I’ve gotten rather far ahead on my reading, so I’m going to discuss this entire five book series at one time to catch up. By the time this book was recommended to me by my grade school librarian, I had already read The Hobbit, and she thought I would like this one. I did! Alexander is careful to explain in all of his introductions that the series is based on legends from Wales, though creatively reinvented by him for his books. No mention is made of Tolkien, but I recognized similar ideas and themes, particularly in the final book. This may only be a case of two writers going to the same sources, but I can’t help thinking Alexander had read Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” and was influenced by that too. I have no problem with that, what he did is quite different, with appealing characters that will amuse and entertain readers, and clever plots to keep the pages turning. The books also have emotional depth and the relationships and life stories of the main characters ring true and make this series the best that the author produced, in my opinion. Others agree, the second book was a Newbery Medal runner-up, and the fifth won the prestigious Newbery medal for children’s literature in 1969.
In the first book we meet Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper of Caer Dallben. Dallben is an old man who spends his time studying magic tomes like “The Book of Three,” while Taran and Coll, an older worker at the Dallben farm, take care of crops and livestock like the oracular pig, Hen-Wen. Taran is charged with caring for Hen-Wen, and when the pig runs off into the forest, he follows. Soon he is drawn into deeper matters, as he meets Prince Gwydion, son of the high king of Prydain, the land where all the stories take place. Gwydion also wants Hen-Wen found, and they are soon joined by an odd shaggy man, Gurgi, who at first threatens them, and then begs to join them. As the story moves through more of Prydain, we learn about the threat of Arawn, the Death-Lord, who imperils all the good men and creatures of Prydain. Taran loses Gwydion when they are both imprisoned by an evil queen, but he and Gurgi gain two more friends, Princess Eilonwy, who has some magic of her own, and the traveling bard Fflewddur Fflam and his magic harp. Later they meet the dwarf Doli, a curmudgeonly character who loves to complain but helps them all the same. Taran and company try their best to thwart the plans of Arawn and his champion, The Horned King. Eventually they rejoin Prince Gwydion.
The biggest threat to Prydain from Arawn is The Cauldron-Born, undead warriors who cannot be killed, created in a legendary magic cauldron from both dead and living enemies of the Death-Lord. Once they rise from the Cauldron, they are his slaves forever. Gwydion sends his friends and companions in search of the cauldron, hoping to find and destroy it. Taran, Eilonwy, Gurgi and Fflewddur follow the trail to the Marshes of Morva, where they find the cauldron in the hands of three strange women. They are The Fates in all but name, full of magical power and highly dangerous, but they finally agree to give the cauldron to Taran, who plans to return with it to Dallben’s safe home, but the cauldron itself is tricky and has plans of its own. Another warrior they’ve met in their travels steals the caudron from them with plans to use it for his own gain, and that brings more trouble to everyone.
After returning to Caer Dallben with Taran, Princess Eilonwy is happy to help with the farm, but Dallben tells her she must journey to the island of Mona so she can be instructed by the queen there and trained for her eventual duties as a princess. Prince Rhun of Mona has arrived by ship to bring her there, and Taran is unhappy to find out that there are plans to make Eilonwy his bride in time. Eilonwy is not pleased about any of it, but with Taran and his friends along, agrees to go. Once in the royal castle on Mona, she is kidnapped by a treacherous servant. Gwydion is also there in disguise, and a search for Eilonwy is begun by everyone, but Taran and his friends fall into a huge underground cavern, and are threatened by a giant who is trapped there. Eventually everyone converges on the former castle of Eilonwy’s family, where she has been taken to perform deep magic against her will.
The fourth book focuses on Taran in a quest to find his birth origins, which are unknown, and to find himself and what he is truly good at. His journeys take him to many parts of Prydain, where tests of character await him, as do new enemies and new friends. Taran tries his hand at many crafts, hoping to find a talent in himself, but then a lonely, aged shepherd turns his life in a different direction by claiming the boy as his long-lost son. Taran unhappily agrees to stay and help the shepherd, putting aside his quest, until more tragedy strikes.
The final book brings all the characters and narrative threads together, as Arawn is at last making his move to crush the free people of Prydain. His first strike is a harsh one, it’s against Gwydion, and Arawn steals the magic sword that is Prydain’s best defense against him. From there, the forces of Gwydion and his allies gather, and soon meet Arawn’s deadly armies in battle, while treachery among their own forces make victory seem impossible. Taran and his friends all have important roles to play, some will not survive the war, and all of Prydain is about to be changed forever.
This is a fine series. I loved it as a teenager, and I like it nearly as much today. I recommend it highly to anyone who likes well-made fantasy.