilonwy’s chapters definitely help, replacing tedious “here we are just waiting in the dungeons” with “here we are rescuing people from the dungeons.” And it helps bring us a book filled with Eilonwy awesomeness. Eilonwy spends most of the book properly attired as a warrior; she even joins the battle more than once, a decision which I, if not Taran, thoroughly approve of, even if this is not exactly Princess-like by Prydain standards.
We also get a chapter from the point of view of Kaw, the crow, that serves a similar purpose, warning us that the more intelligent animals can and will be involved in the final battle. On the one hand, this kind of robs their sudden appearance of any real suspense; on the other hand, this also allows the plot to avoid any “and the animals showed up how exactly?” bits, particularly important when the wolves pull off an otherwise improbable rescue. Well, it’s still improbable, but it helps that they are getting some guidance from a wizard.
For a book focused on the ultimate battle between good and evil, this is a very anti-war book, probably reflecting Alexander’s not very positive feelings about his days in the U.S. Army. Battle scenes are relatively few and far between, and most of the characters spend their days trampling about rather miserably, wishing they were home tending their farms. Another battle has a strong hint of “run away, run away!” One major battle is avoided through a neat trick of magical engineering, and another character drives off the forces of evil through a display of magic and fire, not brute force. I can’t help but feel that this is Alexander projecting a bit here.
I don’t think it will be too much of a surprise to learn that yes, yes, Taran and his friends end up destroying Arawn, if not, as Gwydion points out rather cynically, all evil. (Gwydion, who has lived rather longer than Taran, has come to the difficult to disagree with conclusion that as long as humans are around, evil is around.) What does come as more of a surprise: the chapters following the climactic battle, where Taran is given the chance to head to the Summer Country with Eilonwy, an enchanted land of happiness where he can live forever with his friends. Taran, after a meeting with Orddu, Orwen and Orgoch (who are now looking much better), and some deep thought, decides to remain in Prydain to help with the rebuilding effort. Choosing to do farm and craft work earns him a sudden, unexpected (to Taran) elevation to the rank of High King of Prydain.
This scene certainly has an element of “the best leaders are those who don’t want to lead” to it, but has another element as well. Only after this little announcement does Dallban reveal another secret: neither he nor anyone else knows who Taran’s parents were. Taran’s parents might have been noble, or might have been peasants. The mystery of the series remains just that: a mystery.
This is a strikingly modern touch. Certainly, fairy tales had their share of peasants become kings or queens through various magical means—golden geese, fairies, good and virtuous behavior as so on. But these peasants all knew exactly who their parents were: peasants. Children of unknown parentage, on the other hand, were almost always revealed to be (in story and song!) of aristocratic parents. In many stories, this even explains just how these unknown orphans miraculously displayed courtly, polite behavior: it was in their blood. In some Italian versions, the peasants request additional magical assistance after becoming aristocrats just so that their peasant origins won’t be quite as obvious.
Taran has certainly received magical assistance of one sort or another through the various books, and the first book rather strongly hinted that he does not have a trace of royal blood. This is not, as others note, necessarily a barrier—and his children can certainly claim royal descent through Eilonwy. So in that sense, he fits the fairy tale model of a peasant becoming a prince or a king. But in the other sense—that of the orphan trying to find out who, exactly, he is—Taran breaks the fairy tale mold quite strongly. And his elevation to the aristocracy comes from a desire to do hard, physical, blue collar labor—not through finding a magical item, helping a fairy, or marrying a princess. Eilonwy decides to stay with him only after he’s earned the kingship in his own right.
Taran is hardly the only or the first mythical or fairy tale hero to gain something through work, but he may be the first to embrace manual labor and get elevated immediately to an executive position. Shades of understanding the importance of labor, especially in a peacetime market, but also, perhaps shades of wish fulfillment from Alexander, who had not exactly succeeded in a traditional career path—but was now succeeding in a less traditional one, having entered it in a less traditional way.
The High King offers another departure from many fairy tales: Taran and Eilonwy only get a partly happy ending. Oh, they are married and the new rulers of the land, but they are also exiled from their closest friends, and will not able to sail to the land of eternal youth and happiness. Reading this now, I was strongly struck by the contrast between this book and the end of Lord of the Rings, where Sam, too, does not get to join Frodo and the Elves—but where Sam gets to jump on a ship later and finally reach Tol Eressea. Taran and Eilonwy get no such chance. Then again, in his letters Tolkien noted that the lands of the West are free of death only for immortals, like the Elves; Bilbo, Frodo and Sam will all eventually die. Taran, born mortal, would not.
However I do have a quibble. The prophecy is quite specific: the High King “would be one of no station in life.” That certainly applies to Taran as a baby. But since then, he’s gained two and arguably three stations: that of Assistant Pig-Keeper (as the books keep reminding us) and as a Wanderer and Hero, with the name of Taran of Caer Dallben. Assistant Pig-Keeper may not be much of a station, but it’s something, and the rest is something more. If he once lacked a station, it certainly is no longer true. If the need was just for an orphan boy of uncertain parentage who could grow into a hero…well, the prophecy certainly didn’t have to be about Taran.
As I said, quibble. And if I don’t know if The High King is the best of the series—certainly better than The Castle of Llyr, not quite up to the humor of The Book of Three or The Black Cauldron, not quite with the same emotional depth as Taran Wanderer—it does make a fitting end for a grand adventure.
Mari Ness lives with two cats, who have decided that her proper station in life is to be their cat furniture.