Last year my daughter read and did an oral presentation on The Book of Three, first volume of The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. To help her with the project I re-read it and reviewed it for Cannonball 8. I read aloud to her at bedtime and her most recent choice was book two of The Prydain Chronicles, The Black Cauldron. Re-reading these books as an adult has been an eye opener to the craft of Alexander’s writing. Previously unnoticed seeds are planted in this book that don’t come to fruition until the fourth book. The story itself is simple enough but now I recognize the life lessons packed within and can better understand why The Black Cauldron was awarded the Newberry Honor.
Arawn, Death Lord, has been swelling his ranks by raising an army of the dead through the magic of a black cauldron, the Black Crochan. Not content to only bring back those recently slain in battle, Arawn has been despoiling graves and barrows of fallen warriors, people have gone missing, and his deathless Cauldron-born have been seen in areas where none have been before. Under the leadership of Prince Gwydion plans are made to steal and destroy the Black Crochan to prevent anymore Cauldron-born from being raised, but what plan ever survives first contact?
This book reunites our friends from The Book of Three (Taran, Eilonwy, Gurgi, Fflewddur, and Doli) and introduces new companions Adaon, son of the chief bard Taliesin, and Ellidyr, Prince of Pen-Llarcau. Adaon, while a fierce fighter, dreams more of the idyllic life he will have with his betrothed, once they are married, than of battlefields. Ellidyr is the youngest son of a poor kingdom, goaded by his pride he seeks to make a name for himself. Being of a close age he and Taran, also mindful of his pride, are constantly squabbling.
For the first time I noticed that seeds are planted for the journey that Taran will undertake in Taran Wanderer. While journeying together, Taran learns that Adaon has done a great many things; sailed far beyond the Isle of Mona, worked a potter’s wheel, cast nets with the fisherfolk, woven cloth at the looms of cottagers, labored over a glowing forge, and deeply studied forest lore. “”There is much to be known,” said Adaon, “and above all much to be loved, be it the turn of the season or the shape of a river pebble. Indeed the more we find to love, the more we add to the measure of our hearts.”” Taran will go on to explore many of these occupations in Taran Wanderer and in doing so better understands what Adaon was trying to impart in this book.
In The Book of Three Taran is very focused on finding glory through battle and great deeds. In this book Taran learns that there are more, and perhaps better ways, to find honor. The main message of the book could be distilled down to “the journey is more important than the destination” as Taran grows quite a bit through the course of his adventures. But there are also lessons in pride, life, and the worth of things.
Ellidyr is spurred by his pride and desire for glory that ultimately leads to his downfall, his is the obvious cautionary tale. Taran is also driven by his pride but through the course of the book learns to temper it and begins to recognize what is worthy to be prideful of. “”I have marched in many a battle host,” Adaon answered quietly, “but I have also planted seeds and reaped the harvest with my own hands. And I have learned there is greater honor in a field well plowed than in a field steeped in blood””. Adaon – “Is there not glory enough in living the days given to us? You should know there is adventure in simply being among those we love and the things we love, and beauty, too.”” While I may not be traveling the world and having adventures the way of my dreams, I am having little adventures all the time raising my children and need to embrace these more tightly, for they are adventures I won’t have again as my children age.
“Pig-boy!” Eilonwy cried indignantly. “Don’t ever speak of yourself that way, Taran of Caer Dallben. No matter what has happened, you’re not a pig-boy; you’re an Assistant Pig-Keeper! That’s honor in itself! Not that they don’t mean the same thing, when you come right down to it,” she added, “but one is proud and the other isn’t. Since you have a choice, take the proud one!”….Taran – “I see now that what he (Adaon) said was true above all. I do not begrudge Ellidyr his prize. I, too shall seek honor. But I shall seek it where I know it will be found”.
While Taran has begun to absorb this knowledge here, it isn’t until the fourth and fifth book that Taran will fully understand and embrace these lessons. As a stay at home mom this is something I continually remind myself. It’s very easy to demean myself by saying, “I’m just a stay at home mom”, when the truth is being a full time mom is work to be proud of. There is honor to be found by doing whatever your job is with pride. I’m not just a stay at home mom; I’m raising two children to be future citizens of this world, I’m the family event and schedule coordinator, supply and resource manager, and I’m an integral part to making our family run as smoothly as it does.
Fflewddur – “”But I know the bardic symbol well….The lines mean knowledge, truth, and love.” “That’s very nice,” said Eilonwy, “but I can’t imagine why knowledge, truth, and love should be so much of a secret.” “Perhaps I should say unusual as much as secret answered the bard. “I sometimes think it’s hard enough to find any one of them, even separately. Put them together and you have something very powerful indeed.”” Knowledge, truth, and love are individually wonderful but how often do you find all three together? This is true of our world as much as Prydain.
Once the magic cauldron has been found, a price must be paid in exchange. Taran’s companions offer up their few possessions, Fflewddur’s harp, Eilonwy’s golden bauble, Gurgi’s never-ending wallet of food but the witches aren’t interested in those and insist the only price is Taran’s new magical brooch which has given him him guidance and insight. With the brooch Taran had become a better leader and he despairs at the loss of it but ultimately decides that the destruction of the cauldron is far more important. Afterwards Eilonwy consoles him, “I realize it’s no consolation to you,” she said, “but if you look at it in one way, you didn’t give up a thing to the enchantresses, not really. You did exchange the clasp and everything that went along with it. But, don’t you see, all those things came from the clasp itself; they weren’t inside of you. I think,” she added, “it would have been much worse giving up a summer day. That’s part of you, I mean. I know I shouldn’t want to give up a single one of mine. Or even a winter day, for the matter of that. So, when you come right down to it, Orddu didn’t take anything from you; why, you’re still yourself and you can’t deny that!” How often do we get wrapped up in things and think that they are so important? Things don’t make us who we are and it is best if we can learn this lesson early in life.
As a child reading this, I was swept up in the adventure; undead warriors, magic witches, the travails of seeking for the cauldron. As an adult I see so much more and take far more away from the book than ever before. As this book was awarded the Newberry Honor (not the top prize of Newberry Medal), I’m now curious what book won in 1966 that this book didn’t take top honors. Though I suspect Lloyd Alexander was perfectly happy with what the book did receive, as he spent so much time teaching us about pride and the worth of things in The Black Cauldron.