The second book in the Prydain Chronicles is also the name by which 90% of people are familiar with this story and the characters, because it shares the name with a Disney movie. The Disney movie in question is considered one of the blackest sheep in the entire library, because hooboy is it dark and scary. The villain is the Horned King, borrowed from the Book of Three and turned into a non-comical Skeletor. The Horned King’s dungeons, weird sidenote, are a marvel of background animation, feeling dark and dingy and cold and foreboding in a way that terrified me as a kid and still chills me when I think of it as an adult. But, apart from the borrowed character names, there’s just about nothing of the original story present, as Lloyd Alexander himself noted.
The actual story picks up with Taran, fresh from his adventures in the Book of Three and wiser for the struggles he endured, content to once again simply be an assistant pig keeper with his new friend, Gurgi. The idyllic setting is ruined when a trumped up prince, Ellidyr, shows up, treats Taran like a servant boy, then roadhauls him for a bit when he talks back. Ellidyr is one of several members of a war council called to Caer Dallben by Gwydion, prince of the realm. Much to Ellie’s dismay, Taran is not only also part of the war council, but asked to play a key part in Gwydion’s plan. The plan in question: assault Annuvin, the realm of Arawn Deathlord, and while he’s distracted with his defenses, sneak in with a key faction and steal the Black Cauldron that creates Arawn’s deathless Cauldron Born army.
The plan goes awry when it’s discovered that the Black Cauldron is already missing. The band breaks into search parties, with Taran, Gurgi, Eilonwy, Ellidyr, Fflewddur, and Adaon, son of Taliesin the chief bard of Prydain, searching together. Trouble ensues, danger rides abroad, and not everyone makes it to the happy ending. Eventually, those who do make it find themselves at the Marshes of Morva, another setting borrowed by the Disney movie, where they must bargain with three powerful and dangerous witches, Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, who are responsible for the magical powers of not only Arawn, but Dallben too, and who have stolen back the Cauldron from the death lord. In order to succeed, someone will have to give up something as dear to them as a summer day, and in order to ultimately destroy the Cauldron, someone else must give up even more than that.
Another story that aged wonderfully and is fun for children of all ages, including those aged 20 and up, I encourage everyone to give this entire series a read.