The Prydain books were the next fantasy series I read after being introduced to the Chronicles of Narnia, and I read and re-read them from middle school to college multiple times. Over the past couple of years I have been slowly re-reading the Chronicles of Prydain aloud to my now 10 year old daughter, one book a year has been the pace as we space them out with other books. When we first sat down with The Castle of Llyr I recalled it as being my favorite book of the five in my pre-college years. After this re-read I suspect that favoritism had a lot to do with Llyan, a giant cat, and the romance of Taran realizing his feelings for Eilonwy. However, it has now moved further down the list, in part due to how much I got out of The Black Cauldron last year. If that book was a treatise on pride and the worth of things, this book furthers those ideas by examining identity.
When we first met Princess Eilonwy of the House of Llyr, in The Book of Three , she was the ward of the cruel enchantress, Achren. Ostensibly Eilonwy was in Achren’s care to learn magics, as Eilonwy is descended from a line of great enchantresses. However in The Castle of Llyr we learn that was a means to achieve Achren’s ends. Since escaping Achren’s grasp Eilonwy has been running wild, having adventures with Taran, Fflewddur, and Gurgi, and happily living on the farm at Caer Dallben.
Dallben now recognizes that the time has come for Eilonwy to grow beyond what life in Caer Dallben can offer her. “For each of us comes a time when we must be more than what we are.” Dallben speaks these words to Eilonwy but they are as much a message to Taran as they are to her, and of course to us readers. And so Eilonwy is to go to the Isle of Mona escorted by Taran and Gurgi, to reside at the court of King Rhuddlum, Queen Teleria, and their son Prince Rhun to learn the ways of being a princess.
Taran must continue to learn that titles do not make the person and growth can happen to everyone, even those he considers hopeless. While having found pride in his title of Assistant Pig-Keeper and the deeds he has done, Taran still rankles at his place in life.
Well,” said Eilonwy, “you can’t blame Rhun for being born. I mean, you could, but it wouldn’t help matters. It’s like kicking a rock with your bare foot.” Taran snorted. “I daresay that’s his father’s sword he’s got on, and I daresay he’s never drawn it except to frighten a rabbit. At least I’ve earned the right to wear mine. Yet he calls himself a prince. Does his birth make him worthy of his rank? As worthy as Gwydion Son of Don?”
“Prince Gwydion’s the greatest warrior in Prydain,” Eilonwy replied. “You can’t expect everyone to be like him. And it seems to me that if an Assistant Pig-Keeper does the best he can, and a prince does the best he can, there’s no difference between them.”
All the fancy titles in the world mean nothing if they aren’t backed by the work that comes with having them. And lack of impressive titles doesn’t imply a lack of worth in an individual. Taran has spent much of the past two books blinded by the title “prince” and lets that get in the way of how he perceives and reacts to people.
Once on Mona the three companions are rejoined with the bard Fflewddur Fflam. What should be a joyous time of reunion is marred by Taran’s discovery that Gwydion is at the castle disguised as a shoemaker in an attempt to find out what new schemes Achren has brewing. The very next day Eilonwy is kidnapped and Taran, Gurgi, Fflweddur, and Prince Rhun set off to find her.
Eilonwy leaving Caer Dallben upset Taran. The loss of her to Achren’s unknown schemes terrifies him. It is through these reactions that Taran begins to accept the depths of his feelings for the princess. The young romantic in me squirmed with pleasure at this discovery. My memory of the story had Eilonwy much more involved but actually it was that she was in the fore of Taran’s mind, which made it seem she was more prevalent. The reality is that she isn’t in the story very much at all.
Knowing his son, King Rhuddlum asks Taran to watch over Rhun and see he comes to no harm and Taran swears an oath to do so. Taran often describes Rhun as feckless for he bumbles along and manages to make a hash of what seem to be simple tasks. Rescuing Eilonwy is no different as on the first day he manages to be separated from the search party.
The resulting search brings the companions to the house of Glew, where we meet the horse-sized cat Llyan I was so enamored of in my youth, and learn of Glew’s meddling in magical potions. From there we travel to the underground caverns of Mona and find out Glew’s fate. It is here that Rhun shows his worth and Taran recognizes how blinded he had been by Rhun’s title.
I can guess what you’re thinking,” Rhun said in a low voice. “If it hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t be in this plight. And I’m afraid you’re right. It’s my fault things have turned out as they did. I can only ask your forgiveness. I’m not the cleverest person in the world,” Rhun added, smiling sadly. “Even my old nurse used to say I was all thumbs. But I hate being a blunderer. It’s not what people expect of a Prince. I didn’t ask to be born into the Royal House, that at least wasn’t my doing. But, since I was, I – I want very much to be worthy of it.”
“If you want to, then you shall.” Taran answered, suddenly and strangely touched by the Prince of Mona’s frankness, and not a little ashamed of his own unkind thoughts about Rhun. “I ask your own forgiveness. If I envied your rank, it was because I believed you held it as a lucky gift and took it for granted. You speak the truth. For a man to be worthy of any rank, he must strive first to be a man.”
Titles and ranks do not define a person, nor is it the sole source of one’s identity. The oaths we make and keep, either due to honor or the goodness of one’s heart, the sacrifices we are willing to make, and putting others before one’s self are far more telling of who a person is. “Can that be it’s (Eilonwy’s bauble) secret? To think more for others than ourselves?”. “That would seem to be one of its secrets, at least,” replied Fflewddur. “Once you’ve discovered that, you’ve discovered a great secret indeed”. These are lessons that Taran has been working on since the start of the series and by the end of this book they may have finally sunk in. This awareness is part of the catalyst for Taran’s next adventure in the fourth book, Taran Wanderer, as he seeks to figure out who he is.
Lloyd Alexander was truly a literary genius. Over the years his books have spoken to me differently depending on where I was in my life. The order of favorite to least favorite has changed several times between first reading to now. In college Taran Wanderer became my favorite of the series. I’m curious to see if that holds up, as the other books have been switching places on my favorite list during this re-read.