Lloyd 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.