Sep 19 2013 2:00pm

A Continued Question of Heroism: The Black Cauldron

Lloyd Alexander the Black Cauldron Chronicles of PrydainLloyd Alexander’s Book of Three had ended with some rather open questions, including the not so small problem that not all of the bad guys had actually been killed off yet. In part, this was because some of the bad guys couldn’t actually die—in particular the Cauldron-Born, terrifying creatures who are born from a cauldron (natch). Not too long later, these sorta undead guys are going around the countryside carrying people off, and Lord Gwydion has decided it’s far past time to kill them off. But since they can’t exactly be killed, he’s decided to try to destroy The Black Cauldron that creates them and summons a large council of important and skilled people to help him out.

Included in this council are almost all the characters from the previous book and young Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper. Taran is still, shall we say, rather sensitive about his title and the way people treat him. So, naturally, when he meets Ellidyr, a young prince who is also sensitive about his title (as others point out, he’s the walking definition of poor younger son), they get along great. Ha-ha. No: when Taran fails to show Ellidyr the necessary obsequiousness, the two end up fighting. Immediately. And since Taran has apparently not learned that much from the previous book, he follows this up by informing the lovely Princess Eilonwy that she can’t come with them because she’s a girl. This goes over about as well as you might expect, complete with a lot of broken plates. Go, Eilonwy, go!

Alas, Eilonwy does not go—not quite yet. The rest of the characters set off though, with Taran and Ellidyr continuing to Have Issues since both of them are pretty typical teenagers with a lot to prove. New character Adaon,a warrior and bard with prophetic dreams, gives a bit of relief to all the ongoing fighting, offering a nice note of doom to the adventure as well as some sage advice.And you didn’t really think that Eilonwy and Gurgi would just quietly stay at home, did you? I didn’t think so.

Although The Black Cauldron deals with a significantly smaller threat than the previous book (these are just random not-really-dead guys roaming around doing evil, not The Big Evil Himself stalking the field), the personal stakes seem higher.And not just because Taran and Eilonwy have a real friendship to lose this time around, or that death—at least for the minor characters—is a very real threat. (Warning for those with small children: the death count is more than one in this book, although I suspect most readers will not be feeling particularly sad about one of these deaths.)

No, the stakes are higher because Taran’s personal choices are larger. If in the previous book Taran had to learn what heroes are, in this book he has to choose if he wants to be a hero at all. Does he give up a new found ability that has helped him and his friends, and could gain him the honor and respect he craves—and an end to that Assistant Pig Keeper title—in order to carry out someone else’s instructions? That this offer is coming from three women who do not exactly exude trust only adds to the drama. Can he allow someone else to take credit for the deeds he has done, in order to serve the greater good? For someone deeply concerned about how others see him, it’s not the easiest choice.

And Taran finds himself tempted over and over again to do the wrong thing:to argue with Ellidyr (it’s really, really hard not to); to keep a magical object that grants him insight and glimpses into the future, and might allow him to become a great leader; and to join the side of Quasi-Evil (Formerly Good Guys Who Are Very Ambitious and About To Become Seriously Evil). Not all of these choices are as difficult as others—the Quasi-Evil group doesn’t have that much to offer, after all, and as Eilonwy correctly points out, they might not deliver what little they are offering in any case. But the other temptations are very real, and sometimes, Taran finds himself giving in.

Not that Taran is the only one faced with temptation or sacrifice. It speaks volumes for the characters that they show themselves very willing to make major sacrifices indeed. In some ways, that’s great—it shows just how much of a threat the Black Cauldron really is. In other ways, however, it somewhat takes away from Taran’s own sacrifice: just how major was it when his friends are willing to give up their most prized possessions? Perhaps harder than I’m suggesting: after all, Taran is the only one of them who has almost never owned anything, and asking him to give up a bit of magic is a major request indeed.

Speaking of the Black Cauldron (or, as other characters call it, the Crochan): it holds two functions in the novel, first, to be an object for the quest, and second, to represent death, or more precisely, the fear of death. Certainly, the characters had all faced danger before (although in Fllewddur Fllam’s case it’s just a touch difficult to tell how much, given his tendency to exaggerate), but not necessarily death itself.

I haven’t focused on this before, but many of these characters are really, really old—mythical, or near-mythical, or at least magical beings who can expect to live for centuries if not more. Taran, however, seems more human, and in this book, he has to face that even magical or close to magical creatures can die, and he and the others must learn to confront and deal with grief.

I don’t mean to make this book sound like a downer. The secondary characters—especially Fflewddur the bard and Gurgi—remain hilarious, and a scene with three terrifying women, enchantresses who are not exactly good or evil, is considerably lightened with some of their dialogue.Eilonwy, determined and as practical as ever, remains completely charming, and new character Gwystyl provides a nice touch of humorous depression in the classic Eeyore tradition. And the book retreats considerably from its previous Ye Olde Magic tone. In many ways, this is an easier book to read than the first book in the series.

But with its focus on temptation, honor and choices, this is also a much deeper book than its predecessor. For all that its language is somewhat more ordinary, somewhat more distant from the mythic tone of the first book, at its heart, The Black Cauldron reaches into the very heart and power of myth.

After discovering that epic heroes typically undergo difficult journeys far from five star hotels, Mari Ness decided she was better off just reading about them with occasional forays for fine chocolate. She lives in central Florida.

