Sep 26 2013 5:00pm

A Bumpy Road to Princess Training: The Castle of Llyr

Lloyd Alexander Chronicles of Prydain Castle of LlyrAs Lloyd Alexander’s The Castle of Llyr opens, Dallben has decided to send the young Eilonwy off for some princess training. This is all well before Disney Princesses when for an outrageous sum small girls can be transformed into princesses within an hour or two, meaning that this princess training requires that Eilonwy leave Dallben’s home for the Isle of Mona, where she will learn Princess Stuff from Queen Teleria.

Given that the last attempt to train Eilonwy went rather badly, and given the rest of Eilonwy’s history so far, I think she would be better off with some enchantress training or some adventurer training or some sword training, not to mention that it’s not clear why Dallben can’t give Eilonwy and Taran some mutual lessons in Royal manners. Or have Gwydion and Fflewddur give some nice lectures about Royal courts. Especially since Eilonwy, unlike other characters I could name, has always had decent enough manners and shown a certain grasp of correct behavior. However, Dallben notes that Eilonwy has—gasp—skinned knees, a torn robe and unshod feet right at the moment, which is not exactly princess-like, so it’s Off to Court she goes.

Knowing that the separation will be upsetting to both, and that telephones and regular mail service don’t seem to be a Thing here, Dallben allows Taran and Gurgi to accompany Eilonwy to Mona. I would think that they could just say goodbye at Caer Dallben, which might even be less painful, but this does given them a few more days together and helps further the plot. It also means that most of the book ends up focusing on Taran, not Eilonwy.

The Chronicles of Prydain is, of course, Taran’s story, not Eilonwy’s. But it’s mildly annoying to have a book starting out with a promise—in the author’s note no less—to focus on the heroine, assuring us that what happens to her is at least as important as what happens to Taran—only to then have the heroine vanish for most of the book, and not know who she is half the time when she is in the book. Auugh. Eilonwy deserves better than this.

Anyway. As might be expected by now, their journey is not without assorted incidents, many of them sparked by Prince Rhun, a well meaning but not particularly intelligent young prince. Taran is almost immediately jealous of Rhun, partly because the prince was born to noble rank and knows who his parents are, and has not exactly had a difficult life; partly because the more clear headed Eilonwy thinks—and even tells Taran—that Rhun is quite nice, and can’t help it that he was born a prince. Things don’t improve when they reach Mona, where Taran finds out that Rhun’s parents plan to have Eilonwy and Rhun marry. After all, she is a princess, and he is a prince; it’s all very proper, and Eilonwy should be married to someone of proper rank, not an Assistant Pig-Keeper. Taran is very depressed.

Aside: the Assistant Pig-Keeper was all quite amusing in the first two books, but here it seems more than a bit wearisome. I get that Taran, of course, would be very worried about his heritage in a land where heritage is very important, where to an extent a character’s destiny is determined by parentage and rank. He’s not the only person concerned by this: Rhun is worried that he can’t live up to his role of prince; Fllewddur Fllam is still avoiding Being a King; and Eilonwy, for all her acceptance of Dallban’s dictates, protests the very concept.

But these three all more or less accept their roles. Taran angsts about his, since Assistant Pig-Keepers can’t marry princesses. Fair enough, but by this time, Taran’s hardly an Assistant Pig-Keeper anymore, is he? At least in the first book his various adventures could more or less be described as “caring” for the pig, in the sense that he was running through the countryside after the pig. And of course the main point of that book was to show that Taran’s various attempts to be brave all went badly, and the real heroes—or at least the useful heroes—were all of the other characters. But in the second book, Taran did become a hero. It seems to me that his title could be upgraded. Or at least reflect what he’s actually doing, since taking care of the pig hasn’t been a large part of this for awhile.

Anyway. Taran soon realizes that they all have much larger problems, notably, a plot to harm Eilonwy. This serves both to introduce new villain Magg, who also works to warn Taran about the evils of social climbing (Taran doesn’t quite get the message) and bring back the lovely, malevolent Achren, still determined to take over the world. Saving Eilonwy also involves encountering a Large Cat and a misunderstood giant determined to blame everyone else for his problems—and very apologetic about really needing to kill someone to solve said problems. He’s also hurt that his victims are too self-centered to volunteer to die to help him out of his self-created issues. It’s all very hilariously tragic.

