I have to admit: this time around I picked up Taran Wanderer with a sense of trepidation. Taran Wanderer is the first book of the The Chronicles of Prydain not to feature that practical chatterbox, Princess Eilonwy. Oh, Taran spends a lot of time thinking about her, and a talkative crow gives us a bit of an update on the aftermath of the last book, but that’s about it. As such, when I was a kid, it was hands down my least favorite Prydain book. This time around, I started it still nursing a vaguely irritated feeling from the last book in the series. Fortunately, in a few chapters, I was back in Prydain again, in one of the best books of the series.
Taran Wanderer focuses on trying to answer a question: who, exactly, is Taran anyway? At this point, as I’ve noted, he’s most definitely not just an Assistant Pig-Keeper, but something more—and not just because a Grand Big Destiny keeps hanging over him. But his exact role is uncertain—a serious issue for Taran, who wants to marry Eilonwy, but is not certain he is of noble enough birth to marry a princess. After talking to Dallben, Taran decides to go wandering through Prydain, to see if he can find his parents, and thus, figure out who he is.
A bit of clever diplomacy over some cows a bit later, and Taran is offered what he most desires: to be adopted as the heir of the King of Cadiffor, and one day to be the king of Cadiffor. Which raises the question of exactly why Taran needs to be born of noble parents after all, if really all he needed was cow tricks to become a king, a point just emphasized by Smoit:
“How then!” cried Smoit. “My body and bones, I’d rather see a wise pig-keeper on my throne than a blood prince who’s a fool!”
But Taran has learned some nobility in the last few books, and reluctantly decides that he needs to continue his quest to find out who he is. A used cow dealer, Taran! It can be a fairly respectable living if you don’t start selling lemon cows.
That doesn’t seem to be the destiny Taran craves, however, so back to his quest he goes. Kinda. He soon finds himself interrupted by an enchanted frog who turns out to be Doli (in a nice use of reusing characters). Getting Doli unenchanted—a very important task given that Doli is not really that good at being a frog—requires confronting the wizard Morda. Morda, as it turns out, is not only in desperate need of some high fat, high sugar food—and lots of it, now—but was also responsible for killing Eilonwy’s mother and cheating poor Glew (the giant with Major Issues from the previous book.) This is both a nice way of tying up some of the loose plot ends from the last book as well as adding a touch of adventure and fighting to what would otherwise be a book of self-discovery.
Defeating an evil wizard, however, is still not enough for Taran, who announces that he has to continue on to find his father. Which he does, in the person of one Craddoc, a herdsman. Taran, apparently not having heard a word of Smoit’s completely sensible speech (or, I guess, knowing any of the many fairy tales where peasants with the help of various Magical Things become royalty; unlikely for most peasants, I admit, but Taran has been encountering Magical Things throughout the entire book) is bitterly disappointed to learn that his father is nothing but a very unroyal herdsman. To be fair, at least some of this disappointment stems from his belief that his parentage will prevent him from marrying Eilonwy. To be less fair, Eilonwy has never given a single indication that she would care; Smoit’s royalty option remains open no matter who Taran’s parents are, which would allow him to marry Eilonwy; and Taran has not exactly had any previous indications, other than a tendency to be too brave on occasion, that he has any noble blood whatsoever. Taran seriously needs to get over this.
Instead, he settles down to a summer of helping his father restore the land and herd sheep. This is, in many ways, a very brave and honorable thing to do, and has the side benefit of teaching Taran some practical stuff about sheep that might come into use some day—say, for instance, if he ever becomes a High King who has to make Sheep Rules. Look, I’m just looking at the title of the next book. It would be completely brave and honorable if Taran would accept the situation with a little more grace and a little less resentment: as Craddoc painfully notes, Taran goes the entire summer without calling him “father.” Things get bad enough that Taran has a horrible moment of almost letting Craddoc just die after a fall, and even justifying why this would be the right thing. Fortunately that honor kicks in at the last minute (gulp). Just in time for Craddoc to admit that the entire father-son story was completely made up. I guess it’s great to clear the conscience before death, and both Craddoc and Taran suffer appropriately.
Which means it’s about time for Taran to do something else out of fairy and myth: master the multiple crafts of blacksmithing, weaving, pottery, and, above all, leadership. Taran has a genuine talent for blacksmithing and weaving, although no desire to do either for the rest of his life, and has no real talent for pottery, something he would like to do for the rest of his life. It’s another bitter lesson, and another sign of what his destiny really is—if he has the intelligence to figure it out.
Though I couldn’t help but find myself laughing that after finding out that great pottery was behind him, Taran’s real skill turned out to be management. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be reading in a not particularly subtle comment on the American manufacturing system of the 1960s here or not: my guess is that from a plotting perspective, Alexander wants to prepare us, and Taran, for his upcoming role as king, this time earned, and from a commentary perspective, encourage reader respect for the difficulties of crafts in those pre industrial, and maybe getting young readers to think a little about the energy and thought that had to go into cloaks back then.
My initial trepidation was not completely unfounded: Taran Wanderer is the most loosely plotted of all of the Prydain books so far, a story largely of, well, wandering from place to place, giving the book a rather diffused feeling. But for all that, it rather neatly ties up a few loose ends from The Castle of Llyr (which just manages to emphasize the comparative weakness of that book), and in the end, its own plot threads are rather neatly tied, or in this case I suppose I should say woven together, as Taran finally finds out who he is. Taran Wanderer is one of the richest of the Prydain books, a story of finding yourself through finding out what you want to do—and what you can do, a book about really and truly growing up.
Mari Ness isn’t very good with pottery either, although she likes to paint glazes on things. She lives in central Florida.