As 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.