Still, The Castle of Llyr feels like a filler book, something written to allow Eilonwy to be carefully removed from the main plot to allow more of a focus on Taran. (Indeed, this is more or less exactly what happens in the next book.) Very little seems to change from the book’s first chapters, where Eilonwy agrees to be trained as a princess, to the last chapters, where Eilonwy agrees to be trained as a princess. Oh, certainly, Achren is defeated, but since she was defeated in a previous book, this lacks something, and Eilonwy burns a book of dangerous spells, thus denying herself the ability to use them later, but since Eilonwy’s enchantment skills were already limited, and she showed little interest in developing them, this, too, lacks something. If Eilonwy had dreamed of being a powerful enchantress, her decision to turn away from powerful spellcasting and evil might have meant something. As it is, it simply leaves her unchanged.

The only character who changes at all is Rhun, who changes from a not-particularly-skilled-or-intelligent prince desperate to earn recognition from his parents and peers as a real prince, to...not caring about that recognition nearly as much. It’s good to see at least some development given to a character who otherwise would be nothing but a plot device, there to make Taran jealous and to move the plot along by speaking or acting without thought, and Rhun is a fun, entertaining character. I suppose Achren, in losing her powers, gives up something as well, but since she is still alive and resentful at the book’s end, nothing really seems to be stopping her from regaining said powers. Gurgi is Gurgi and Fflewddur Fflam is Fflewddur Fflam. Taran goes from liking Eilonwy very much to liking Eilonwy very much. You get the picture.

Fortunately, The Castle of Llyr still has its magical moments. Gurgi and Fllewddur are as amusing as ever; Gwydion as gravely heroic; and the bits with the giant and the giant cat are hilarious. I’d probably enjoy this book much more if it weren’t bracketed by better ones.

Mari Ness knows a little something about Princess Training, since she happens to live next door to Real Live Disney Princesses who wear Real Live Plastic Tiaras.

Devin Singer
1. DevinSinger
Llyr annoys me mostly because it highlights a facet of the series that I'd really prefer to overlook - namely, that Prydain contains two young women. (Only one of whom ever appears on-screen - the other is a vehicle for pathos.) All the others are at least middle-aged and almost all of them are stupid, evil, or both. As much as I like Eilonwy for being a tomboy heroine and taking zero shit from anyone, she is the only choice of role model for young female readers, and there is not a single model for friendships a young woman might have that don't end up being at least one-sidedly romantic. Which blows.
Benji Cat
2. benjicat
Of all the Prydain books, this is the one I return to the least. It has its moments but is the least of the five books in the series, IMHO.
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
@Jeremy Preacher -- Agreed. I mean, at least the two major women characters, Eilonwy and Achren, are pretty awesome (although from the comments I can see not everybody likes Eilonwy that much) but these are definitely male-heavy books. My recollection is that this is true for many of the Alexander books.

@benjicat -- Yeah, it just doesn't have the emotional depth of the last two books, or the humor of the first two.
Beth Mitcham
4. bethmitcham
This was the first Prydain I read; probably it was the first Lloyd Alexander I read. So I have fond memories of it that work better without reading the first two books -- I didn't know in advance who were the important characters and who were only here to serve lessons, I adored the lion and the fight with the giant, and I didn't expect Eilonwy to have more page time.

I agree that it isn't the strongest of the series, but it wasn't that bad as an entry point.
5. Farah311
I'm biased: it was the first children's book I'd ever read where read hair was neither mocked, disparaged or apologised for. I adored Eilonwy.

The thing I'd say is that it's this book in which we come to realise that what is holding Taran back is precisely his own conceptualisation of himself. You are right: no one else thinks of him as an Assistant Pig Keeper any more. It's a joke that people are still telling, while not realising that Taran doesn't realise it's a joke. This book is about how itchy Taran is getting while lacking the tools to do anything about it. Rhun and Eilonwy are leading the way into maturity and it baffles him.
6. Farah311
oops. Red hair (though reading hair sounds interesting).
Rob Munnelly
7. RobMRobM
While good, this is the weakest of the books. I've tried to read it to my kids twice and each time they lost interest.
Jack Flynn
8. JackofMidworld
Ok, this may be the wrong place to ask this, but it popped into my head when I hit the phrase "encountering a Large Cat" and so, with both apologies for potentially tangenting the comments and hope that I can get some help...

Around the same time I was reading this series (early to mid-80s for me), I read another book that I just cannot remember the name of (and only bits of plot stick out in my memory). From what I CAN remember, it involves a brother and sister from 'the real world' and their uncle (pretty sure it was their uncle) gives one of the kids a potion and then leads her (pretty sure it was the sister) through a tunnel thing that leads to another world. The brother (pretty sure it was....well, you get the idea) follows and meets up with them and the uncle's supposed to turn his niece over to some baddies but changes his mind and tries to save them, instead. What stands out the most (besides the trip through the tunnel) is they were being tracked by a big, red cat; they cross over a ravine on a rope bridge and the uncle (still pretty sure it's the uncle) is using his axe to hack down the bridge and (spoiler alert) the bridge falls but the cat leaps across the gorge and would've gotten them but the uncle catches it with his axe as it reaches them.