1. tothePAIN
I loved Lloyd Alexander's books when I was younger and still do. Thank you for the review.
2. daventor
"Eilonwy, determined and as practical as ever, remains completely charming"
I'd dispute the completely charming part, but I did find her more likeable than in the first book.
I only read The Book of Three & The Black Cauldron when I was little. I'm rereading the series now (I'm on Castle of Llyr; hopefully I'll have it finished when the next article in this sereis comes up).
I really enjoyed it the second time around. There's a number of moving sacrifices that occur, the "three terrifying women" are gloriously strange and creepy, and I love Ellidyr's arc.
I also love the how in these books Taran has to keep making difficult choices and then deal with the consequences. He does make mistakes, but he is a deeply good person, willing to make tough choices and then own them.
I also like how in these books good winning is truly a team effort, with Taran not even necessarily making the decisive winning action in the climaxes.
lake sidey
3. lakesidey
I remember my delight when I managed to lay hands on a hardbound collection of the Prydain chronicles in a dusty second-hand store in Bangalore :) These are lovely books; though written for children they are not condescending and don't shy away from grim realities....and there is real character growth over the course of the series.

Disney mashed up the first two books into a movie as I recall; a movie which wasn't too bad, all things considered. But the books were a lot deeper.

Michael Poteet
4. MikePoteet
A Prydain re-read! Fantastic. I find this series doesn't get nearly the amount of love I think it should. Even my own son, when he re-read it a couple summers ago (he was age 11), dismissed it as "Mostly a Tolkien rip-off." Alas! He did enjoy Fflewddur though, as I did and still do. Gurgi, too. And Eilonwy. And he was very impressed with Achren as a villain in the first book. So many of the characters are so well-drawn, they really make this series stand out.

I enjoyed this essay... especially your assessment that it is both easier to read and more rewarding than the first. But now I must go look up your essay for Book of Three!
Mari Ness
5. MariCats
@tothePain -- You're welcome; I think it's going to be fun.

@daventor -- Readers do seem pretty split on Eilonwy's charm! I like her, though.

@lakesidey -- I haven't seen the movie in years and barely remember it; I don't think it made much of an impression.

@MikePoteet -- Agreed that characterization really makes this book, and this series.
David Levinson
6. DemetriosX
You kind of glanced off the idea that this book is a little more human than the first one, and this is something that progresses over the entire series. Things keep getting a little more... not really real or serious, I can't quite find the word I'm looking for here... human, I guess, and the consequences become ever more meaning and, well, consequential.

I didn't find Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch all that frightening, really, perhaps because I first read this series in my late teens. But I found their banter fairly amusing. I suppose it also helped that I recognized them as a form of the Fates. They also reminded me a little bit of Mrs. Who, Whatsit, and Which from A Wrinkle in Time.

The movie was really not all that good. It has most of the worst aspects of Disneyfication (especially from the awful period between Walt's death and The Little Mermaid). Gurgi is the epitome of the amusing animal sidekick, and then is the one to break the cauldron's spell, and then gets brought back to life because of his "great sacrifice" and really just because plot. Orddu & Co. are just Madame Mim in triplicate and on amphetamines and acid. The rest is pretty forgettable. The Horned King might be scaryl, but nowhere near as scary as some earlier villains. Not to be recommended for lovers of the book.
Justine S.
7. MamaBoadicea
The first time I read this book I was seven years old, and it made quite an impression on me. I have re-read all the Prydain books over the years, and recently re-read The Black Cauldron as an adult to my own children. I still find this book a well written and compelling tale. (In case you haven't read the book, don't read further, because I don't want to ruin anything for you).


I disagree with your assessment that most readers probably won't be too sad about the characters who die in this book. Why would anyone cheer Adaon's death? Ellidyr was unlikeable, yes, but I wasn't pleased to see him gone. He wasn't evil at all, just kind of a jerk who obviously carried around a lot of pain, and so it wasn't something to cheer about when he died. The scene that my own children found the most disturbing was actually when Ellidyr's horse Islimach killed herself by jumping off of a cliff. I think they found the other human deaths an expected part of the story, but that scene required a bit deeper discussion.

I do agree with you that this book is a darker step from the first. Which is interesting, because I think in the next book, Alexander lightens things up again. Still, The Black Cauldron is probably my favourite of the series, with The High King coming second.
Liz J
8. Ellisande
I haven't read the books for years, though I did love them as a kid. But I remember leaving the movie when I was about 12, furious at how they'd ruined my favorite books. Maybe the movie wouldn't be so terrible today, but I hated it so much I've never watched it again.
9. hoopmanjh
These books, and John Christopher's Tripods trilogy, were my gateway drugs into F&SF. Really ought to revisit them one of these years.
D. Bell
10. SchuylerH
@6 & 8: The film of The Black Cauldron was the most expensive animated film ever made when it was released but it ended up being enough of a disaster that Disney nearly shut down their animation department. However, it was the first animated Disney film to incorporate CGI.

@9: Tripods! I didn't think anyone else remembered them!
Rob Munnelly
12. RobMRobM
Loved the book, both on original read as a kid, in re-reads and in reading it with my kids, but boy is it dark. Subject matter is dark, Ellidyr is dark, trading Adaon's implement for the cauldron is dark, dragging the darned thing around through the woods, betrayal, death....argh. Still can't believe Disney even attempted to touch it. What were they thinking?
D. Bell
13. SchuylerH
@11: Thank you. Do you know what it's like trying to find a story you read years ago based solely on a half-misremembered version of the plot? I spent three years convinced that they were by John Wyndham...
14. MWritten
This was the very first chapter book I ever remember reading on my own. I was 6 or 7. It changed everything.

That said, when you get to Taran Wanderer I am going to cry and cry and cry.

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