I've scrounged around and asked/googled off and on for years but haven't had any luck at all, so any assistance would be GREATLY appreciated. Also, you'd help me confirm my sanity if you prove it's a really real book; though, if it's not, dangit, I'm gonna go write it.
jon meltzer
9. jmeltzer
This book is Eilonwy's rite of passage to adulthood, and it would be quite different if it was written from her point of view (her frustration at Taran being so damned clueless would be more obvious, for one thing).

But Taran still hasn't figured himself out. That's for the next book.
Jeremy Hull
10. snowdog79
JackofMidworld: I believe you're thinking of "The Last of the Really Great Whangdoogles" by Julie Edwards (Andrews):

Haven't thought about that book in years!
Jack Flynn
11. JackofMidworld
snowdog79 - thank you...the wiki description sounds like it could be (or at least shares similar themes) but the one I read was pretty dark and adventurey, I can't tell from the synopsis if this is geared more towards younger kids (not sure if this is the one or not, will have to dig a little deeper to see, but at least it's more than I had when I woke up this am :)
12. Queen MyrdemInggala
It's disappointing that the horizons for female characters in fantasy are so limited - usually to being either the princess or the villainess. Nothing else inbetween.

I for one would've been perfectly happy to have Eilonwy in training to become a monster - "little princesses" seem to have no difficulty in my experience, in that field of expertise.
John Massey
13. subwoofer
I can't believe I missed this... but then again I have been off the grid for a while. I do have many fond memories of this book and the series. The purpose of Rhun was to remind us that the natural companionship of the Princess and Taran was not to be, unless Taran proved himself, which is set up in later books.

I could have done without the whole "giant" bits though, that and later events with Glew were trying, to say the least. OTOH without Glew, we would not have met the only cat that I find tolerable. That is saying a lot.

14. Zylaa
Funnily enough, this is the book that made me start the series in the first place--this book had a cat on the cover, and I went through a phase in childhood where that was my primary criteria for choosing books (a criteria that served me well, as it also led me to my first Diana Wynne Jones books!)

Taran Wanderer has always been my least favorite of the series, so I'm surprised this one is so widely regarded as the weakest. I think I was much more invested in the plot of "Find Eilonwy! She's in danger!" than "Taran goes and Finds Himself."
15. Jennifer R
Zylaa, I'm with you: Taran Wanderer is the worst of the lot. It has no Eilonwy, not a whole lot of the other characters, and it's depressing. But the no Eilonwy is the worst thing about it.
16. Arcee
Is Mari Ness going to cover the other 3 books (I'm including the Foundling anthology)?
Rob Munnelly
17. RobMRobM
I like TW. Hard earned journey that immeasurably strengthens the payoff at the end of THK and is interesting along with way. I still use with my kids Taran's approach to resolving a fairness dispute (one divides the disputed stuff into two groups and the other gets to choose which one he/she wants).
18. Aaron D. Franklin
Since this discussion is several months old, I do not know if anyone will ever read this comment, but I will go ahead and make it: The single biggest problem with Castle of Llyr is that Eilonwy doesn't do enough to shake off Achren's control over her at the end. She should have been the one to defeat her arch-enemy. Instead, she's basically a helpess bystander in the book that, more than any of the others, is supposed to be about her. That, I believe, and not her lack of "screen time," is the reason why the story fundamentally doesn't work as the author probably intended.

I don't actually mind the fact that she gets kidnapped and vanishes for a hundred pages--in a five-book high-fantasy series about a hero and a princess that's aimed primarily at boys, I expect the princess to spend one of the books locked up in a dungeon somewhere. I'd honestly be disappointed if she didn't. But Lloyd Alexander does Eilonwy wrong at the end. The fact that she hand-waves the whole episode off and can't remember it afterward is a tremendous disservice to the character, especially since Alexander seems to think that Llyr was meant to be Eilonwy's book, not Taran's. And she is at the heart of the plot, whatever her actual involvement might be. Since she's not the viewpoint character of the series, I don't think it's impossible for her to do most of her growing off-screen, and I think that was Alexander's intent (hence the comment in the author's note). However, in the practical working of the story, it comes across as hollow. This idea might have worked better if she had been the one to overthrow Achren, and then reflected on her experiences afterward.

But she wasn't, so it doesn't.

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